Politicians are at their worst when it comes to talking crime. Gangs specifically, but crime generally. Few other topics bring out distorted facts, emotive and ill-informed rhetoric and outright fiction than crime does.
Politicians know that talking tough on crime wins votes. Talking nonsense does too. Labour and National are no better or worse than each other in this regard, the distinction for buffoonery tends to be government versus opposition, with the opposition taking the lead. The parties reverse roles comfortably as they move in and out of power. But opposition rhetoric most often means the government responds in kind. This produces a race to the bottom with regard to policy formation.
It's little surprise, then, that policies around crime are so often ineffective, but mostly this has a general effect – and not a specific one. But when it comes to one policy targeting methamphetamine, the effects were notable in the black economy, but also felt directly by all New Zealanders. Or at least all of us who have wanted relief from the common cold.
In 2011, cold and flu remedies containing pseudoephedrine were restricted from sale. Pseudoephedrine is an ingredient often used in the manufacture of methamphetamine, and clever crooks were cooking up a storm leading to very real issues created by methamphetamine abuse.
The downside was that Kiwis labouring under the flu could no longer go to the chemist and get relief without going to the doctor first. To this day this is a nuisance for anybody wanting to get by at work with a head cold, but this is far and away not the worst consequence of the policy.
The politics of the change looked great. It targeted a drug that was causing widespread and legitimate concern, it was an extremely easy policy to implement, and it could be explained in a soundbite on the telly.
What it didn't do was tackle the issue of demand, and anybody who considered things for a while would have realised that this was a problem.
Elementary economics tells us that demand fills supply. In other words, where there's a will there's a way. And there was certainly a will.
The underworld economy responded to the policy by not batting an eyelid. Instead of using local ingredients to make meth, it began to import the precursor chemicals, and then increasingly began to import the drug ready to go.
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In the years after the change in policy, meth lab busts decreased and importation seizures increased. Economists around the world would celebrate working models, but the consequences for the underworld were significant and significantly negative. Transnational criminals, largely out of Asia, became critical to business, and therefore our local hoods were upskilled or taken over. Neither was desirable.
The result is massive increases in methamphetamine. This can be measured by the 501kg haul from Ninety Mile Beach in 2016 and the half tonne intercepted at the border in September this year.
Given that only a small number of importation attempts come to the attention of authorities, these busts tell us massive amounts are coming in. In fact, the supply is now so great that price of the drug is steeply decreasing – it now costs as little as $450 a gram, still not a cheap drug but nearly half what is was five years ago. When supply outweighs demand, the price drops. The economists get the win again.
We now have a highly efficient market, populated by more sophisticated criminals and bigger players. All the while the tricky issue of the demand for the drug remains poorly targeted. Waste water testing tells us that more than 16 kg of meth is consumed in New Zealand every week. All the while the cold and flu seasons are all the more miserable for New Zealanders.
On any reasonable measure, the policy has proven hopeless and on some measures a complete disaster. Furthermore, this is not the worst of them, but it is one of the most obvious.
Crime is a complex phenomenon, with complex causes and interrelated components. And as such it will forever be resistant to the cheap and simple solutions constantly fed to us on the political hustings. The allure of easy votes allows this to occur, and so it is beholden on the public – from each and every one of us – to demand more from politicians.
Cheap slogans talking about how they will crack down on crime or social problems need to be called out and not rewarded with electoral advantage. The consequences of poor policy aren't a lack of success, but often times a situation made worse.
• Dr Jarrod Gilbert is the Director of Criminal Justice at the University of Canterbury and the lead researcher at Independent Research Solutions.