Donald Trump has issued a call to the front line in the War on Drugs with his Global Call to Action on the World Drug Problem. Our Prime Minister has refused to answer that call.

The global call is not as bad as everyone makes out. The problem is the last line in his demand, to "cut off the supply of illicit drugs by stopping their production, whether through cultivation or manufacture, and flow across borders". This last line is not new or novel. It is simply a restatement of the approach for over 100 years in the global fight against illegal drugs.

Trump is not wrong to be concerned about the damage illegal drugs are doing. In the United States in 2017, more than 72,000 died because of drug overdoses, of which the majority were caused by fentanyl analogs (synthetic opioids) with nearly 30,000 overdose deaths.


The American numbers are part of the global subset of about 450,000 people dying globally each year as a result of illegal drug use. Opioids continued to cause the most harm.

In New Zealand, the average death toll from illegal drugs, depending on how the counting is done, is about 75 to 80 deaths per year. The experts in New Zealand have disputed this number. The number may be an understatement, due to undercounting drug overdoses, which may be as close to 38 per year, and not yet accounting for the surge of deaths from synthetic cannabis, of which between 40-45 people died in the year since the middle of 2017.

Assuming this last figure is correct, we are beginning to witness an unprecedented spike in illegal drug deaths in New Zealand.

It is likely that these problems will get worse. The demand for illegal drugs in increasing. About 275 million people worldwide, which is roughly 5.6 per cent of the global population aged 15-64 years, used illegal drugs at least once during 2016. This included 192 million using cannabis, 34 million using opioids (such as heroin and morphine), 34 million using amphetamines and prescription stimulants, 21 million using "ecstasy" type drugs, 19 million using synthetic drugs that mimic opioids, (such as fentanyl); and 18 million using cocaine.

This demand for illegal drugs is often being outpaced by supply, to which price falls, while quality and ease of availability improves. Record years of production are being recorded across the board. Total global opium production jumped by 65 per cent from 2016 to 2017, to 10,500 tonnes, easily the highest estimate recorded since the beginning of the 21st century. Global cocaine manufacture in 2016 reached its highest level ever: an estimated 1410 tonnes. New psychoactive substances proliferate almost more quickly than they can be named (there were 269 reported in 2012, and 479 in 2016) moving on, and off, the market with a bewildering speed.

These figures suggest that the War on Drugs as it has been fought for the last 100 years is not winning, and we need to rethink, of which the starting point needs to be to focus on what drugs are causing the most harm, rather than treating them all as equal threat. The difficulty with this approach is that the most dangerous drugs are legal, and we regulate, not prohibit them.

For example, the World Health Organisation's most recent report suggests more than three million people die each year as a result of harmful use of alcohol. This represents one in 20 deaths. In New Zealand, 600 to 800 die each year from alcohol-related causes.

Similarly, at the global level, tobacco kills up to half of its users, at more than seven million people a year. This figure bodes badly for the approximate 600,000 adult smokers of tobacco in New Zealand. Many will join the tally of about 5000 deaths each year in this country because of smoking or second-hand smoke exposure.

Despite everything bad about these legal drugs, the wiser social choice has been to accept that the problems can be better dealt with through regulation, as addiction and desire is near impossible to defeat by prohibition alone. Relative success in this area is through quality controls on products, restrictions on what can be sold, where and to whom. This is followed by taxes which are recycled into health, education and cultural change that can start to turn a generation away from stupid decisions. This is not an ideal solution but is better than what is now occurring. It is better to turn producers of drugs into regulated corporations than unregulated criminals, and dependent users of all drugs into patients, not prisoners.

Jacinda Ardern might have been correct to not associate New Zealand with Trump's call. However, whether she directs the country into following a new path which is different to the failed route of the past, and actually starts making some hard decisions, is yet to be seen.

Alexander Gillespie is a professor of law at the University of Waikato