A Transitional Drug Policy

I wrote this article in 2007 when I was the Libertarianz Spokesman on Drugs. It was published in the now defunct Free Radical magazine and has appeared elsewhere.

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Libertarianz Transitional Drug Policy

“The first casualty when war comes,” said Hiram Johnson, “is truth.” Indeed, truth was always a casualty in the now decades-long War on Drugs™. Debate on drug policy these days is characterised by disinformation and fear. Even the chemical arch-demon of our time, methamphetamine, or “P”, is far less dangerous than you have been led to believe. New Zealand’s drug czar, Jim Anderton, once described methamphetamine as “pure evil”. But the fact that in the U.S. methamphetamine, under the brand name Desoxyn®, is prescribed to children with attention deficit disorder, must give pause for thought.

Nonetheless, in a climate of disinformation and fear, Libertarianz drug policy – which is, basically, to legalise all drugs (yes, even “P”!) – is routinely met with horror and incredulity. The implementation of Libertarianz drug policy, absent the sky falling, is simply inconceivable to many people. This is why we need a transitional policy – not as a compromise proposal, but as an exit strategy for those currently pressing the War on Drugs™.

Libertarianz transitional drug policy is to legalise all drugs safer than alcohol. The motivation for this is the government’s own stated National Drug Policy: harm minimisation. Many people prefer drugs other than alcohol. Where those other drugs are safer than alcohol, the application of legal sanctions against the use of those alternatives is inconsistent with the principle of harm minimisation.

Libertarianz transitional drug policy is to legalise all drugs safer than alcohol, but the policy package contains a number of other measures. These include a moratorium on arrest for simple possession (or manufacture or importation for personal use) of any drug, and a downgrading of remaining penalties from the draconian to the merely harsh. (All drugs which remained illegal would be reclassified as Class C. This means, for example, that the maximum sentence for manufacture of methamphetamine would fall from life imprisonment to 8 years imprisonment.)

This policy is not, of course, the “tax and regulate” policy favoured by many drug law reformers, most often proposed as a model for the legalisation of cannabis. As legal products, drugs would be subject to any taxes, such as GST, which apply to goods and services in general, but would not attract any special taxes. In fact, part of the transitional policy package is to remove excise tax on alcohol, and reduce tobacco tax to a level where smokers pay for no more than their own health costs. Currently, it is estimated that tobacco smokers pay 3-4 times more in tobacco tax than it costs the public health system to treat their smoking related ailments. Thus, in line with a “user pays” philosophy, tobacco tax would be no more than a third what it is now, effectively halving the retail price of tobacco.

As for regulation, the only special regulation which would apply to newly legalised drugs would be an R18 age restriction on their sale – but this restriction would be properly enforced, as is meant to be the case with already legal drugs alcohol and tobacco. As with any other product, the sale of legal drugs would be subject to the provisions of existing legislation to protect the rights of the consumer, such as the Fair Trading Act 1986 and the Consumer Guarantees Act 1993. For example, the packaging of legal drugs must not falsely state their ingredients, and the drugs themselves must be fit for their particular purpose. A manufacturer who claimed his drug gets you high when it only gives a nasty headache would be breaking the law.

Who would decide which drugs are safer than alcohol, and how would they decide? In a widely cited paper published in the Lancet earlier this year, David Nutt and colleagues showed that the UK’s classification of illegal recreational drugs into three categories of harm (similar to the ABC classification in our own Misuse of Drugs Act) is only modestly correlated with expert ratings of the drugs’ actual harms. They asked experts in psychiatry, pharmacology, and other drug-related specialties to (re-)rate a selection of 20 common recreational drugs on three major dimensions of harm: physical health effects, potential for dependence, and social harms. The experts, who showed reasonable levels of agreement in their ratings, ranked heroin, cocaine and pentobarbital as more harmful overall than alcohol, but ranked MDMA (“ecstasy”), cannabis, LSD, GHB (“fantasy”), methylphenidate (Ritalin®) and khat as less harmful overall. I mention this list for indicative purposes only. How to decide the dimensions of harm which ought to be considered and the relative weighting to be given to scores on those dimensions, and, consequently, the final ranking of drugs on the list according to overall harm is yet to be determined, but the methodology is sound. Ultimately, the decision would be left to the Expert Advisory Committee on Drugs. For a change, the EACD would no longer determine how to classify new recreational drugs, but determine instead which existing recreational drugs to declassify. If their past performance is anything to go by, their judgements would err on the conservative side.

Libertarianz transitional drug policy is a partial implementation of Libertarianz drug policy. It is a step in the right direction, and potentially quite a big one, depending on how many drugs turn out, on assessment, to be safer than the drug of choice of most New Zealanders. Is it too big a step? Will it frighten the horses? To reassure even the most fearful, I propose a pilot of the Libertarianz transitional drug policy – to test the dihydrogen monoxide, as it were – which would run as follows.

Before legalising all drugs safer than alcohol, just two drugs safer than alcohol would be made widely available. One would be a mild stimulant and one a mild psychedelic (people who like depressants are fortunate in that a major representative of the class, alcohol, is already legal). Both drugs would be relatively safe, but might have some unwanted side effects which, to some extent, would serve to discourage widespread and/or excessive use. These two drugs would be made widely available for a period of, say, 3-5 years, after which time a “sunset” provision would come into effect and the trial would end. At this point, the social experiment would be assessed. Did the sky fall? Did hundreds die or spiral into addiction and crime? Was there more carnage on our roads and violence in our homes? Did the drugs ravage communities and destroy the futures of our young people? If the answer to these questions is yes, then we would conclude that legalising any more drugs conflicts with the principle of harm minimisation. But if life continued pretty much as normal, if society’s predicted descent into lawlessness and chaos failed to eventuate, if 400,000 New Zealanders consumed 20 million doses of these two drugs over the period in question with no lasting ill effects and no deaths, then the only rational conclusion to be drawn is that the experiment is a resounding vindication of Libertarianz transitional drug policy, immediately opening the door to legalising all other drugs safer than alcohol. This is an experiment we must try, and New Zealand’s legislators must be bound to act upon a favourable outcome by legalising a range of relatively safe substances for adult recreational use, for we have tried the alternative – total prohibition of almost every known recreational drug – and it is a failed, disgraced policy.

Libertarianz transitional drug policy is an important step, but only a step, towards full drug legalisation. Which brings us back to methamphetamine, because ultimately we would legalise “P”, too. So, what would happen if we legalised “P”? Those concerned by rampant methamphetamine use in this country must be brought to realise that the use of “P”, and other drugs with a high potential for harm, is widespread because of, not in spite of, criminal sanctions. The fact is that if all drugs were legalised, the use of methamphetamine and many other dubious and dangerous drugs would decline. If you like stimulants, why would you take methamphetamine if you could just as easily take 4-methylaminorex or organically grown khat? If you like empathogens, why would you take the potentially neurotoxic chemical MDMA (ecstasy) when you could just as easily take methylone (marketed for a short time as “Ease” by party pill creator Matt Bowden of Stargate International)? If psychedelics are your cup of tea, why mess with LSD (which causes permanent psychosis in a small minority of users) when the exotic delights of 5-MeO-DIPT and 2CI beckon?

Responsible adults who like drugs ought to have access to safe, effective and legal alternatives to alcohol. Libertarianz transitional drug policy would make this a reality.

Richard Goode

Libertarianz Spokesman on Drugs

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