David Clark | Issue 13
I should also say that I am glad to have supported the ban on synthetic cannabinoids recently put through Parliament. On account of the miserable tales I have heard in my electorate office, I won’t be too unhappy when former users, facing a choice between two illegal products, substitute for the real thing.
Given most people in New Zealand are exposed to drugs both legal and illegal during their lifetime, I often wonder why it is that we haven’t had a more serious public debate about the relative merits of the substances on our streets. Which ones should be illegal and why?
I believe drug use and addiction should be viewed as a health matter, not a criminal matter.
Perhaps the most useful study on the social harms of drugs published to date was David Nutt’s 2010 piece in the Lancet medical journal.
Nutt’s personal story is instructive. Having earlier published a study remarkable enough to lead to his appointment as head of the UK Government’s Advisory Committee on the Misuse of Drugs, one of his papers led to a huge public controversy.
Nutt raised the ire of prominent citizens by favourably comparing the harms associated with cannabis to those of “equasy.” He quantified the harms associated with equasy in some detail for an unfamiliar audience. Equasy addicts, often from the wealthier social classes, regularly took the opportunity to experience the adrenaline and endorphine rushes equasy provided, even at risk of brain damage, death and more. Nutt’s research detailed the high likelihood of adverse incidents, traffic accidents and the sometimes-violent behaviour of groups of users that equasy use caused. We know equasy as horse riding, and this stunt did not tickle the funny bone of the British government. Nutt was sacked.
Nutt’s 2010 study found that alcohol is more harmful to society than both heroin and cocaine, while heroin, crack cocaine and “P” were the most harmful drugs to individual users. Cannabis was less harmful than tobacco, and mushrooms barely rated a mention.
The social harms of particular drugs are more or less well documented around the world. In a report on controlling and regulating drugs, the Law Commission in New Zealand has made recommendations that warrant further investigation.
Unfortunately, where evidence exists, politicians have all too frequently proven too squeamish to deal with the consequences.