Amicus Curiae: This 4/20, The War on Drugs Continues

Family First NZ’s Bob McCoskrie has just hit out at suggestions of the legalisation of marijuana in New Zealand. In an opinion piece in the New Zealand Herald, McCoskrie slams ideas surrounding medical marijuana and any potential benefits of taxing the drug.

The controversy surrounding the legal status of this drug is not new. In recent years there has been increasing pressure on governments across the globe to legalise the drug. This pressure is not just due to the alleged benefits that the sick and terminally ill receive from marijuana, but also due to growing discontent at the notion of individuals being incarcerated for drug offences.

McCoskrie, anticipating arguments surrounding the benefits of taxing marijuana, compared taxing the drug to our current practice of taxing alcohol. He noted that any benefits from the taxation of alcohol must also be weighed against the “horrendous fiscal and social costs” of alcohol. Indeed, it can be argued that the negative effects of alcohol consumption in New Zealand outweigh any benefits from its taxation. However, comparing alcohol and marijuana in this light is unrealistic: the ill-effects of alcohol have consistently been proven to be worse than those of marijuana use. It is arguable that the benefits of taxing marijuana would easily outweigh any potential negative effects of its legalisation.

The healthcare costs associated with drug use are often touted as a reason against legalising marijuana, and indeed a Canadian study found that marijuana users cost the state $20 per person in terms of health care (although it is worth noting that there were healthcare costs of $165 per person with regards to alcohol). However, the study noted that the state was spending over 16 times that – $328 per person – on enforcing the law against marijuana-users.

Money saved from removing enforcement measures, as well as money gained from taxing the drug, could go towards rehabilitation programs for those with dependencies on the drug. This approach has been trialled successfully in Colorado. One has to keep in mind that the criminalisation of drugs has historically been an act of paternalism by the state, with the intention being to protect individuals and society at large from the negative effects of drug use. Criminalising drugs, specifically marijuana, does not meet this goal for two reasons. The first is simple – those with a genuine drug problem are not helped through punishment: rather, a tax-funded rehabilitation program would be an effective alternative, especially for those who cannot afford to pay for rehab themselves. Secondly, recreational users, who do not pose a serious risk to their own health or to the safety of others, are not the actual targets of any drug legislation and thus arguably do not deserve to be punished under such legislation. In fact, whilst the safety of others could be cited as a rationale against the legalisation of drugs, marijuana users are usually less violent than the rest of the population.

Ultimately, the punishment-model fails to address underlying causes of drug abuse. Drug abuse is often associated with deeper societal issues such as poverty, mental illness, and negative childhood experiences. The decision to punish, rather than to help, fails those in need.

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