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Chris Ford: War On P And Dealer Gangs - Is It Time To Decriminalise Drugs And Tackle Poverty Instead?

Chris Ford
Chris Ford

John Key's pledge to wage war on gangs and in particular the very addictive drug known as 'P' (pure methametaphine) is fraught with difficulty.

During an interview with Paul Holmes on this morning's 'Q and A' programme on TV One, Key defended the move to make pseudoephodrine based products (such as cough and cold mixtures) only available through prescription. While this may present another barrier for those who wish to purchase these items for drug manufacturing purposes, it won't entirely eliminate the threat that some people may work their way around this. For example, gangs may use front people with genuine coughs and colds to purchase mixtures on prescription and also the underground market for ingredients may boom as a result.

What I do agree with though are the Government's proposals to send addicts to counselling and treatment before bringing them up before the courts. After all they are as much the victims of this trade as are those who are impacted by the behaviour and offending of those who are addicted. Other positives include the Government's pledge to plough $22 million into drug rehabilitation and counselling programmes at both the community and prison-level. Drug and alcohol addiction programmes have been underfunded for years and the closure of treatment facilities such as Queen Mary Hospital at Hamner Springs have only intensified the crisis around the shortage of beds in local community based programmes. Whether this funding injection will fix things is yet to be seen but any money given by the 'Double Dipper from Dipton', Bill English, is indeed welcome.

However, the Government's other pledge to get tough on gangs who have begun to monopolise the trade is fraught with difficulty. While right wing inspired get tough rhetoric might sound good on the media airwaves, the factors that contribute to gang activity must also be tackled. After all, it was the alienation and poverty experienced by Maori following the urban drift of the 1950s and 1960s that led to the formation of the Black Power and Mongrel Mob gangs respectively. During the last two decades of free market economic reform, due to the rise in inequality and poverty, particularly amongst Maori and other disadvantaged groups, gangs have really begun to flourish.

What must be done is not only to deal with the gangs through the criminal justice system but, in tandem, also deal with the issues that give rise to gang activity such as poor employment, income, housing, health and educational outcomes for Maori and Pasifika youth. This means, as I have advocated before, the introduction of such initiatives as a increase in the minimum wage, higher benefit levels, state house building and redevelopment, the development of more socioeconomically mixed communities with good recreational and sporting facilities, decently paying employment opportunities and access to fully funded health and education services run by Maori and Pasifika people themselves.

This should be part of a wider effort to improve the lives of all poor people and therefore this will have as much impact as 'tougher laws' on reducing and even eliminating gang activity over time. Furthermore, by cutting off the supply of P through these means could raise its street price, as the PM admitted this morning. Key argued that if you do this, you will reduce the demand for the drug over time through keeping the price high. While this may sound great on the surface, what could still happen is that organised crime will continue to see it as a profitable activity as if the price is raised (just as for legal commodities like e.g. oil) then more profit can be made by them.

In terms of tackling issues like drug trafficking and usage, we need to consider the possibility (as Portugal has done) of decriminalising (but not completely legalising) the use of all presently illicit drugs and the Portugese have come up with an intelligent policy whereby users are placed before special drug courts and offered the chance to go clean through active rehabilitation and counselling and if they don't, then fines are imposed. The Portugese continue to make hard drug importation illegal and seizures do continue but they seem to tackle the problem from a more humane aspect of seeing addicts as victims and the real villains as the big drug cartels.

What needs to happen, therefore, is a mixture of prevention (in terms of stopping gang recruitment through anti-poverty initiatives) and active cure (for those who are addicts). It is time for a more intelligent drug policy and one that is premised upon poverty reduction and elimination rather than placing the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff in terms of the police, health and justice systems when it comes to tackling the scourge of P.

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