Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Drug Use and Crime

Every looked at the court pages in the newspaper? Have you noticed how often the people in the courts for violent crimes are drug addicts? These days in Aotearoa New Zealand it's largely "P" (Meth amphetamine), but a few years back it was heroin. It makes sense for "P" users to be violent, but ever wonder why a sedative would make people violent criminals?

The answer is very simple. If you're addicted to a drug, you have to have it on a regular basis. If it's an illegal drug you have to get it from the black market, if you're getting it from the black market you are going to pay an outrageously inflated price. If you're a manual worker with a $500 / day habit there is no way you are going to make that money legitimately.

What's worse, the profits from that illegal drug trade go straight to the criminal gangs. Ever watched the Sopranos? If you didn't it tells the tale of a fictitious New Jersey, US, Mafia "Family". The series concentrated on the murders and interplay between the gangsters, but always in the background were the ways they raised their money. They make money from hijackings, gambling, loan sharking, prostitution and they make a lot of money from drugs both directly by dealing in them and indirectly by "taxing" other illegal activities in their area. Women turning to prostitution to finance their drugs pay protection, and so forth.

Here in New Zealand, the drug trade is firmly in the hands of the gangs and in any area one gang has a monopoly, they just set the price at what ever they want and every time there is an illegal drug purchase the gangs profit.

So what can we do?

History teaches us that simply prohibiting drugs doesn't work. As long as there is a market, someone will step up to supply that market. In the USA prohibition failed because there was a market for alcohol and the Mafia stepped in and had that market. As long as I can remember, there has been an attempt to deal with drugs in the same was as the US dealt with alcohol, and it simply hasn't worked. It's just made the criminal gangs richer than they could ever imagine.

Some people suggest "decriminalizing" drugs in the hands of the users. That would be worse than what we have now. It would still be illegal to sell them and so the supply and distribution would remain in the hands of the criminals. It would probably increase use and give them even more money.

To stop more people becoming hooked on addictive drugs we have to stop the criminals from running their distribution networks, and the only way we are likely to achieve that is to stop people buying from them. Once they stop making money from drugs, the criminals will move onto something else. That's right, to end the drug black market we have to stop people buying drugs from the black market.

There's really only two options for doing this, and neither of them are particularly nice. We either need to stop people using drugs, or we need to legally supply addicts with the drugs they crave.

Information campaigns haven't stopped drug use, so the only way I can see to stop addicts using drugs is to get them off the streets: compulsory rehab on a huge scale and if that doesn't work we send them back again and again until they are clean. Somehow I can't see this being at all popular.

The other option is to supply addicts with maintenance supplies of their drugs. Until 1968 Britain did exactly this with heroin (Wikipedia), if you could prove to a specialist doctor that you are an addict and you don't intend giving up you could get a prescription to get your heroin from a pharmacy. While they were doing this it worked quite well, unfortunately (as I understand it) it was only for opiates, and it was politically unpalatable so the scheme was always being fiddled with. Starting from the late 1960s they kept changing their approach and the black market came back to life. Some other European countries are experimenting with it.

I think it's time we tried this, and not just for heroin. We need to accept that the addicts of both opiates and stimulants are going to continue being addicts and move to a sensible solution that will stop them having to lead lives of prostitution or crime to pay huge amounts to the illegal gangs to finance their habits.

Originally published on Qondio

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