Monday, April 15, 2013

Talking to Clare Curran about drugs

I recently got into a Facebook discussion with Clare Curran about an opinion piece she'd written for the Oddity.

The teal deer* version is as follows: she says she's "woken up" to the dangers of synthetic cannabinoids and other "legal highs" currently available in dairies in New Zealand, and wants people to challenge dairy owners over selling this stuff.

My response was that a) just waking up to it now is a bit late, as these products have been available in dairies since they first came on the scene four or five years ago; and b) surely a legislative response is more effective here - for example, people who don't think alcohol should be available in supermarkets lobby local or central government to change the law**, they don't attempt to shame supermarkets into not selling booze one by one.

At this point, the comment thread was taken over by the usual opposing choruses of "Think of the children!" and "Legalise weed, man!" and the capacity for useful discussion was largely destroyed. Her final response to me was to ask me for a constructive alternative proposal, and mine was to question what her end goal was vis-a-vis the legality of recreational drugs generally.

After thinking about this for a while, I do have a more constructive solution for Clare Curran and my parting shot has a lot to do with it.

The current situation is clearly not good. There are some very rich people paying some very flash chemists very good money to keep making substances one step ahead of the law. These products have minimal (if any) human testing, and do appear to be causing genuine harm to their users.

But here's the thing - these people aren't supervillains*** - they're meeting a demand that exists in the community by selling the products they're currently allowed to sell. If they could meet that demand with other safer products, they probably would. As it is, the commercial pressure on them is to always have another chemical up their sleeve for when the product du jour gets banned, and not to worry too much about concerns like consumer safety.

There's a commonly-repeated idea that prohibition doesn't work - but that's not quite right. Actually prohibition has worked pretty well in eliminating some drugs from the marketplace in New Zealand. The 2C family, Fantasy and BZP were all popular during their brief windows of legality, but have pretty much disappeared now that they're illegal.

People don't actually want to take bad**** drugs. They tend to do so when  those drugs are legal, because they want to buy them without risking prosecution and all of the other personal and social hassles that come with dealing with the black market. When they're made illegal, committed users return to whatever illegal drug their legal high of choice was emulating and "curious" users shrug and move on. This is why actual cannabis, speed, Ecstasy etc. all persist in the community, while the alternative versions have all faded into obscurity.

So, after all that, here's my reply to Clare Curran. What she seems to see as moral turpitude on the part of dairy owners, I see as a failure of market regulation. People want (and arguably have always wanted) to get high and they tend to do this in whatever way is most easily achieved. Legal highs are easier and safer to get (if not safer to use) than illegal drugs, and there's no regulation saying who can sell them - so dairy owners are free to profit from supplying this demand.

My solution is two-fold:

  1. Stop claiming special cases for tobacco and alcohol. These are recreational drugs, and fairly harmful ones at that. The hypocrisy of telling one group of people that their drug of choice is wrong while freely indulging in a more harmful one knocks a massive hole in any attempt at drug education, and seriously undermines public confidence in drug information that comes from government or the police.

    "Culturally familiar" is not the same as "safe". This inconsistent approach is what has allowed the current messy and ineffective regime to get as bad as it has.

    A more sensible way to decide which drugs are illegal and which are allowed would be to decide on an allowable level of harm*****, and ban (or restrict to medical and scientific applications) drugs more harmful than that. There are already indices that rank various drugs on harm to the user and social harm, so there are clearly metrics for figuring this stuff out.

    Alternatively, if as a society we don't want anyone to take any drugs except for medical reasons, we need to be upfront about that. And we need to ban tobacco and alcohol (and arguably energy drinks, coffee, tea, and nutmeg) along with the rest.
  2. License all the drugs we've decided are safe enough to be legal, and limit their sale to premises that specialise in those products.

    One of the things that contributes to binge drinking in New Zealand is very cheap booze from supermarkets. If supermarkets drop their prices on alcohol to lure in custom, they can make that profit up elsewhere. Even if they lose their license, they probably won't go out of business, because they still sell a lot of other stuff that everyone needs. In order to have real teeth, a license needs to be vital to your continued livelihood.

    I realise that this means I'll need to buy my beer from a liquor store, but I'm actually OK with that. Liquor stores tend to sell better beer than most supermarkets anyway, and no-one will die if booze or other drugs get priced out of their range.
The current legal-drugs barons would have to fall in line with such a regulatory regime, or go undergound and risk direct prosecution. However, current evidence suggests that no-one would abandon legal cannabis to smoke illegal Kronic.


* This was recently introduced to me as a different way of saying "tl;dr" and I think it's awesome - so there.

** This is how come you can't buy alcohol from supermarkets in Southland, for example.

*** Just so we're clear - I don't think they're nice, I just think that moustache-twirling villains are less common than one might expect.

**** "Bad" in this sense means both less safe and less pleasurable than the illegal equivalent. This may be disputable in some other cases, but is certainly true of the synthetic cannabinoids - people don't tend to end up in emergency rooms suffering panic attacks and heart palpitations when they smoke real cannabis.

***** I would suggest that sensible questions to ask might include "How possible is it to fatally overdose?" and "What behavioural changes does this drug induce? Do those changes often include increased aggression?" for starters.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this wonderfully sensible post. I've had similar views for a very long time and it's nice to hear somebody else's reasoning to reach a similar conclusion.