The Law Matters

It's not just a "war on drugs," it's a defense of the brain

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Pro-drug groups make two erroneous claims.

  • “It’s a health issue, not a criminal issue.”
  • “The war on drugs has failed.”


Theodore Dalrymple is blunt when he says in his book Romancing Opiates: Pharmacological Lies and the Addiction Bureaucracy:

[The War on Drugs is Lost is an] unimaginative and fundamentally stupid …metaphor [which] exerts a baleful effect on proper thought … If the war against drugs is lost, then so are the wars against theft, speeding, incest, fraud, rape, murder, arson, and illegal parking.  Few, if any, such wars are winnable.


Australian ethicist Dr Greg Pike says that the assertion that addiction is a medical problem and not a criminal one is a simplistic and unrealistic dichotomy.  If those with addictions commit serious offences, as does happen, the criminal law cannot simply turn a blind eye.  The community still needs to be protected.

Nobody would claim that we apprehend too many drunk drivers or thieves – even though we spend money and effort on roadside checks. The government has a responsibility to keep the public safe from harm, including from dangerous substances.

The law has an important deterrent effect.

Most people don’t want to break the law. It sends an important societal message. 

Part of the ‘health’ argument is based on the myth that ‘petty’ marijuana users are filling our prisons. But statistics obtained from the Ministry of Justice by Family First NZ under the Official Information Act show that less than 10 people have been given a prison or home detention sentence for cannabis possession offences in each of the last three years, and that even these sentences may be ‘influenced by their previous offending history’. In the 20 years to 2014, the number of arrests for cannabis per 100,000 head of population dropped by 70%. And now the police are required to take that approach to ALL illicit drug use.

It will be difficult to meet somebody who says they’ve been behind bars for smoking a joint, and that’s their only crime. International studies have shown that most are imprisoned for drug related offences, that is, crimes committed while on drugs (murder, armed robbery, theft, assault, child abuse, etc.) or crimes committed in order to obtain drugs. The statistics from the Ministry of Justice appear to confirm that. This is also the case in Australia and the US.

Erroneous claims that we are wasting time and resources focusing on the criminal aspect fail to understand (or perhaps, want to ignore) that there has been a substantial decline in arrests for cannabis use in New Zealand over the past decade, and that police diversion and Alcohol and Other Drug Treatment (AODT) Courts have been increasingly used. Diversion and pre-charge warnings are being used sensibly and effectively. The Substance Addiction Act passed into law in 2017 simplifies the process for police, health services and loved ones to force those locked in a cycle of substance abuse into compulsory treatment.

New data from Youth19 Rangatahi Smart Survey has confirmed that the illegal status of cannabis is keeping young people from experimenting with cannabis in the first place, that students progressing to ongoing and regular cannabis use is very low, but that legalising it would reverse these gains. While just 23% of students reported ever using marijuana – dropping from 38% in 2001 – only 4.1% were consuming it on a regular basis, much lower than in 2001 when it was 6.5%. The report says that most students do not use marijuana or other drugs. Maori use marijuana on a regular basis at a higher rate (8.5%) than Pakeha (3.3%) and Pacific use (3.6%). However, even Maori rates have dropped from a high figure of 13.9% in 2001. Asian youth use is low. In contrast, 22% reported binge drinking in the past month, and remains high compared with other countries.

Rather than focusing on ‘health’ at the centre of drug policy, the focus should be on “well-being”.

A smart arrest policy can both provide a societal stamp of disapproval and provide an opportunity to intervene and stop the progression of use. Keeping marijuana illegal through an appropriate application of the laws that cater for “youthful indiscretions” and which focus on supply / dealers is as much a public safety policy as it is a public health policy. 

NZ researcher Gerald Waters says that international research and best practice evaluations around alcohol and drug courts show they are probably the most effective in stopping recidivist. Participants in the courts must undergo intense rehabilitative programmes, alongside community work, to address substance addiction and the related criminal behaviour – thereby interrupting the cycle of addiction-driven offending.

It looks at the underlying causes, not just punishing people… It is non-adversarial, so you have defence and prosecution working together – for the betterment of those who would perhaps react positively to treatment.”

Well-known commentator Rosemary McLeod says:

It is a well-intentioned fallacy that drug users want “help”. What they want is supply, and they’ll pretend to want help to get it. Others will on-sell their ration, probably to under 18s, to help fund their harder drug use. We live in the real world. I think…”

Yes, we do.

Legalisation would mean more use, and therefore more breaches of marijuana-related regulations (including under-age violations), and more drug-driving convictions.


It is also significant to note that Portugal (trumpeted as the model of drug laws by drug supporters in NZ) coerces treatment and rehabilitation. We should reject the notion that coerced treatment (aided by legal sanction) is unworkable or acceptable for drug users.

The currently illegal status of drugs is an inhibitor that deters people from participating.  While there will be some who are enticed by the illegality, most people do not like engagement with criminal behaviour or with criminal distribution networks.  A 2001 study of 18-29 year olds by the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research revealed that 29% of those who had never used cannabis cited its illegality as the reason.  Furthermore, 91% of those currently using cannabis weekly or more said they would consider using more if it were legal.

Broadcaster and commentator Mike Yardley argues:

“The NZ Drug Foundation argues it’s a complete waste of “hundreds of thousands of police hours” trying to enforce the law, criminalising and imprisoning Kiwis for low-level possession. Just because tens of thousands of Kiwis choose to smoke dope in defiance of the law, is not a compelling reason to legitimatise their lifestyle. 42% of front-line police officer hours are consumed on dealing to family violence. If you apply the extreme, absurd and self-serving logic of the legalise lobby, the police should surrender to family violence too, because so many Kiwis are indulging in this sick and twisted national sport. Ditto for child abuse, tax evasion, drink-driving, shop-lifting, or any other social scourge you care to name.”

Apart from the fact that “hundreds of thousands of police hours” is a completely made-up fictional claim by the Drug Foundation, it is also ironic that researchers say that the alleged reduction in law enforcement and justice expenditure have not been realised overseas, with crime increasing and an increase in the costs of added regulation for non-compliance. Furthermore, the budget estimates do not cover the additional health and education on cannabis harms and the fact that the illegal drug trade will inevitably continue to thrive under more regulation and taxation. Drug dealers and other criminals who derive huge profits from the drug trade will not cease criminal activity in the face of legalisation. The costs of regulating and then policing that industry, will only compound the costs of policing the illegal market, as seen in Colorado.


The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) said in its 2012 report:

“Cannabis prevention efforts are critical because cannabis is often the first illegal drug used by youth. Preventing substance use before it begins not only makes common sense, it is also cost‐effective. For every dollar invested in prevention, a savings of up to $10 in treatment can be realised.”

They went on to recommend that cannabis possession should remain a punishable offence, while its use should be prevented and its continued use treated. “There are several evidence‐based prevention and treatment strategies that governments can implement to effectively reduce marijuana use, abuse and addiction and prevent much of the consequences and costs to society with regard to health care, social support, security and development.”

We should continue fighting drugs and the devastation its use causes on both the users, their families, and society in general.


A sensible drug policy should recognise three pillars of drug policy:

  • supply reduction – target the dealers and suppliers
  • demand reduction – promote a drug-free culture
  • harm reduction – ensure addiction services & support are available for those who genuinely want to quit. The primary purpose is not to keep users using, but reduce and help them exit drug use!

It’s not about a ‘war’. We don’t need an army, machine guns, informants, patrols. We need a “Stay Drug-Free” message. It’s about enforcing drug laws to protect families.

It’s working for tobacco.

“Why do nations schedule drugs? …… Nations schedule psychoactive drugs because we revere this three-pound organ (of our brain) differently than any other part of our body. It is the repository of our humanity. It is the place that enables us to write poetry and to do theatre, to conjure up calculus and send rockets to Pluto three billion miles away, and to create iPhones and 3D computer printing. And that is the magnificence of the human brain. Drugs can influence [the brain] adversely. So, this is not a war on drugs – this is a defence of our brains, the ultimate source of humanity.”
Dr Bertha Madras, Professor of Addiction Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School