Over the last six years, more than 2800 New Zealanders have been imprisoned for minor drug offences such as possession of small quantities of cannabis or even just the paraphernalia used to smoke it.
An article published today on stuff.co.nz reports:
Hundreds of people are locked up for petty drug offences every year – many for crimes [New Zealand's] top legal body says should not exist.
Justice Ministry figures show a significant amount of court time is taken up by minor drug cases, with nearly as many people imprisoned for possessing a small quantity of cannabis as for dealing.
Among these offenders are hundreds imprisoned for possessing a pipe or a needle, an offence the Law Commission recommended legalising last year.
The figures also show fewer than one in three minor drug offenders is offered diversion, allowing them to avoid a criminal record.
The New Zealand Drug Foundation said the figures were alarming and showed the court-focused treatment of minor offenders was not working.
One of the main arguments of the reform movement that the Beckley Foundation and others support is that prohibition unnecessarily criminalises individuals, permanently damaging their lives. This latest news from New Zealand is an example of such damage.
Under prohibition those caught in the possession of small quantities of drugs, no more than would be expected for personal use, receive a criminal record. Subsequently, these individuals are stigmatised and their access to education, employment, housing and state support is severely impaired. Such restrictions increase the risk of a drug user moving on to ever more dangerous habits and substances in order to cope, resulting in a continuing vicious cycle.
The solution to this problem is to shift the political focus of drug policy from one of criminal sanctions to one of health and harm-reduction. Reform would still see the dangerous criminals that aim to push drugs to maximise their profit put behind bars, while addicts are offered rehabilitation and vulnerable members of society are better educated on how to avoid problem drug use.