There is no doubt that New Zealand is facing an increasing problem with the
abuse of hard drugs, in particular crystal methamphetamine, commonly known
as P.

Last week's release of a United Nations study into Ecstasy and amphetamine
type substances (ATS) was a wake-up call for many.

The New Zealand media headlined it by saying that we have the highest
levels of methamphetamine abuse in the world.

We also saw a documentary about P aired on TV One last week that Herald
reviewer Louisa Cleave described as a wasted opportunity to inform and
advance the debate.

What New Zealanders are sadly lacking right now is proper analysis of the
problem. There is a real danger that the very serious problems of P
dependency and realistic solutions to those problems are being obscured by
a media-driven fear campaign.

The UN report states that Australia has the highest level of Ecstasy abuse
worldwide and ranks second only to Thailand in prevalence of
methamphetamine in 2001.

Later on it states that New Zealand has high and rising levels of ATS
abuse. So we are not the worst, although we do have good reason to be worried.

The report says that low costs, high profits and easily camouflaged labs
close to retail points make the ATS business extremely attractive to
organised crime.

What we know in New Zealand is that criminal organisations that became rich
off illegal cannabis have expanded their trade into P.

The network of tinny houses that sells cannabis to the more than 300,000
people who use it is now trying to flood the market with methamphetamines.

Of particular concern is the growing number of stories about people who go
to a tinny house to buy cannabis but are offered P in its place.

Most people who use cannabis never use hard drugs, nor do they want to.
Overseas experience shows, however, that cannabis prohibition creates a
gateway effect. Because cannabis is illegal, its users are more likely to
come into contact with - and therefore use - hard drugs such as P.

The parliamentary health select committee report into cannabis, released in
August, made the point that the Dutch policy of separating the cannabis
market from the market for hard drugs has led to Holland having one of the
lowest rates of hard drug addiction in the Western World.

The Green Party believes that New Zealand can tackle the P problem. But we
must base our actions on accurate information and evidence.

The first step must be supply reduction. We have to tackle the illegal market.

Cannabis law reform is an important part of that. It would separate the
market for cannabis from the market for hard drugs, and also reduce the
profitability of the tinny houses.

The money saved by police from not prosecuting adults for simple cannabis
use could be targeted at those who manufacture and supply methamphetamines.
Remember that over half of the money spent by police on drug investigation
is spent on cannabis, most of that on personal-use offences.

Secondly, as the UN report says, prevention and treatment programmes should
be considered key elements to any approach.

Credible drug education is crucial. When drug educator Trevor Grice said in
Next magazine (May 2000) that he would rather see his kids using heroin
than using cannabis, I believe he did irreparable harm to the credibility
of drug education programmes across the country.

Similarly, when public commentators say things like "one toke and you're
hooked" they undermine efforts to warn people about the very real danger of
dependency and abuse that P poses.

Many of the people who use P are intelligent and streetwise, and may be
well-educated. They are able to tell when information is exaggerated for
dramatic effect and are scathing of it.

Such well-meaning exaggeration is likely to be rejected and may lead to an
increased risk of just giving it a try. P is dangerous enough without

Community initiatives, such as those promoted by Dr Pita Sharples and Denis
O'Reilly, have to be part of any information campaign. The aim must be to
strengthen each community's ability to keep off the P by arming the
community as a whole with better information.

Also crucial to the campaign is better treatment services. One of the
greatest difficulties for families trying to deal with a member with a P
dependency is finding help.

Treatment services are few and stretched. Residential treatment is almost
absent in this country. If we want to address the problems of drug
dependency, we have to better fund the treatment services.

Lastly, we also have to keep things in context. Massey University
researcher Dr Chris Wilkins has pointed out that the use rates for P are
nowhere near those for alcohol and cannabis.

In fact, it is clear that the psychoactive drug most often associated with
violent crime, domestic violence, drug abuse and drug death is alcohol.

Of course it would be absurd to suggest that alcohol should be made
illegal, but we can stop its aggressive promotion on our television sets
and radios and replace alcohol ads with messages of moderation and
responsible use.

Strategies must be different for different drugs. Some, such as P, carry a
very high risk of dependency, while others carry less risk. What we cannot
continue to tolerate is a culture of drug abuse, whether it be
methamphetamine, cannabis, alcohol or ritalin.

Now, tackling that question would take political courage.

* Nandor Tanczos is a Green MP.

Herald Feature: The P epidemic

Pubdate: Fri, 03 Oct 2003
Source: New Zealand Herald (New Zealand)
Copyright: 2003 New Zealand Herald