The NZ Drug Harm Index Study & Prohibition Mentality

The stated goal of the New Zealand Drug Harm Index study, released in April, was “to measure the impact of government intervention”. I really think they failed to do that at all, but let’s first have a look at how these studies work.

A drug harm index study collates ‘social and personal harms’ using somewhat subjective criteria for calculating costs. You end up having complex calculations projecting populations onto estimates. It can be hard to pull apart because they use other studies data (which in this case I don’t have access to). You’ll see in a minute though why such studies are sort of making things up as they go along.

So the first thing that is wrong minded in this study is the assumption that ‘interventions’ are in fact lowering harms associated with the drug. This is particularly ironic, given the inclusion of ‘lost taxes’ and related crime, as considered costs associated with the drug, not consequences of prohibition.
When one factors in ‘loss of profit and taxes’ as a cost associated with prohibition, as well as reduction in police costs, court costs and crime – it’s pretty clear that any perceived costs could be easily covered in actual fact. And that is what I mean about this study being prohibition minded – it fails to recognise ‘the impact government intervention’ can be negative, and that it too can have costs associated with it.

If we brush aside for a moment the subjectivity of the cost calculations, lost taxes, related crime, and loss of profit are not costs associated with the drug, but with intervention itself. And taxes collected via a liberalised drug market could easily pay for any programs to counterbalance any actual costs.

Then there are the little points within this subjectivity, that seem on the face of it questionable. For example cannabinoids are credited with 32 deaths per year, and significant shortening of life. Now they have included synthetic cannabinoids, but even still I really doubt their are 32 coroners reports that attribute deaths to synths, let alone any evidence of shortening of life. Even including synthetics with regular cannabis is misleading. Of course without the data, I can’t really comment further.

Another problem with the study is that such harms are not considered on a by user basis. In the harm index section for example, it clearly labels cannabis as one of the least harmful drugs in terms of expert ratings, and describes cannabis as one of the most popular drugs – but the cost calculation does not reflect that a very large number of people are using cannabis, so the per user cost is in fact very low compared to other drugs. Similarly, there is no point of comparison, no control – we do not have cost calculations for alcohol or for tobacco. Indeed without this context, the illicit drug categories listed are just floating in a bubble. It seems likely that alcohol and tobacco would outstrip them all by many factors.

For comparison by the way, The US’s total year on year profit, estimated for 2020, is 22 billion, with just four states in which in is legal, and really only two of them where it is properly for sale. Even with New Zealands small population, I bet our year on year profit could be somewhere between 3-4 billion eventually, and we could easily collect 25% of that in taxes and licensing, let alone the positive effects on tourism and the economy. That 1 billion could easily cover any programs to mitigate negative effects, and save the government a lot of money on interventions that don’t actually really work in the sense of lowering harms.

The other element that is thoroughly missing, is the reduction of harms. We know that many of these drugs are medicines. That is established in science. Now, what harms are these drugs reducing, or mitigating within society? For example what pharma drug costs and hospital costs are being saved by cannabis, and what addiction or psychology problems are being resolved by psychedelics. Again, prohibition minded. These drugs have established benefits, and it would seem fitting to fold these into any real harm comparison.

Now I really can’t get much into analysing the merit of their cost calculation techniques, and to do so wouldn’t really prove anything people don’t already know about these kinds of studies – but the prohibition mindedness of this study prevents it from being useful for its stated goal of ‘assessing the impact of intervention’.
If they really wanted to do that, they would compare NZ with countries with various forms of different interventions, and count costs that are consequences of prohibition, such as crime and lost taxes, as part of the cost of the intervention, not of the drug itself. Ie, they would have a control, or a series of controls, with which to compare NZ’s spending and outcomes. They would also include alcohol and other legal drugs AND factor in costs saved, or economic benefits delivered such as increased spending, medical expenses saved and so on. Instead of having all this data floating inside a vaccum where it means relatively little. But such a mentality would be one that is open to different models, and free of perceptual bias – and this is our government we are talking about!

Although it would indeed be interesting to see a real study of this nature.

For those that are interested, here’s the study.