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Crack Down on Gangs? Great! Legalise it.

The National Party is announcing its welfare policy today. It has already been warming up with a bit of beneficiary bashing, and is now moving on to “cracking down on gangs”. National has promised to block gang members from receiving a benefit if they can't prove they don't have illegal income or assets.

Of course, governments of all shades have been trying to crack down on gangs for decades. The only way to really get rid of them is by dealing to the root causes: poverty and the failure of our education and criminal justice systems. But at TOP, we don’t expect that sort of long-term thinking from any career politician – red or blue. 

This policy announcement reveals the hypocrisy in National’s cynical politicking. If it really wants to make life difficult for the gangs, it has a prime opportunity next year. By backing a “yes” vote in the cannabis referendum, it could remove one of the gangs’ best-selling product lines. 

“Getting Tough on Crime”

National’s strategy is predictable; it’s the usual “getting tough on crime” rhetoric it wheels out every time it’s in Opposition. Remember when Judith Collins proposed a law to crush boy racers’ cars? After nine years in power, her law managed to crush a grand total of three cars. How much time was spent passing that law? How many hours of officials’ time for drafting the legislation? How many hours being debated by 120 highly paid politicians? How many police hours for the requisite paperwork? All to crush three cars. Nice work, Crusher. I’d like to see the cost-benefit analysis on that one. 

And that is also the reality with National’s gang announcement. Like most punitive policies that make eligibility more difficult, whatever money it saves will be vastly outweighed by the cost of the extra paperwork. Maybe a few would have their benefits stopped, and we can debate whether that’s a good outcome. Meanwhile, thousands of innocent bystanders would be tangled up in more red tape. The only real winners would be the Ministry of Social Development and the hordes of bureaucrats it would need to employ. 

How Can We Combat the Gangs? 

If we really want to combat the gangs, we need to look at the root causes of intergenerational poverty in our society. Like many gnarly problems, there is no simple answer. TOP has several policies to tackle the problem from different angles, including reforming our tax system, the first 1,000 days of a child’s life, the education system, and the criminal justice system

Of course, no career politician actually wants to solve our nation’s problems, so we can’t expect these sorts of reforms from National or Labour. But what’s one thing they could do that would actually reduce the power of gangs? That answer is simple; next year, they could back a “yes” vote in the Cannabis Referendum. 

Cannabis is one of the gangs’ top-selling product lines. It’s time to take it off them. 

The Gateway Drug

The Gateway Drug hypothesis is 99% wrong. The use of cannabis does not increase the likelihood that someone will go on to try other, more potent drugs. The 1% of cases in which it’s correct are purely due the fact that we criminalise cannabis. We push people into the arms of criminals to purchase it. As a result, they are more likely to come away having purchased meth. 

During the 2017 election campaign, I met people in Porirua who described the tactics the gangs use. They engineer shortages of cannabis to encourage people to try meth. Of course, meth is a far more addictive drug than cannabis so it’s an even better product from the gangs’ perspective. Creating meth addicts provides them with more regular customers.

The causes of addiction are complex and deep – like the causes of the gangs themselves. As Johann Hari points out, the opposite of addiction is not sobriety, it’s connection. Until our politicians are brave enough to tackle the causes of addiction, people will seek out drugs to numb themselves, to briefly escape from their existence. 

Remember also that the most common drugs people use are legal: alcohol, tobacco, caffeine, and sugar. Some of those substances are regulated to prevent overuse and reduce the nasty side effects. 

The best thing we can do to reduce the influence of the gangs is to reduce their product range by increasing the number of legal, regulated drugs. We should legalise, regulate, and tax cannabis. After all, it causes only about a third of the harm of alcohol. We should bring it out of the black market so that people don’t have to interact with criminals to try it. And remember, the vast majority of Kiwis have tried cannabis. We should use the money raised to treat people with addiction problems and reduce the demand for all drugs in the first place. 

If National really wanted to combat gangs, it wouldn’t suggest benefit sanctions that would cost more in bureaucrats to administer than they would save. Instead, they would get behind the campaign to legalise cannabis. But of course this is really about political point-scoring, not actual solutions. 

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