Image via WikipediaJim Anderton / 1 May, 2008 /Dunedin, Otago University Campus
I welcome this forum and I am grateful for the opportunity to join you here. I welcome it because I think the issue of the harm caused by drugs and alcohol is important.
So important that a couple of years ago I supported the police in allocating resources to fund a drug harm index. I supported this study because I take the issue of drug harm very seriously.
The money was used for research to quantify drug harm - not just how expensive the problem is, but also where the avoidable costs lie and what could be done to minimise them. The government’s ministerial committee on drug policy - that I chair - has this week received a report on that research.
I want to share the results with you - this is the first time they have been made public.
This was a formal research project by professional researchers (BERL) and peer reviewed - one of the peer reviewers was Des O’Day, a public health expert at Otago University.
The study concluded, “the harm from drugs consumed in 2006 is substantial and that illicit drug seizures may have prevented approximately another third again of harm.” In 2006 illicit drug use caused social costs estimated at $1,310 million.
That’s nearly one per cent of GDP.
Illicit drug production cost the country $519 million. Related crime cost us $414 million. Lost output due to illicit drug use cost $106 million. Another $53 million resulted from drug-attributable health care and road smashes.
Of course, as we know, not all drug use is the same. So the research is broken down into categories of drugs.
Over two fifths of social costs - 42 percent, or $551 million - is caused by illicit stimulants. We know them as meth, or P.
The researchers said stimulants stand out as the “the second largest source of tangible costs for the user” at $2640 per user in 2006. They caused $551 million of social costs in 2006. That’s over ten million dollars of harm every week.
Over a third of the social costs of illicit drug use are caused by cannabis. That’s $444 million of social costs in 2006 from cannabis alone. As we already know, cannabis is not as damaging as other illicit drugs such as opiods or LSD. The cost per kilogram and cost per user is lower than the others. That is why cannabis is a Class C, not a class A, drug.
But that figure of $444 million of social costs is one that we can’t go past. It is a very high cost mainly because cannabis use is so widespread. The more widespread the use of cannabis gets, the higher that cost will be.
Compare it to alcohol use. Alcohol is far and away our most destructive drug. If you ask the police, or medical authorities, about the times they are called in to crises, or to accidents, to clean up human harm they will tell you that alcohol is almost invariably involved.
Alcohol was not part of the study I am releasing tonight. But according to the Ministry of Health, the social costs of alcohol misuse total between $1.5 billion and $2.4 billion a year. So why do we make alcohol legal, when it causes much more damage than any other drug?
The answer should give advocates of drug use some pause for thought: Alcohol is not the most intrinsically harmful drug. It is the most harmful because it is the most widely used. It causes physical and mental health problems. It causes catastrophe on the roads. It causes drownings and violence in families and elsewhere. It leads to absenteeism and problems at work.
Over 80 percent of New Zealanders drink alcohol - and it causes as much as two billion dollars of harm.
Around 14 percent used cannabis last year. And it caused $444 million. Harm to individuals includes suicide and mental illness, respiratory problems including lung damage and violence. On a proportionate basis, cannabis is the more harmful drug, according to the best figures we have available.
Who pays the social costs of harm caused by drug use? We all do, in paying taxes for our hospitals and police and social agencies to pick up the pieces. The victims of crime pay the social costs.
The families of users pay the social costs. And the users themselves.
In the case of cannabis they pay around $1,750 a year on average each in social and economic costs. These include production of drugs, crime, loss of output at work, healthcare and road accidents.
I’m the minister of forestry - and I go and see the forestry companies and ask them to work closely with communities to hire more young people and train them with high skills, so we export higher value products, instead of raw logs. And one of the problems they talk to me about is the difficulty of training young people when drugs have ruined their motivation to even get out of bed. They can tell you of the dangers of forestry workers using chainsaws or heavy machinery while they’re stoned.
When young people use cannabis they do long-term damage to their brains. It causes memory loss, mood disorders and depression. Cannabis dealers don’t care. Police will tell you cannabis dealers don't refuse to sell their product to children, even kids in school uniform. That is who is paying the social cost.
I’ve been trying to increase the minimum legal age for buying alcohol. I think that it’s wrong that teenagers can buy alcohol at the corner dairy. When we reduced the age for buying alcohol - the number of car smashes and the number of hospital admissions for 18-20 year olds shot up. So did the figures for the under-18s. Because, of course, they were more likely to get alcohol when their friends and siblings over 18 were buying it for them, or lending them ID.
And if cannabis were made more widely available, more young people would use it, and more would be harmed by it.
I am against making drugs more widely available because I think we should be strong enough to care for our community. We should be strong enough and caring enough to give our young people a future in their own communities.
We should be strong enough to care for our young people. We should be strong enough to try to minimise harm when we know we can.
Jim Anderton / Health