Today was a nationwide day of protests against legal highs. Whilst in Rotorua I came across the local demonstration in the centre of town. The anger of the crowd was aimed at several local dairies and shops who, it was said, are making a small fortune from selling the drugs. The protest was attended by local Councillors, Maori elders and around 200 deeply concerned citizens.
The problem was highlighted to me by a shopkeeper nearby who said, if he was to be believed, there is a dairy in Tokoroa turning over $15000 a day from selling Kronic to children and teens.
It was easy to sympathise with the sentiment of the crowd. It was obvious many of the speakers had family members who were suffering from being addicted to these substances. Naturally, they want something done. They wanted the government, the Council or both to ban the sale of legal highs so their suffering could end.
Drug taking is endemic in New Zealand and around the globe, whether it’s legal or illegal. Despite decades of legislation to stem the tide it’s as popular as ever. In a nutshell this means prohibition doesn’t work. It seems people will continue to take drugs no matter what the legal consequences.
This is not surprising. People rebel against state interference in the choices they make about how to run their private lives. They will put up with a large amount of taxation or other forms of state coercion if they believe it's for the greater good, but once the State starts to tell its citizens what choices they must make in their private lives they take exception.
This is especially so when the people have centuries of history of rebelling against the authority of the state and have fought to limit its authority. They want to kick back against abuse of their personal freedoms and will do so in whatever ways they see fit, including making the choice to take drugs.
Interestingly, this is understood by all major political parties here. They know that banning something people want, even if this is ‘bad’ for them, their families and friends, will only result in the problem popping up elsewhere. They’re right. That doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be attempts by government to recoup the social cost of the harm they do. Two methods have worked well: making something socially unacceptable, the modern equivalent of putting people in the stocks, and taxing the bejesus out of the offending item.
You can’t save people from themselves, only they can do that. The best governments can do is make the self-abusers pay the cost of the harm they do to themselves and others. Then the state has the money to start the laborious process of helping them back to health so they can be useful again to themselves and to society.