It’s been nearly a century since the United States began its experiment in prohibiting recreational drugs besides alcohol, caffeine and tobacco — and virtually no one sees the trillion dollar policy as a success. A recent study [PDF] shows that drug prices have dropped more than 80 percent in the last two decades alone; purity and availability has risen; and overall addiction and death rates haven’t been cut, despite an exponential increase in incarceration since the 1980s.
Even the hardline U.N. drug czar admitted in the annual World Narcotics Report [PDF] that “the international drug control system is floundering,” citing specifically its inability to match the speed and creativity of Internet-enabled chemists who create and distribute new legal highs like “bath salts” and “fake marijuana” faster than governments can ban them.
But one country is trying a new approach. For the first time in history, New Zealand has created a regulatory body to oversee recreational drugs. Passed by parliament this summer on a vote of 119 to 1, the legislation has already granted interim approval to over 50 products with names like “Dr. Feelgood,” “4:20,” and “Everest Tibetan Toot.”
The world should closely watch what happens next. If implemented carefully, New Zealand’s new laws offer the first genuinely scientific and public health-oriented approach to dealing with the negative aspects of humanity’s eternal quest for consciousness alteration. Anthropology tells us that getting high is universal — no culture, no matter how remote, lacks chemical experimentation.
After all, few existing U.S. drug laws were based on a medical assessment of the relative risks of alcohol, tobacco, marijuana, heroin, cocaine and others. Instead, they were derived from historical contingencies and, typically, explicit racism.