Hard News by Russell Brown


Spectacular but useless

The Herald has had two bites at the new New Zealand Drug Harm Index developed by Berl for the New Zealand Police.

The first is a fairly plain NZPA story that appeared yesterday on the paper's website. The second is the one headed $1.3b drugs bill we're all paying that takes the front page this morning.

As you might expect, the vanilla version, based on a story in the police Ten One magazine, is closer to the truth. It quotes National Crime Manager Detective Superintendent Win van der Velde as saying the index "will help reinforce the value of police enforcement activity and the work with our partner agencies."

The front-page version, on the other hand, is a torrent of scary numbers.

The idea of a drug harm index isn't necessarily a bad one. In Britain, the Drug Harm Index does actually seek to measure social harm caused by illicit drug use -- and to assess harm reduction measures. Its harms "include drug-related crime, community perceptions of drug problems, drug nuisance, and the various health consequences that arise from drug abuse." It is actually possible to measure -- and, on the evidence, improve -- policy outcomes with the British model.

Indeed, the British index is specifically geared towards harm reduction targets laid out in 2004:

• Reduce the harm caused by illegal drugs (as measured by the Drug Harm Index encompassing measures of the availability of Class A drugs and drug-related crime) including substantially increasing the number of drug-misusing offenders entering treatment through the criminal justice system.

• Increase the participation of problem drug users in drug treatment programmes by 100 per cent by 2008 and increase year-on-year the proportion of users successfully sustaining or completing treatment programmes.

• Reduce the use of Class A drugs and the frequent use of any illicit drug among all young people under the age of 25, especially by the most vulnerable young people.

Unfortunately, Berl has followed the Australian model, which is more or less explicitly, a public relations tool for police. (As the Aussies put it: "The index represents the dollar value of harm that would have ensued had the seized drugs reached the community. In the five years from 1998-99 to 2002-2003, the AFP and its partners saved the Australian community approximately $3.1 billion in harm through its disruption of illicit drug importations.")

Harms as very widely defined in this model include the costs of policing drug laws by the police and Customs. So if we were to follow the urgings of Mike Sabin and throw huge additional resources into stamping out drugs, the Drug Harm Index would go up. And every drug seizure made by police would be accounted as preventing harm to an even greater value. The more money they spent, the more money they'd save us. Cool, huh?

As you might expect, no attempt is made model the harm caused by the fact of drugs being illegal; or, to phrase it another way, to assess the relative harm generated by different policy approaches. This is, after all, a report created for the police rather than as an measure for heath or social policy.

The model also coughs up some spectacular, and meaningless, figures: "The most damaging drug per kilogram was LSD, which cost more than $1.05 billion a kg," reports the Herald story. (To be fair to Berl, its report does acknowledge the pointlessness of this figure.)

The other thing that makes the Drug Harm Index fairly useless is that it specifically excludes the legal but harmful drugs alcohol and tobacco. The shortcoming was identified in a meeting of the Inter-Agency Committee on Drugs last April. From the minutes:


The MCDP Chair had raised the question, on why the drug harm index did not include tobacco and alcohol, at the MCDP meeting held on 14 March 2007. Police commented that with a lack of resources this is as far as they can take it. It was also discussed amongst the Committee that a more useful approach would be to ensure that the on-line drug information database was structured to collect and present information on alcohol and drug related harm.


Committee agreed to rename the index the “Illegal Drug Harm Index.”

Neither the name change or the proposed "more useful approach" have come to pass. The index also misses a huge opportunity to shed light in not modelling the economic and social costs of legal "party pills" alongside illicit drugs.

And we're left with an index that is spectacular but fairly useless in policy terms. Jim Anderton is proud of it.

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