Experimenting with previously legal highs

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The synthetic cannabis debate seems to have devolved into an argument about the pros and cons of experimenting on cute animals, and whether – if we choose not to experiment on them – we should atone for the fickleness of human affection by giving the same favours to rats that we give to rabbits. This is just the last leg of a debate that has been filled with various forms of guilt-tripping from the get-go. In fact in some ways there’s been more guilt-tripping than ‘tripping’ of the psychedelic kind during this whole thing. At the start we were guilt-tripped about the families, then we were guilt-tripped about the regular retailers who had lost business on account of the the weird looking guys who had started making various animal noises outside their stores, then the residents of XYZ suburb had a problem with it. Then – after the ban came into place – we’ve been guilt-tripped about the harm done to the poor old synthetics distributors who only have Mai Chen and Mini Dunne to defend them. Mai and Mini followed up by proceeding to guilt trip us about all those consumers who will now be forced to go to a tinny house for their..er…tinnies, and how this isn’t very fair because tinny houses have terrible decor and relatively unclean urinals(presumably unlike the CBDs of most of New Zealand’s long-suffering main centres). And, of course lately, there’s been all the fuss over experimentation.

Which is interesting because this whole process has shown us just how unfit our political process is for experimentation. Not of the animal kind (although I guess in some ways it’s shown the difficulties of dealing with that issue too), but of experiments in government and governance. An odd thing considering that for years successive governments of both the left and the right have been setting up an economic system where the rest of us are expected to experiment on a fairly regular basis. If you find yourself out of work your government will generally tell you to retrain, try computers, buy a computer, or just move in some other direction just as long as you don’t expect the government to do anything. It’s a culture of doing things first and experimenting later that is increasingly the norm, and successive governments have played a large part in setting up. In an age where a shopfront can be setup on the web in a few hours, have customers in it a few minutes after that, and been completely redesigned only an hour later, it increasingly makes more sense to build things and see what happens than to sit around for hours debating and refining an idea so that only the perfected product goes into production.

Yet our political process has proven itself unable to cope with the most basic experimental variations on public policy. If city councils chose to experiment with shifting the cannabis shops out then they faced court costs in the thousands. And later, when the law was repealed, city councils that had actually experienced less harm because of legalisation – because a legitimate avenue stopped people from setting up illegitimate tinniehouses – were unable to choose to have them either. Let’s also not forget the overarching political culture of stubbornness that had the Minister for Health(Peter Dunne) thinking that he had to say his policy was ‘working’ in its entirety, even if it wasn’t.

A political world that allowed experimentation – in the same way it is allowed in the real world – would have allowed for both decision to prohibit and to legalise to have been made, and for the most effective policies to have been quickly copied by those with less successful policies. The overarching culture would have been both more tolerant of failure and more quick to react to fix it

Incidentally this would have been a fairer way of doing it too. If the policy was to effectively guarantee one synthetic cannabis store in every CBD – which is what Peter Dunne seemed to think when he castigated smaller cities and towns for effectively banning the stores – this would have had a disproportionate effect on smaller centres as opposed to larger ones. One store in Puriri, for example, could consume 1/5th of the available retail space and be a nuisance to the remaining 4/5ths of shops. On the other hand, in an area like Auckland – with a proper red light district and a well patrolled CBD – the policy might have actually been an improvement on a prohibition policy that would have boosted the number of tinny houses in the poorer less-patrolled suburbs of Auckland.

As it stands, the government’s experiment with experimentation seems only to have proven that our policy making apparatus is decades behind the way the rest of society’s ‘fail fast, fix fast’ institutions work.

When the policy was falling off the wheels, the opposition castigated the Government for having passed the bill under urgency. If it hadn’t have been passed under urgency – the opposition seemed to imply – then the finer details of the policy could have been debated out and a pristine synthetic highs policy produced. Perhaps the fault was not the urgency with which the bill was passed, but the lack of urgency in making much needed changes to it – or tolerance for allowing councils to.

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