Booze: a devilish challenge for the liberal society

Drugs are back in focus in Parliament: tighter rules on tobacco, huge hauls of methamphetamine and its ingredients and a 1.5-centimetre-thick new bill on alcohol which drew a mix of emotion and rationality in the initial debate. Is liberal New Zealand turning wowser?

There are two ways to cut the use of damaging recreational drugs: limit supply and reduce demand. How either is done is a test for the liberal society, especially when the drug is alcohol.

Last Monday John Key trumpeted supply-side success in intercepting methamphetamine. Others, including by former policeman Mike Sabin, have argued the government should also focus heavily on users.

Locking up all methamphetamine users would freeze the market. But police cite liberal-democratic rights arguments: recreational users who pose no or little harm to others and users who are in effect sick because addicted would thereby be treated as if criminals.

So, on the supply side, cough tablets are banned. Pharmacists selling painkillers containing codeine must treat all buyers as if they are potential criminal manufacturers of heroin substitutes.

The United States criminalised alcohol in the 1920s. It promoted gang activity. So has criminalising marijuana and hard drugs here.

New Zealand narrowly rejected a national alcohol ban in 1918 but did allow individual electorates to go “dry”, which stifled a promising wine industry. In the recent more liberal times wine has become a star high-quality export.

Two weeks back the Key cabinet tightened the screws on supply of another damaging recreational drug: tobacco.

It is less militant on the demand side. Budget stringency is constraining the intensive and expensive help that can get some (many?) addicts clean. It ducked the drink-drive and higher-tax options. Sabin wants more education and “social marketing” to dismantle the presumption, demonstrated by Eden Park hoons on November 6, that being drunk is socially acceptable.

The new bill’s architect, Simon Power, in effect worried about that acceptability in debate on Thursday: “Excessive drinking and intoxication contributes to our crime rate (and) injury rate and affects our general health. It impacts on workplace productivity and contributes to family violence and child abuse. The direct cost to the government of alcohol-related harm (is) $1.2 billion a year. The costs to society are significantly greater.”

There was much along that line in Sir Geoffrey Palmer’s huge and disturbing Law Commission report in April.

The Labour, Maori and Green parties said on Thursday that report justified a much tougher bill than Power’s — and they might eventually prevail. But as National MPs pointed out, it was a Labour cabinet, led by Sir Geoffrey, that greatly liberalised alcohol supply: now you can stock up at your local dairy. Nick Smith recalled a Labour MP backing that legislation on an election platform in 1990.

The 1980s Sir Geoffrey assumed we had matured and no longer needed nanny-state coddling. Even 18-year-olds were old and wise enough to drink sensibly.

That was before RTDs, which taste nice on the way down and get youngsters drunk for piffling outlay — and, if laced with caffeine, without them realising how drunk they are getting. Supermarkets push cheap wine.

Mr Moderation (Power) is uncomfortable with Sir Geoffrey’s mood swing. Power is for “balance. Addressing harm must be weighed against the positive benefits associated with responsible drinking.”

Is this still the liberal society? Three ACT MPs, echoing Business Roundtable criticism of Sir Geoffrey, said: “Those supporting (the bill) are taking away everyone’s right to make their own choices in order to prevent a small group of individuals from self-harm by alcohol. If we do this for every problem in society, we will soon live in a society that is no longer free.”

There is a hitch in this argument, exemplified by their ultra-liberal former colleague Stephen Franks’ rock-hard line on law and order. Franks wanted those who caused harm to be locked up to ensure others’ freedom.

Addicts and drunks harm not just themselves, but usually also others. That is, they limit freedoms.

That illustrates the devilish choices the liberal society must make to keep itself liberal.

The ACT MPs have a point: though regulation may be necessary to preserve freedoms (Heather Roy as minister backed consumer protections), there is a point at which curbing some freedoms, even aiming to enhance general freedoms, begins to curb general freedoms.

But the reverse is also true, as bankers’ freedoms in the 2000s have demonstrated to tens of millions whose freedoms are now curbed by not having jobs or houses.

So the balance point constantly shifts. It is now shifting towards more regulation on a number of fronts (mostly social) but towards less on others (mostly economic).

This much is certain: in 20 years the alcohol balance point will not be where it ends up next year. Then there will be another big alcohol bill.