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April 3, 2004 - The Listener (New Zealand)

Judge Eleanor Schockett: Out On The Streets

Growing violence and drug use will be the result of New Zealand's tough new stance on illegal drugs, says a former American judge, because this is exactly what happened when the US took the same approach

By Bruce Ansley

Judging it time for New Zealand to glimpse the abyss, Eleanor Schockett is framing a dismal future for life under existing drug laws.

"New Zealand does not want to go where the United States has gone," says the former Florida judge. Next week, she is going to be telling this country that, drug-wise, the US is deeply mired in flawed policies reflected in New Zealand's tough new stance. The war on drugs in the US, she alleges, has simply led to more crime and violence.

Schockett knows quite a lot about both. She quit the bench last year.

Now she has joined an organisation of ex-cops, former prosecutors and judges from the US, Canada and Britain called Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP). They argue that using the criminal law to fight drugs, like the prohibition on alcohol before it, produces gang wars and random violence without reducing drug use. They say the only beneficiaries are drug bosses presiding over an illicit trade, that present drug laws have choked the court system and jammed the jails. More than 2.2 million people are in US jails and each year another 1.6m are arrested for non-violent drug offences. The US has five percent of the world's population and 25 percent of the world's prisoners. Yet, drugs are cheaper, more potent and easier to get than they were 30 years ago. Meanwhile, violence is growing.

Schockett recognises an indictment when she sees one. She will be speaking to public meetings and Rotary clubs from April 6 in a visit organised by the Coalition for Cannabis Law Reform and the MildGreens, urging New Zealand not to follow the US down the tough drug road. Instead, she wants a dialogue with addicts, who should be able to get government help, use drugs in a clean and sterile environment, get counselling if they want it. And when they come down from a high and are safe on the streets, they should be free to go. Non-violent drug users should have their slates wiped clean.

"Slowly but surely we can wean them off. I'd say that in less than a year you could kill the market for illegal drugs."

Arguing that problems are related to prohibition rather than drugs themselves will seem a risky business to alarmed New Zealand audiences.

Tens of thousands of kids, according to Customs figures, hook into Ecstasy as a routine lifestyle drug, but it remains a class B drug carrying heavy penalties. When William Bell guns down three people in the Panmure RSA, or Steven Williams kills his six-year-old stepdaughter Coral-Ellen Burrows, or Ese Junior Falealii kills a bank teller and a pizza worker, all of them after bingeing on pure methamphetamine, or P, it may not be the best time for visiting liberals preaching tolerance.

Wait, says Schockett. "I'm not a wide-eyed liberal. I've got solid middle-class values." That is virtually a job qualification in Florida, Governor Jeb Bush territory, Jeb being pivotal in manipulating the vote to have his brother George W elected President.

Schockett brushed with Jeb Bush during the 2000 election for governor. As a Miami-Dade County circuit court judge, she delivered a decision sidelining a posse of hardline Republican vote-watchers opposed to the Democratic candidate and anxious to operate in Florida's malleable voting system. Bush was elected anyway.

In cyberspace, she is famous for a case on Internet anonymity and "cybersmearing". Most public companies in the US, and many in New Zealand, too, are the subject of Internet message boards. Concealing their identities with screen names (Schockett's favourite in this case was "justthefactsjack"), investors gossip about company practices, prospects and management.

In this action, a Fort Lauderdale shipping company executive was accused on a message board of being under investigation by the US Securities and Exchange Commission, engaging in illegal accounting practices and fraud. He was forced to resign.

He went to court to force Yahoo and America Online to reveal the names of his accusers. The defence, supported by the American Civil Liberties Union, argued that this was often the only way of revealing corporate misdeeds and predicted the end of uninhibited speech on the Internet.

But Schockett, in a ground-breaking decision that has survived appeal, ruled that an anonymous Internet critic was not entitled to any special privileges. "Someone badmouthed this man online, to the whole world," she says.

"It wasn't a freedom of speech issue, it was a responsibility for speech issue. Do you have the right to say anything you want on a worldwide billboard and not be held accountable? Heaven knows there's enough lying on the Internet as it is now."

Schockett's message on drugs will clash with New Zealand Government policy. Far from being concerned about longer sentences and filling prisons, Justice Minister Phil Goff seems proud of it.

Last month, Goff announced that the government's tougher sentencing and parole laws would see New Zealand's prison population rise by 20 percent over the next seven years. Supported, he claimed, by public opinion, four new prisons were under way to accommodate, among others, more convictions resulting from a tougher drug stance. Police, however, believe their war against drugs is working, citing only a slight increase in drug offences, including P, last year.

"Police self-interest gets in the way of common sense," Schockett argues. "They maintain the circular argument that drugs are bad therefore illegal, but they fail to account for the harms resulting from the enforcement of policy.

"The view that drug use is a health issue is held across a broad sample of current and former police officers, but the 'tough on drugs' line in the sand prevails.

"The drug war has created crime," she says. "[Richard] Nixon put the drug war on the front-burner and ever since we've had a drug war, we have created a problem. We didn't have that many drug dealers and users in this country until 1968, when we made it more difficult for people to get drugs and the prices went up. Now the prices are way down. Most kids in schools will tell you it's easier for them to buy marijuana and cocaine than it is to buy alcohol and tobacco.

"You've got violence in the street, little old ladies being hit over the head because someone needs $5 for a cocaine rock.

"How do you deal with it? How do you get the drug dealers out of business?

"First of all, you take away their market and not make a value judgment about whether people should or should not use certain drugs. It's demand that drives supply and not the other way round. If you ban something, you cannot control or regulate it.

"The drug war has done other things. It has undermined the judicial system, because it can't handle what it's supposed to. If half of judicial time is taken up with issues related to criminal law, it's undermining the civil system, because criminal cases have to be filed first.

"I had a caseload of 1500 at a time. Most of them were garbage cases. A large number of them involved drugs.

"We're not trying serious white-collar crime cases, because we're too busy fighting the drug war. But we're not fighting the drug war. We're fighting our own citizens.

"It costs $17,000 to keep someone in prison in Florida for a year. That's more than it costs to send them to the University of Florida. We're not salvaging people, we're destroying them."

But people who feel under threat demand ever more repressive laws?

"That's the problem. People are making money on this. Police departments get lots and lots of money to fight drugs, and every time they tell you we hauled in two tonnes of cocaine in a shipment, they will also tell you that they only block about 10-20 percent of what's being shipped in. [New Zealand Customs estimate that they get only 15 percent of, say, the Ecstasy bound for the street.]

"So the bigger their hauls, the more they acknowledge is getting in."

Schockett says she practised what she preaches.

"Every opportunity where I could get someone into a drug programme or treatment, as opposed to sending them to jail, I would. These are long-term mental health problems. They don't need to be in jail.

"In Iraq, Bush created a fear, then lied about it.

"The drug war is the same thing. It is founded on a bunch of lies.

"Do I think kids should smoke pot? No. I don't think they should smoke tobacco. Should people snort heroin? No.

"I don't have much sympathy with people who go out and get drunk. I'm as square as they come. But it's not something you should be putting people in jail for.

"There's another solution. We didn't have a drug problem until we passed the laws and created it."

The message for New Zealand? Don't fall into the same trap.

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