Drug Law Reforms

Fiona Hutton

Well, what a year 2018 was in terms of drug policy and drug law reform, both in New Zealand and farther afield.

New Zealand saw the debates surrounding the cannabis referendum intensify. A bill to allow terminally ill people to access medical cannabis recently passed. The Mental Health and Addiction Inquiry, He Ara Oranga, called for the decriminalisation of illegal drugs to address problems relating to addiction and mental health. The government made new announcements around synthetics.

Elsewhere, more US states have legalised the sale and recreational use of cannabis, and in October Canada legalised it too. In places that have enacted wide-reaching, much-needed drug law reform, there have been no dramatic increases in the use of cannabis or other drugs, especially among young people. All very encouraging for New Zealand as we look towards possibly wide-reaching, much-needed reforms of our own approach to illegal drugs.

The Mental Health and Addiction Inquiry was a huge step forward in acknowledging that many of those struggling with addiction are also struggling with mental health issues, which are in turn exacerbated by other social and cultural factors such as poverty and disadvantage. It further noted that how we currently respond to those with addiction issues – including the ‘war on drugs’ approach – often intensifies the problems related to addiction and mental health. Therefore it was good to see the inquiry taking a realistic approach by calling for the decriminalisation of personal use and social supply – an excellent step forward in reducing the stress and stigma for people whose drug use is causing them, their families and communities, problems.

But lest I get too carried away on a wave of positivity, it has to be acknowledged there is still work to do.

Although, once enacted, the Misuse of Drugs (Medicinal Cannabis) Amendment Bill will provide some relief for people who are dying, it did not go far enough – many people who suffer from debilitating conditions would benefit from a more wide-ranging approach under this Act and to deny those who are suffering something that could help them is undeniably cruel.

The debates and comments about access to medical cannabis also demonstrated there is still a hard road to travel before stigmatising stereotypes of some drugs and drug users are effectively challenged.

The shameful use of populist, scaremongering rhetoric in drug reform debates also reared its ugly head, with some political parties naming the medical cannabis bill ‘decriminalisation by stealth’ and conjuring images of adults smoking cannabis by school gates with police looking on in dismay unable to do anything about it. What nonsense – terminally ill people would be lucky if they could make it to the school gates to pick up their children, and the populist rhetoric that invokes images of vulnerable youth corrupted by drugs needs a serious overhaul and reality check.

So too does misguided and ill-informed comment about cannabis gummy bears being available in New Zealand under a regulated cannabis market – the US model of cannabis regulation is not the only model around the world and I’m sure the New Zealand Government would ensure a tightly-regulated market would be just that, rather than the commercialised model favoured in the US.

The announcement about a range of measures to address the harms related to synthetic cannabis was a significant public shift in government approaches to addiction and the use of drugs in New Zealand. The ministers involved are to be commended for taking these steps in response to the Mental Health and Addiction Inquiry. It is good to see the extra money going towards treatment and community support services, as well as to see government commitment to “do what will work” and to “treat the use of drugs as a health issue by removing barriers to people seeking help”.

But reclassifying substances as Class A and “getting tough”, as the announcement also states, even with a focus on suppliers, is not the way forward – this will not help those who have addictions, many of whom are user-dealers themselves. We have been ‘getting tough’ on drugs and those who supply them since the 1975 Misuse of Drugs Act came into force 43 years ago. Since then, drugs have become purer, cheaper and more available than ever before, with the latest world drug report noting that drug markets are “thriving”.

Amending the 1975 Misuse of Drugs Act to specify that police should use their discretion in deciding whether to prosecute for possession and personal use is also of concern. Certain groups in society come to the attention of police more often and are prosecuted more often and more severely within the criminal justice system (The Colour of Injustice, 2018). Embedding ‘discretion’ further into the system will serve to deepen the existing inequalities in it and should be avoided.

The announcement also begs the question why not decriminalise the personal possession and use of drugs as recommended by the New Zealand Drug Foundation in 2017? This removes the issue of discretion and would work towards lessening the inequalities apparent in prosecutions for drug offences, as well as helping to address some of the harms related to drug use and addiction.

It seems populism is also at work here, with the announcement unable to resist a ‘get tough’ rhetoric, an approach that has not helped us in over four decades of the ‘war on drugs’.

The reluctance by government to be really bold and enact wide-ranging, evidence-based and effective reforms that would address drug-related harms is hugely frustrating, so here’s my New Year wish list:

– A clear, simple information campaign on what legalisation of cannabis means for New Zealand, and what this legal market would look like;

– Actual decriminalisation (rather than police discretion) of the personal use and possession of all drugs without a ‘get tough’ add-on;

– More funding for the addiction treatment sector instead of wasting it on ‘get tough’ approaches that have not helped, and have even worsened, the problems related to drug use since the 1970s;

– An end to populist rhetoric – drug law reform could really help some of the most vulnerable New Zealanders and it is too important to be scuppered by political point scoring.

Dr Fiona Hutton, Institute of Criminology, Victoria University of Wellington. A version of this piece was first published on The Newsroom, 17 December 2018

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