Let’s be Pragmatic about Drugs

Fiona Hutton

I had the good fortune recently to attend a symposium to hear international experts João Goulão and Eric Costen from Portugal and Canada talking about the transformative reforms to drug laws in their respective countries. It was excellent to see how successful these have been, although Canada is admittedly only six months into its reform agenda. It was equally interesting to hear the concerns some people raised around drug law reform – concerns many New Zealanders and politicians have thought about.

Firstly, that legalising cannabis will make cannabis more available, particularly to vulnerable groups like young people. In reality, a liberalised regime where cannabis is easy to get hold of by all kinds of people, including vulnerable groups, is the position we are in now with prohibition and our current drug laws. The biggest myth of prohibition is that drugs are not available in our society – about 275 million people worldwide, roughly 5.6 per cent of the global population aged 15–64 years, used drugs at least once during 2016, according to the 2018 World Drug Report. A regulated cannabis regime, which is what is being proposed by reformers for New Zealand, would protect young people and other vulnerable groups by making cannabis harder for them to get hold of. The ‘product’ would also be quality controlled, standardised and have strength/dose information – something unavailable in the current illegal market. Drug law reformers are also concerned about the unregulated use of some drugs by vulnerable people and seek reform to protect those groups (as Canada has done). Cannabis law reform will not be a chaotic ‘free for all’.

A second issue is drug-impaired driving. Any impairment that affects people’s driving and has the potential to cause accidents is cause for concern. However, drug-impaired driving is already happening. This doesn’t make it right or unproblematic, but drug law reform will not ‘cause’ drug-impaired driving – it is already here. Many prescription medicines, particularly opiate-based ones like Tramadol (also sedative antidepressants, antipsychotics, antihistamine and some antiepileptic medicines), impair people’s driving, so drug driving is occurring on many levels in New Zealand (as well as in other countries). There are also problems with the concept of ‘impaired’, particularly in relation to drugs like cannabis that stay in people’s system for a long time – are people impaired or have they just smoked a joint two weeks ago? Roadside testing must not fall into the trap workplace testing has and must make sure drivers who are drug tested are actually those who are impaired.

Another concern is that legalising cannabis is telling our kids using it is okay. This is not the case. Cannabis has been regulated because it can be harmful (although we must not forget drug use is also pleasurable) and these reforms have been developed in countries like Canada to protect young people and other vulnerable groups. Law reform does not tell young people drug use is okay; it tells them we care enough to regulate an illegal market that causes them harms, not least by criminalising them for minor drug offences – effectively a far-reaching life sentence.

Some ask why, if addiction causes devastating harms to families and communities, we are proposing to make drugs legal. Addiction is a complex, serious and traumatic problem for some people, their families and communities, and this cannot be denied or swept under the carpet. However, drug law reform is one tool we can use to start to address the highly complex issues related to addiction. Not criminalising those with addictions to substances that are currently illegal will make it easier for them to ask for help. Having open and honest conversations about illegal drugs and those who use them can only help to start to address the stigma that surrounds problematic (and recreational) use of drugs, also a barrier to treatment and asking for help. Drug law reformers are often painfully aware of the issues related to addiction, but it must also be remembered most drug-using episodes (like most alcohol-using episodes) cause no harms to the user or their families and communities. For the minority of those who suffer from problematic addictions to illegal drugs, law reform is a small step to try to address those intensely complex issues.

Finally, there is the argument that ‘drug lords and gangs’ will just be able to sell their drugs legally to our children. This is an understandable concern about drug law reform. However, as noted, young people will not be able to access cannabis easily under a regulated system like they can under our current drug laws. A legal, regulated system for accessing cannabis will also challenge, and undermine, the illegal market. It won’t go away overnight, but we have to start somewhere. Also, countries that have legalised cannabis have excluded those with serious violence and drug offences from taking part in the legal market, and those with minor drug offences like possession who become involved in the legal market will be subject to regulations about product strength, quality and underage sales.

This article is not meant to put down those who have these kinds of concerns, nor to sweep aside anxieties about drug law reform. Anxieties and concerns about drug law reform need to be acknowledged and responded to. Often those involved in the debates forget that drug law reform is a huge deal, a big issue for any society to consider, and that it is even on the table and up for discussion in New Zealand is admirable.

Yet drug law reform has the power to be a truly transformative change (for the better) for many New Zealanders. It is conceived of, in part, to protect vulnerable groups. Ask yourself what you would prefer for your child/ friend/ parent/ uncle/ auntie/ sister/ brother if they were drug users: a punitive approach that saddles them with a criminal record and stigmatises them for life or a pragmatic, health-focused, harm reduction approach? I know what I’d choose for my children. How about you?

Dr Fiona Hutton is a Senior Lecturer at the Institute of Criminology, Victoria University of Wellington. A version of this piece was first published on Newsroom, 28 May 2019.

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