Category Archives: Commentaries

Could ‘legalising’ drugs benefit the privileged and penalise the poor?

It is widely accepted among most drug policy experts that drug prohibition has caused more damage than the actual drugs the government is supposedly protecting us from.

Reform is long overdue. However, we need to think critically and carefully before lurching towards an alternative model.

After decades of frustration from the arbitrary criminalisation of some drugs, while other more dangerous legal substances (alcohol, pharmaceuticals, caffeine and tobacco) have gone under the drug radar, reform is imminent and overdue. ‘Drug Regulation’ is the popular rally call, but what does it mean?

Continue reading Could ‘legalising’ drugs benefit the privileged and penalise the poor?

Solving the Synthetic Cannabis Epidemic

Last week, the NZ Parliament debated an amendment to the 2013 Psychoactive Substances Act which would increase penalties for supplying new psychoactive substances such as synthetic cannabis from two years’ prison time to eight.

The amendment comes in the wake of the Vice documentary Syn City about those struggling with addictions to synthetic cannabis. In an interview to promote the documentary, the journalist behind it called the government’s inaction over synthetics “staggering”. And the government’s response? The tired, drum-banging rhetoric of ‘getting tough’, with its empty promise that this will actually tackle the problems related to synthetic cannabis, or any other drug.

Evidence shows, again and again, that law and order approaches to health issues are ineffective. This is abundantly clear given that the 2014 amendment to the 2013 Psychoactive Substances Act – another knee-jerk response – effectively created the unregulated, underground market for synthetics that is today causing users, their families and communities such heartache and grief. Continue reading Solving the Synthetic Cannabis Epidemic

Countdown to the Mega-Prison

Minister of Corrections, Kelvin Davis

It is a strange moment in New Zealand politics: a Labour government committed to slashing prison numbers, about to build the biggest prison the country has ever seen. A final decision will be made within a month. With each passing day, momentum grows and the build becomes more likely.

The plan is to construct a new facility next to Waikeria prison, creating an enormous prison complex holding up to 3000 people. That is much larger than even the United Kingdom’s largest prison – HMP Berwyn, capacity 2100 – four countries with a combined population of 65 million.

Six months ago, no one would have expected Corrections Minister Kelvin Davis to support the build. In opposition, he was a radical critic and favorite of prison reform advocates, myself included.

Davis in office seems drained of all imagination. Now he oversees 9000 corrections staff and a prison system filled to overflowing. Conditions inside are terrible, with prisoners double-bunked and forced into shipping containers or emergency beds intended for disaster readiness. Routine inspections report endemic levels of violence and assault. Frontline staff are stretched to breaking-point. Continue reading Countdown to the Mega-Prison

20 Drivers of Prohibition

Do the Benefits of Prohibition Outweigh the Costs to Those in Power?

It is widely assumed that the so called ‘war on drugs’ (the war between drugs), has been a disastrous failure, and faced with mounting evidence and criticism, governments would eventually seek legislative and policy change.

The evidence presented is largely based upon an analysis of the inability of drug prohibition to reduce the supply and demand for banned substances, supplemented by a critique outlining the widespread harms caused by prohibition. However, with a different agenda and focus, it might be that this ‘evidence’ in terms of the failure to dent supply and demand, has over time (fifty years), become secondary to other government, business and organisational interests.

Seen in a different light, the Drug War has been a major success, providing considerable opportunities and benefits: Continue reading 20 Drivers of Prohibition

Unconscious Bias, NZ Police and Bullshit

This commentary deals with two recent issues that arose in relation to the New Zealand Police (NZ Police): the first is the recent ‘confession’ of the Police Commissioner that some members of the NZ Police suffered from ‘unconscious bias’, and the second is the decision by officials at NZ Police National Headquarters to designate researcher and criminologist Jarrod Gilbert as ‘unsuitable’ for carrying out research because of his gang associations.

The New Zealand Police, Bias, Racism and Bullshit

Humbug: deceptive misrepresentation, short of lying, especially by pretentious word or deed, of somebody’s own thoughts, feelings, or attitudes.

                                                                                                                                Max Black (1982)

According to the American philosopher Harry Frankfurt (2005: 1) “[o]ne of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit. Everyone knows this.  Each of us contributes his share. But we tend to take the situation for granted”. I agree entirely with Professor Frankfurt’s summation of just how much bullshit is spread around, except to add the caveat that some of us contribute a whole lot more bullshit to the pile that invariably washes over the social context. Continue reading Unconscious Bias, NZ Police and Bullshit

Scrapping the mega-prison

Spring Hill (via Google Earth)

In the lead-up to the recent NZ election, MP Kelvin Davis announced that Labour will work to reduce the prison population by 30 per cent. The party inherits quite different priorities in government.

There are plans to build an enormous prison complex in Waikato, part of a sweeping $2.5 billion package to expand prison capacity. It is not too late for Labour to scrap this plan in favour of the vision they bring with them to office. But with construction set to begin next year, it would have to happen quickly.

If prisons worked there would be no need to build another one. Consider the network of new prisons that already crisscross New Zealand: Ngawha prison opened in the Far North in 2005, Auckland Women’s in 2006, Spring Hill and Otago prisons in 2007, the remand prison at Mount Eden in 2011, and two years ago, a partnership with multinational Serco on old industrial land in South Auckland.

We could be using these resources to build homes for our people. Yet in the past 20 years, the number of houses owned by the government has fallen from 70,000 to 63,000. Follow the money and the current priorities are clear. The Corrections budget this year is four times that dedicated to Building and Housing. Continue reading Scrapping the mega-prison

Driving Addiction Services Backwards

Photo by Heath Alselke, via Creative Commons

Threats and forcing people further into poverty will make it harder for those with addiction problems to get help.

Well, you can tell there is an election looming, as politicians run around in ever decreasing circles, tightening the noose on some of New Zealand’s most vulnerable people, including beneficiaries who use drugs. Under National’s proposed policy, beneficiaries who refuse to attend drug rehabilitation sessions face having their benefit halved, with many beneficiaries already facing benefit reductions if they fail or refuse to take a drug test.

All highly concerning, given research demonstrates that forced treatment for those with problematic drug use is not helpful, that coercing into treatment those who are not addicted is unethical, and that the most helpful approaches for those who have problems with their drug use are non-judgmental, harm-reduction services such as needle exchanges. These services can also offer pathways into rehabilitation and other support. Continue reading Driving Addiction Services Backwards

Sexual Violence is (or should be) an Election Issue

trigger warning

Last week, I was honoured to represent Wellington Sexual Abuse HELP at the launch of Thursdays in Black Aotearoa’s report, In Our Own Words.  Thursdays in Black is an international student-led movement focused on building a world without rape and violence.

In September and October 2016, Thursdays in Black Aotearoa undertook a nationwide online survey of 1400 tertiary students, asking about their experiences of sexual violence both prior to and during tertiary study; their experiences of sexuality education during secondary study, their access to sexual violence support services at tertiary level, and so much more.

In Our Own Words is a stunning piece of work. While the authors take care to note it is not a prevalence survey, the sample size is large enough to draw some very telling conclusions. Continue reading Sexual Violence is (or should be) an Election Issue

Prescribing Ideology

Picture the scene: A teenager presents with a serious skin complaint. He’s had it for a while, it’s sore and, given how it looks, most people won’t go near him. The doctor, tutting through the appointment, ends up prescribing him heart disease medication and sends him on his way.

The doctor knows that the meds are not going to work. Pharmaceutical trials have shown that these heart drugs are ineffective for his skin condition, and can have multiple side-effects.

Sure enough, a few months later, the teen re-arrives at the surgery. He’s more agitated than before. His skin is hard to look at, even for the doctor. He’s suffering from extreme palpitations, depression, he says he feels angry all the time. Against orders, the boy has taken the decision to come off the medication.

The doctor examines the teen thoroughly. Being the family doctor, she knows that the teen’s mother had this skin complaint, about eight years ago, although it cleared up with topical cream and dietary changes. She decides on further medical interventions. Continue reading Prescribing Ideology

Ignoring Evidence, Rights and Safety

Khylee Quince

What a short memory this government has. This week NZ Justice Minister Amy Adams has unveiled a “serious young offenders” policy that resorts to the age-old chestnuts of militarized boot camps, targeting of parents and negative labelling of children and young people. All of these strategies fit squarely within a “tough on crime” agenda of popular punitiveness – hardly surprising in an election year, but flying in the face of both international research about what works and international standards to which New Zealand is accountable.

The “new” policy is targeted at a purported group of around 150 “serious young offenders” and will allow judges to send up to 50 of them to a boot camp at Waiouru for up to a year. Sound familiar? The National government rolled out the same rhetoric and similar initiatives with its Fresh Start policy for serious young offenders in 2009, including the Military Activity Camps, Court-Supervised Camps and Community Youth Programmes. An evaluation of the Military Activity Camps in 2012 showed a 61% reoffending rate within six months of attending the camp, with 10 offenders committing 126 crimes between them within that six month period. Young people referred to rehabilitation programmes had a 72% six month reoffending rate. There is no local or international evidence that boot camp interventions work, and a lot of evidence that they do not. Continue reading Ignoring Evidence, Rights and Safety

Forgetting Our Rights Obligations?

Has Bill English forgotten that we are signatories of the United Nations Convention for the Rights of the Child (UNCRC)? The National Party’s Youth Justice Policy Announcement, released on 13 August 2017, appears to indicate so.

While the focus has so far been on the plan to dispatch young offenders off to boot camp (and that is a dumb idea, mostly because all the international evidence shows that it does not work), I want to call attention to the various ways the policy will remove several basic human rights for young people coming into contact with criminal justice agents, as well as  worsen the disproportionality of young Maori in our youth justice system.

In other words, I want to highlight the extraordinary injustices this policy will bring about, using the Government’s own “three strikes” policy as a framework. And why not, given the Government will be an offender in the eyes of international law, if indeed National is the government after September’s election and this policy is put into effect. Continue reading Forgetting Our Rights Obligations?

Drugs, Stigma and Harms

I am moved to write this commentary by the situation in the Philippines, where the president, Rodrigo Duterte, not only rose to power urging his people to kill drug “addicts”, but has now turned a blind eye, even encouraged, the extra-judicial killings of more than 8000 drug users, their families and friends.

This is a tragedy, not only for those who have been killed, but for human rights advocates and for anyone who uses drugs. How did we arrive at this situation?

The legacy of society’s decades-long (and ineffective) “war on drugs”, coupled with centuries of stereotypes and misinformation about drugs and drug users, has created an intense stigma around people who use drugs, built on a morally laden hysteria often directed at those least able to defend themselves.

We don’t kill drug users in New Zealand but the punishments we do mete out are also born of stigmatisation. Continue reading Drugs, Stigma and Harms

Preventing Prison Violence

A scathing report by the NZ Ombudsmen shows that almost half the prisoners at Hawkes Bay prison have been assaulted during their sentence. Public discussion has centred on mismanagement of the high security unit and lack of a coherent gang strategy at the facility. Yet problems of prison violence stretch well beyond Hawkes Bay. Inspections at three other prisons last year found similar levels of victimization. The rates of assault at Manawatu prison were higher.

When we send people to prison we expose them to violence. It is a normal and expected part of doing time – just ask anyone who has been there. The violence of prisoners is intimately connected to the violence of the institution: to control people inside, prisons unavoidably rely on coercion and physical force. There are 110,000 strip searches a year in our prisons, 300 every day. These violent incidents are not aberrations but a routine part of the daily rounds.  Continue reading Preventing Prison Violence

Decriminalising Sex Work

London SlutWalk, via Wikimedia Commons

Sex work laws are a topic of hot debate in several parts of the world, including the UK. Even policy experts in this area can’t agree on the best way to protect sex workers’ rights. While some advocate the criminalisation of clients, sex worker-led organisations disagree; they say banning the purchasing of sex places sex workers in even more danger. Instead, they are calling for the decriminalisation of sex work – an approach which has been in place in New Zealand since 2003.

Myths abound regarding New Zealand’s model, including unsubstantiated claims that the sex industry has expanded, with pimps emboldened in the wake of the new law, and that sex trafficking is rife. So what do we really know about New Zealand’s policy of decriminalisation? Continue reading Decriminalising Sex Work

Hassling and Shaming Prostitutes is No Solution

Several articles have recently described ongoing tensions between street-based sex workers and other residents in Christchurch.

While street-based sex workers have worked in Christchurch for decades, the major earthquakes of 2010 and 2011 displaced sex workers from their traditional workspace on Manchester Street into more residential areas.

Tensions between street-based sex workers and the communities in which they work are nothing new. Such tensions occur all over the world, in an array of diverse legislative frameworks, including places where sex workers risk significant penalties for working on the street. Despite this, some individuals have called for legal restrictions on street-based sex work as a strategy to stop sex workers from working in residential areas.

We don’t need to look back far in history to understand that repressive laws do not decrease street-based sex work – sex workers worked on the streets in New Zealand prior to decriminalisation when they faced soliciting charges.

In numerous places around the world such as Sweden, the UK, Canada, and the US sex workers continue to work on the streets despite punitive laws which criminalise the selling and/or the purchase of sex. Repressive laws do not inhibit street-based sex work, nor resolve tensions that exist between sex workers and others in their communities. There is no doubt, however, that repressive laws have significant impacts for sex workers. When street-based sex work is restricted, sex workers must work quickly to avoid the attention of authorities. Continue reading Hassling and Shaming Prostitutes is No Solution