Tag Archives: Substance Use

Legalising cannabis

Creative Commons, Jurassic Blueberries

I started 2018 with an unmistakable sense of optimism – after years of procrastinating and avoiding the evidence, the Government was going to hold a referendum on legalising cannabis by 2020. Could this be the beginning of an exciting new era of drug policy and drug law reform? Where policy was evidence based, where the harms from drug use could be effectively addressed, and where the damage from criminalisation could be stopped?

Imagine my despondency at Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s announcement that she will not yet commit to legalising cannabis, even if the public vote for it in the referendum. I feel cheated. I am also concerned that the referendum is going to be brought forward to next year, to avoid it affecting the election campaign in 2020, with no hint of the necessary public information campaign to properly support the referendum.

My biggest fear is that the whole thing will end up being a rushed, misinformed, ill-thought-through debacle, and we will have missed a really important chance to make a difference; to respond to drug use and drug users differently and more effectively; to stop the harms related to underground markets and criminalisation.  Prohibition of drugs has not stopped people using or having problems with them.

Here’s what I hope, though. Continue reading Legalising cannabis

Prohibition and Blame

By Koń, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org

New Zealand was poised for drug reform in 2007, but reform never came. Why do we still adhere to drug prohibition, which will be remembered as one of the most arbitrary, barbaric and brutal systems of oppression in human history?

‘Drug’ Prohibition is an archaic system of control conceived in the 1950s that’s had a devastating global impact upon individuals, families, communities and countries.

Back in the 1950s offensive ideas and practices towards indigenous people, people of colour, women, homosexuals, people with mental illness or learning disabilities were sadly not uncommon. Indeed, abuse was legitimised and normalised at a structural, cultural and interpersonal level. Now almost 70 years later, such bigotry has successfully been exposed and challenged, and such attitudes are for the most part no longer socially acceptable or state approved.

By contrast, the oppressive attitudes in the 1950s directed towards people who used ‘drugs’ became enshrined in the 1961 UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, and little has changed since. We have been duped into using state approved drugs (alcohol, caffeine, tobacco and sugar) within our daily routines and rituals and to embrace them as ‘non-drugs’. These hidden drugs have monopolised and saturated the market, while all substances banned by the government (that we are encouraged to call ‘drugs’) are demonised, presented as unquestionably dangerous.

This sharp distinction between state-approved and state-banned drugs has no scientific or pharmacological foundation to support it. Continue reading Prohibition and Blame

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

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

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

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

Pills, Thrills, Bellyaches…


… The effects of criminalising a ‘legal high’ in Aotearoa New Zealand

The 21st Century development of New Psychoactive Substances (NPS) has offered useful opportunities to think about the meaning of recreational drug taking, as it is now carried out on a grand scale. NPS are synthetic or naturally occurring substances that mimic the effects of illegal drugs such as cannabis, amphetamines and ecstasy.

The consumption of these different ‘legal highs’ has brought into sharp relief what Parker et al. (1998) previously termed the ‘normalisation’ of recreational drug use. These scholars referred to the consumption of illegal drugs, such as amphetamines and ecstasy, by increasing numbers of young people during the 1990s. However, the emergence and growing popularity of new psychoactive substances has served to further illustrate the argument that ‘recreational drug taking’ is now mainstream. It is rational and informed drug taking behaviour by young people, used for specific leisure activities such as dancing and clubbing, rather than being marginalised and deviant. Continue reading Pills, Thrills, Bellyaches…

64 Drug Policy Myths

Have you been lying to us about drugs?

Drug law and policy has its roots in fear, ignorance, racism and vested interest and sadly, little has changed over the decades. Drug discourse continues to be shaped more by punitive populism, isolated tragic incidents and moral crusades, rather than scientific evidence, reason and rationality.

To encourage mainstream critical debate on these issues, I’ve tried to uncover and highlight the key myths, lies and misconceptions, which underpin, shape and inform dominant drug policy thinking. Unless we expose these flawed notions, fallacies and beliefs that infest our drugs discourse, drug reform risks reproducing further misguided drug policies and practices. Although the points are made in a punchy and accessible style, each one is carefully considered and can be academically supported – but that’s for another day – or a book!

Continue reading 64 Drug Policy Myths

Workplace Drug Testing

ProjectManhattan, via Wikimedia Commons

Workplace Drug Testing (WDT) has been around since the 1990s in New Zealand. Initially focused on those working in forestry, fishing, shipping and mining, testing was rolled out to dairy and meat industries, transportation, roading and construction in the 2000s. The practice has always been mired in controversy.

In 2004, Air New Zealand won an Employment Court case for the right to drug test their workers. Since then, tens of thousands have encountered workplace tests. The repercussions for those who test positive – warnings, ‘rehabilitation’ programmes, social vilification or dismissal – can be significant. As part of Criminology Honours study, Emma Sherwood undertook research on these contentious practices, and discovered results that questioned their legitimacy. Continue reading Workplace Drug Testing

Rethinking Reefer Madness

…Decriminalisation in 2020?

In November 2016, while a global audience watched the outcome of the U.S Presidential election, cannabis legalisation advocates awaited the results from a different kind of vote. Five U.S States – Arizona, Maine, Massachusetts, Nevada and California – voted to legalize recreational cannabis, a decision that will bring significant cultural and economic shifts.

Paving the road ahead of them, Alaska, Colorado, Oregon and Washington have all legalised, regulated and taxed cannabis for recreational use by adults, applying similar laws that govern alcohol. They have also begun to think more clearly about harm reduction. For example, in Colorado, the ‘Department of Public Health and Environment’ has assessed the knowledge gaps related to recreational cannabis and developed protective policies. This has led to positive outcomes such as educational programs specifically targeting Colorado residents and visitors about safe, legal and responsible use of cannabis (Ghosh, et al., 2016).

Increased tax revenue, from both medicinal and legal cannabis, also earned Colorado around $70 million in tax revenue from 1 July 2014 to 30 June 2015 (Basu, 2015). In contrast, a 2016 NZ report calculated that cannabis-related offences cost the taxpayer over half a billion dollars per annum: $275.6 million in lost tax revenue and $305.9 million in the processing of offences through the criminal justice sector (Ministry of Health, 2016). With a population of a similar size to Colorado (5.35mn vs 4.75mn), should New Zealand also look towards the positive impacts that legal cannabis has to offer, to offset the cost of battling ‘the crime problem’? Continue reading Rethinking Reefer Madness

Legal Highs



Legal highs have become increasingly popular in New Zealand as well as globally. Established as a way to experiment with substances without getting the hangover of an arrest or conviction, the market in legal highs – such as BZP-PPs and synthetic cannabis – has grown rapidly.

In this article, Fiona Hutton, a Senior Lecturer in Criminology at VUW, explores how the NZ legislation that attends to ‘legal highs’, ‘party pills’ or new psychoactive substances (NSPs) has been led by moral populism. As she says ‘This term, in part, refers to the idea that drug policy and law-making are firmly stuck in the past, wedded to outdated notions of both drug harms and drug users’ (p.30). Our guiding legislation was developed over 40 years ago.

Given the massive changes in knowledge about substance use, or the socio-cultural shifts over the interim period, it seems bizarre that drug legislation has not been updated. This is even more puzzling when we consider that most mainstream responses to drug use – such as the ‘war on drugs’ – have clearly not worked to curb drug use or sales.

Continue reading Legal Highs