We’re being left behind on drug laws

By Helen Clark

Read the op-ed on Stuff.co.nz

OPINION: New Zealand’s drug laws are increasingly leaving us behind the rest of the world.

The new Biden-Harris Administration in the United States has made racial equality a top priority, and within that the delivery of criminal justice reform. Their Office of National Drug Control Policy has now made an unprecedented statement about its new priorities, which, at its heart, represents the end of the failed repressive approach to drugs in favour of a health-based approach.

They plan to use evidence-based prevention efforts, reduce harm, expand treatment options, and confront the overwhelming ethnic inequality issues which have been hardwired into the international ‘war on drugs’.

The US House of Representatives recently passed the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act, which would end federal cannabis prohibition if the Senate approves it. Many individual states have also changed their approaches, with four more voting at the last election to legalise cannabis. There are now 14 states (covering one-third of the total US population) where cannabis is legal and a further 16 where it has been decriminalised.

The United States pitched its aggressive approach on drugs to the rest of the world in the 1960s, and many countries, including New Zealand, followed suit. Since then, decades of harm, damaged lives, and countless convictions and deaths have ensued. Yet the evidence has become overwhelmingly clear: this approach does nothing to deter drug use.

Around the world, other jurisdictions are also abandoning hard-line policies in favour of evidence-based approaches.

Australian states are among those changing their approach. In ACT, criminal penalties have been removed for the use and possession of cannabis, and home growing for personal use is permitted. New South Wales is debating proposals for a new law, similar to that recommended years ago by our own Law Commission.

Our friends in Canada legalised cannabis in 2018, and are now considering wider reform. Mexico and Malta are both in the process of decriminalising cannabis. Norway is making moves to decriminalise small quantities of all drugs.

This veering away from a profoundly failed policy approach isn’t because of a shift of opinion in favour of drug use.

Rather, it is recognition that what states have been doing is ineffectual. Norway’s Minister of Health and Care Services, Bent Høie, said it well: “For too long, persons with drug problems have been stigmatised and criminally prosecuted. They have been threatened, chased and humiliated. It is overdue that we replace punishment with help.”

We know from addressing other issues that stigma prevents people from accessing help, including from talking to their loved ones. Criminalising drug use compounds the situation, putting a person who discloses their use at risk of the long arm of the law and making their issues very hard to address.

The New Zealand Government is clearly of the view that the use and possession of drugs should not be a criminal offence, as demonstrated when it passed the Misuse of Drugs Amendment Act 2019 (MODA).

That amendment reminded the police that they have the discretion not to arrest and prosecute for use and supply, and that they should consider in each case whether a health-centred approach might be more beneficial to the public interest.

This amendment isn’t working as well as everyone had hoped, and thousands of New Zealanders continue to be convicted of low-level offences each year.

The solution is to overhaul our current law and reformulate it, placing health considerations at the centre of how we deal with drugs.

Given that the international shift in drug policy, voter sentiment, and evidence all support a shift to a health-based approach to drugs, it would be timely for the New Zealand Government now to do what it intended when it passed the amendment to MODA in 2019, and remove criminal sanctions for minor drug offences, and instead invest in health initiatives to reduce drug harm and prevent and treat addictions.