The New Zealand Drug Foundation, Police Association, and Salvation Army have told a select committee the Misuse of Drugs Amendment Bill is well intended but not without its flaws.
Introduced to the House in March this year the Misuse of Drugs Amendment Bill proposes a number of things including:
- re-classifying the two main synthetic cannabinoids as Class A substances, specifically AMB-FUBINACA and 5F-ADB. This gives Police and Customs greater search and seizure powers, increasing their ability to disrupt supply and minimise access to these drugs.
that the benefits of a health-centered or therapeutic approach be considered when testing if the public interest requirements have been met to prosecute for possession.
allowing for temporary drug-class orders to be made by the Minister of Health so any new synthetic drugs can be dealt with quickly.
The aim of the bill is to reduce drug-related harm. Since June 2015 there have been 50-55 deaths provisionally linked to the use of two dangerous synthetic drugs, 5F-ADB, and AMB-FUBINACA.
At the Bill's first reading the Minister of Health David Clark said the aim is to promote a health-based response.
" The Bill will ensure that enforcement powers and penalties are focused on those who import, manufacture, and supply dangerous drugs, and not the people who use the drugs themselves," he said.
"We want to make sure that those who are in the web of addiction are supported to give up the drugs that they are dependent upon."
The Bill is currently before the Health Select Committee which is the stage of a bill’s journey into law when Parliament asks for outside input in the form of submissions.
Ross Bell from the New Zealand Drug Foundation said there is support for the Bill but it’s not perfect.
"We do support rescheduling these two substances as Class A drugs based on the logic of our current drug law, the criteria in our drug law, the harm that these have caused, that yes, these should be Class A drugs and as a result of that the police will get those additional powers that they want," he said.
"The downside of that of course is that you're going to end up potentially criminalising a whole lot of very vulnerable people and so that's why we also support, I guess as a stop-gap measure, for wider reform of our drug law, we do support that greater use of police discretion."
Mr Bell said the NZ Drug Foundation worked with the Police, City Mission, and St John's Ambulance to find out what help people needed to stop using drugs and housing was repeatedly put forward as a solution.
"Simply getting messages out there about the harm of these drugs, the dangers of these drugs and hope that the problem will go away is not going to be one of the solutions. Fundamentally the solutions here are going to lie in that front-line, housing-first, wrapping around a lot of mental health addictions and other social services."
The select committee is also a chance for any issues to be raised about how the bill is worded or could be interpreted.
The Bill's exact wording is as follows:
6 (5) To avoid doubt, it is affirmed that there is a discretion to prosecute for an offence against this section, and a prosecution should not be brought unless it is required in the public interest.
President of the New Zealand Police Association Chris Cahill said this is too wide ranging.
"The changes create a presumption from prosecution to non-prosecution for all drugs and for all users and we think that's too far," he said.
"They're actually far more wide-ranging changes around the legality of drug use than is intended just to address synthetics."
Mr Cahill said a public debate on decriminalising drug possession should be held if that's the aim.
The Bill specifies that the benefits of a health-centered or therapeutic approach be considered when testing if the public interest requirements have been met to prosecute for possession.
This includes the option of referring people to addiction services, raising questions from MPs on the Health Committee about the strain this could put on those service providers.
"We don't anticipate with this particular set of drugs that there's going to be a huge influx but if you did this across all the drugs there would be," said Ian Hutson from the Salvation Army Social Policy and Parliamentary Unit.
Mr Hutson said there's a need for a wider discussion on investing into positive methods that deal with addiction.
"Whatever regulation you make we're still going to have an alcohol and a drug problem after it; the current way of doing things is problematic... but what we hope for is something that would reduce the overall harm that occurs with whatever regulation we come up with."
Returning to the 2011 Misuse of Drugs Act review would be preferred said Mr Hutson.
"We would point back to that as something that would be good to look at but we understand with these new drugs coming on that we need to begin acting, we can't wait," he said.
"With more and more drugs coming on, a bill like this is really seen as being needed and we generally (as an addiction programme and service provider), support this bill in its aim to reduce harm through offering more therapeutic approaches and also to minimise going through the criminal justice system."
The Health Committee will write a report on its hearings and may recommend some changes to the bill - that report is due back on July 22.