Māori health coalition calls for less punitive drug law reform

12:17 pm on 8 April 2019

Māori health organisations are calling for the government to overhaul what they say are discriminatory drug laws.

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A new drug law reform coalition, Health not Handcuffs, started by seven groups of health, social justice and Māori health organisations, was launched this week.

The campaign wants to remove criminal penalties for drug use and possession and move instead to a health-referral model. It also aims to double New Zealand's yearly budget for drug-related prevention, education, harm reduction and treatment and regulate the legal supply of cannabis, to improve public health.

Hāpai Te Hauora's operating manager Selah Hart said the vast majority of Māori had seen the human cost of a punitive and discriminatory drug law first-hand.

She said it was time for a new approach to the system, especially with a Māori lens.

"We have seen the real need for a drug law reform that is going to put in place strategies and enablers that are going to address the real harms that are coming from a punitive approach that we take against drugs and the addiction it has woven in our whānau and community."

The drug foundation is leading the coalition, Health not Handcuffs.

Its Māori advocacy advisor, Jack MacDonald, said Māori organisations needed to be part of finding the solutions because the statistics were not in their favour.

"Our people are bearing the brunt of the impacts of unhealthy drug use and unhealthy drug law so our own organisations are best able to offer solutions for our own people."

Ms Hart said it was integral to engage with people, whānau and communities who were facing addiction and giving them their say.

She said all of those in the organisation who are part of the coalition have their different areas of expertise, and one of Hāpai Te Hauora's roles was to engage with communities to have their say on a legislative level.

"What is needed is actually going and talking to our Māori communities to understand what their needs are, why these issues are so prevalent within their communities and then what we can do as that conduit to talk through to decision makers and act, in membership in these coalitions to actually effect change at that policy and legislative level."

A recent move by the government to change its drugs laws passed its first reading in March.

If it passes, it will affirm police discretion over whether to charge people with possession and use of drugs.

Mr MacDonald said although it was an important move, it was likely it would not be in favour to changing the statistics for Māori.

"But we are also very clear that police discretion is usually applied unevenly, let's say, and sometimes in an outright discriminatory and racist way so discretion for Māori is something we need to keep a close eye on."

The proposed bill will also classify the two main synthetic cannabinoids as Class A drugs.

Mr McDonald said synthetics was also on the agenda for the coalition, with 50 deaths last year due to synthetics and although he doesn't have the figures, anecdotally a large percentage were Māori.

Te Rau Ora's chief executive Maria Baker said tinkering with Aotearoa's drug law was not good enough for tangata whenua and a complete overhaul was needed.

She said the current approach was deficit and a huge shift was required.

"We know that we have a high percentage of our people that have been penalised because of small possession and it's really something we need to re-look at, that's not saying it's okay to be using substances but clearly there are contexts and reasons why many people get into a situation of using illicit drugs."

Ms Baker said the comparison of the investment into health, social and economic issues was way less than what had been put in to drug related enforcement, which just did not sit right.

"We should really be focusing on health prevention and intervention that help people - preferably not just individualised - it's about working with the whole whānau and that needs a transformative shift from a lot of the drug addiction treatment providers that are here in NZ, because they are built on a western model and that is also part of the challenge of moving forward, to rebundle some of the resources that are across sectors to focus on well-being from a different perspective."

Minister of Health David Clark was not available for an interview on this story but when announcing the Misuse of Drugs Amendment Bill last month said the government needed to treat drug use as a health issue - and that's exactly what the bill does.

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