12 Apr 2021

Dozens of social service and health organisations call for drug laws to be overhauled

10:17 am on 12 April 2021

The government is being told the time has come for a major overhaul of the drug laws.

Dozens of social service and health organisations - including the Medical Association, Public Health Association and Māori health providers - want drug use to be treated as a health issue.

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Twenty-five organisations have written to the government asking for drug laws to be overhauled Photo: wollertz 201/ 123rf

A poll last month found most New Zealanders support decriminalising cannabis, after the referendum to legalise the drug failed by just a slim margin last year.

Carly Laughton knows intimately the personal toll a minor drug charge can wreak.

In her late teens she was arrested - she had a cannabis pipe on her - and the stigma of the conviction steered her life onto a difficult path.

"If it had been treated [according to the] health model when I was first reprimanded, the change could have been completely different.

"If I was offered a space to heal that wasn't punitive, [then] I would have been able to create my own space for healing."

Carly Laughton is calling for the government to treat drug use as a health issue

Carly Laughton is calling for the government to treat drug use as a health issue Photo: SUPPLIED

She battled addiction for decades, and the response from authorities left her feeling there was no point trying to turn her life around as any faltering would be met with punishment, not support.

Now a youth worker, Laughton she sees the impact the drug laws have on people jailed for low-level offending.

"They'd go to prison just using cannabis and then they come out gang members.

"These young people they've got no choice once they go into the prison system - because it's get or be got in there."

Now more than 25 health, addiction and social justice organisations say the drug laws are not fit for purpose and want them overhauled.

Those who have signed an open letter include the New Zealand Medical Association, Public Health Association, Hāpai te Hauora, the Māori Law Society, JustSpeak, and city missioners - among others.

They say they are just echoing the findings from the government-initiated Mental Health and Addiction Inquiry and expert Justice Advisory Group, and the Law Commission.

Māori health organisation National Hauora Coalition clinical director Dr Rawiri McKree Jansen said being dragged into the justice system was disastrous for people and he wanted to see de-criminalisation or legalisation.

"It affects employment, education, income, access to housing.

"And it's practically unnecessary, many other jurisdictions around the world are taking a harm reduction approach."

National Hauora Coalition clinical director Dr Rawiri McKree Jansen

National Hauora Coalition clinical director Dr Rawiri McKree Jansen says Māori are more likely to be charged for drug use and found guilty Photo: STUFF/ Alden Williams

Dr McKree Jansen said Māori suffered the most.

"Māori [are] more likely to be stopped and talked to by police, more likely to be charged, more likely to be found guilty, and more likely to receive a harsher sentence - that's our justice system.

"We need to decouple that from what is a basic health need."

A law change in 2019 gave the police more discretion not to prosecute drug users - they must now consider whether there is a public interest to press charges.

But McKree Jansen said there had been no corresponding fall in drug prosecutions.

A recent survey by UMR for the Helen Clark Foundation, which campaigned for drug law reform in the cannabis referendum, found 69 percent supported legalisation or decriminalisation. In the referendum last year 48.4 percent voted to legalise cannabis.

Addiction specialist Professor Doug Sellman of the University of Otago said there was clearly a public appetite for change, and the government should reach across the aisle to make it happen.

"It's just a no brainer for the government to have a cross-party agreement about bringing in decriminalisation along the lines of Portugal, who did this in 2001 with some very positive results for their society."

Sellman said he would ultimately like to see full legalisation, with the government retaining full control of the manufacturing and sale of drugs.

JustSpeak Director Tania Sawicki Mead said support for the change came from both sides of last year's cannabis debate, and there was a clear consensus from the health and justice sectors that a health-based approach was best.

Wellington City Missioner Murray Edridge works everyday with those who suffer from addiction.

"Many of them are working to reduce or conclude that addiction. But if they fail, and they do have failures from time to time, the only response that makes any sense is to encourage and support them to try again."

Edridge did not back full legalisation, but said people needed to be helped instead of punished.

New Zealand Drug Foundation executive director Sarah Helm said the Misuse of Drugs Act is an outdated mess which has been reformed many times.

She said the foundation is grateful that the government is taking a health based approach to drug use.

"However we still fundamentally have a piece of legislation that at its core, criminalises thousands of New Zealanders every year."

The foundation wants to support a drug law which might better support users to get help, she said.

Helm said there are 1.2 million New Zealanders who are at risk of using drugs problematically, while about 100,000 are in a position where they need some treatment or support.

"There's nothing in place for people using substances until they have formed an addiction or they end up with a conviction."

Even that does not guarantee a place in drug treatment with only about half of them getting the support they need, she said.

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