5 Sep 2022

Minister of Health awaits advice on report on reducing meth harm

9:08 pm on 5 September 2022
Labour MP Andrew Little

Health Minister Andrew Little. Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

The cannabis referendum result has shown that a move towards complete decriminalisation of drugs is not supported by public opinion, according to Minister of Health Andrew Little.

Little will receive official advice on a bunch of new recommendations for reducing methamphetamine harm before deciding whether to adopt any of them.

A report released by the Helen Clark and Drug Foundation advocates for a health-based approach including:

  • Fully decriminalising possession of small quantities of any drug - including meth
  • A pilot where addicts are given a substitute stimulant or methamphetamine in tightly controlled circumstances if two attempts at rehab haven't worked
  • Providing incentives for clear drug tests

The report concludes its approach may surprise some; but that the alternative has failed to address meth harm.

Little told Checkpoint while the government would consider any effective approaches to supporting addiction recovery, it was not yet clear that New Zealanders backed the push for decriminalisation.

However, the government had taken steps in recent years towards the path of decriminalisation, he said.

"I am satisfied that the stuff we've done to date actually is a big step towards that. I think if we also reflect on you know, New Zealanders appetite for significant decriminalisation was shown with the cannabis referendum in 2020, that actually, no, we're not there yet in terms of whether people accept that as an effective measure."

He admitted there was more needed to be done to treat addiction problems as a health issue rather than a criminal issue.

"That's why we've, in the last five years, put a lot more resources into those health responses, a lot more money going into help with addictions and peer led support for those with addictions."

Little said he was open to considering any programs that worked as an effective health response but he had not received any advice around substitute drug programs or allowing the use of meth in controlled circumstances.

"I haven't had any specific advice on that. We have focused on the effective responses for addiction problems, and including alcohol and other drug courts, supporting the programs that enable people who do enter the criminal justice justice system to get the health help that they need to avert other criminal responses," he said.

Government backing of needle exchange programs and opiate substitution initiatives had shown it was willing to take bold steps, he said.

However, it had not considered the report's suggestion that it should reward recovering addicts that return negative urine tests, Little said.

"[We] haven't considered that to date, I think the important thing is that we have programs to get people to address their addictions... and actually when I talk to those who've recovered from addictions is that the reward is the return of their life frankly."

Often people with addictions required multiple attempts to achieve recovery, he said.

"Just a negative test is not itself an indication that you've fully addressed your addiction problem or you're on the road to recovery it's a range of other things we need to be addressing."

The government's support of the Kahukura program, which focused on gang meth addiction, had shown that contentious policies could pay off, Little said.

"We've been lambasted by the opposition because it's a program addressing gang meth addiction because gang members often struggle to fit in to other programs.

"Most people who enter it test positive when they enter it but of the 39 people who have been through that program 38 people have come out the other side with negative tests throughout the program and they're keeping their life together following it."

It was important that addiction recovery programs not only supported the person in recovery but also their family and support system, Little said.

The public needed to have confidence that the government's efforts to support addiction recovery were effective and Little said the Labour government had built a track record over the last five years of funding effective programs.

"I think the more the public sees that and gets confidence in it then it paves the way for us to roll it out further and expand it."

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