1 Dec 2022

Drug laws 'certainly not ideal', admits Health Minister Andrew Little

12:47 pm on 1 December 2022

Current drug laws "criminalise a lot of behaviour that possibly isn't criminal" and are "certainly not ideal," Health Minister Andrew Little admits.

But the opposition appears uninterested in any changes to drug laws.

Former drug squad detective Tim McKinnel described the country's current drug laws as "pointless" in a new RNZ documentary, Guyon Espiner: Wasted, which was published last night.

The documentary found few signs the decades-long punitive approach to drug regulation is working.

Little told Morning Report the way many drugs are regulated "causes social harm".

"We know that drugs themselves can cause harm but the way we regulate many drugs at the moment cause social harm: a. through criminalisation and b. through incentivising criminal elements to peddle drugs that cause harm," he said.

"The total environment stigmatises people who are then reluctant to get help when they need it and that's what the system struggles with.

"I think the law is, as many people have said, out of date."

The government had taken steps to shift towards a more health-based approach, he said. Testing for the safety of pills had been legalised, and the law was changed to make it clear police should exercise discretion when prosecuting for possession of drugs.

"That is an acknowledgement that what we've had in the past doesn't work."

'Legitimate fears'

But Little said the government did not have a "social license" for radical change to the law.

The 2020 referendum proposing the decriminalisation and regulation of cannabis was a "big test" which was narrowly defeated.

People who held progressive views had legitimate fears about the potential impact of decriminalisation, he said.

"We did not engage in a debate that addressed people's legitimate fears about changing our laws on drug use. That's a challenge we have yet to rise to.

"The challenge is to find the balance of regulating drugs that cause harm in a way that minimises that harm, and for those who choose to use substances which they can do safely, to have a legal environment in which they can do that safely. We haven't found that magic path yet."

Drug law change 'not a focus'

But the National Party believes overhauling current drug legislation is a low priority.

National's justice spokesperson Paul Goldsmith, told Morning Report he felt there is a low appetite for change to the laws.

"Most New Zealanders when they look at justice, when they look at law and order, they're most concerned about the break of law and order in their streets, they're worried about ram raids, they're worried about youth crime, they're worried about all these issues," he said.

"They're not particularly focussed on drug reform."

Drug law reform overseas was "not going well".

"There's chaos on the West Coast of the US."

Goldsmith said there needed to be a balance between enforcement and rehabilitation.

"Society needs to send a clear message that drugs are very harmful and secondly you need to have effective treatment processes."

Act's decriminalisation

Green Party drug reform spokesperson Chlöe Swarbrick said the referendum result in 2020 shouldn't kill debate on the wider issue.

"The cannabis referendum, absolutely on a slim majority, meant the majority of New Zealanders voted down a very specific proposed legal regulatory framework for one specific substance."

New Zealand should follow in the footsteps of the Australian Capital Territories, where illicit drugs in small quantities were decriminalised in October.

"The evidence makes clear that is absolutely what we should be doing."

Watch the documentary:

Guyon Espiner: Wasted premiered on RNZ and TVNZ1 on Wednesday night. You can watch it on demand any time by clicking here.