19 Dec 2016

From Zero: Where Are We?

From FROM ZERO, 12:00 am on 19 December 2016

The final episode of Russell Brown's drugs podcast From Zero begins in New York, at the United Nations' first big drug policy meeting in 18 years.

A view of the United Nations General Assembly Chamber during UNGASS 2016.

UN General Assembly Chamber UNGASS 2016. Photo: Russell Brown.

Since 1961, the drug laws of most countries in the world have been governed by the UN drug conventions. But there was a mood for change.

The UN General Assembly Special Session on drugs – UNGASS 2016 – was brought forward two years at the request of Latin American leaders seeking new solutions to the drug wars ravaging their countries, taking in "all available options, including regulatory or market measures".

A close up view of a printed copy of New Zealand's statement at UNGASS 2016.

New Zealand's statement at UNGASS 2016. Photo: Russell Brown.

A string of UN agencies, led by the UNDP under Helen Clark, sent submissions declaring current drug laws incompatible with UN positions on human rights and development.

Kofi Annan – who as Secretary-General during the last UNGASS had looked forward to celebrating "a drug-free world" by 2008 – sent an essay calling for the legalisation of all drugs and describing the idea of a drug-free world as "an illusion".

So what changed?

In the end, relatively little even though most countries, including New Zealand, were in favour of reform. Russell Brown looks at why that was and how the success of UNGASS might lie in its failure – which effectively dispelled the idea of a global consensus on drug policy.


He meets the advocates in New York and interviews the two New Zealanders who addressed the General Assembly – Drug Foundation chair Tuari Potiki and Associate Health Minister Peter Dunne – and asks why New Zealand's own conversation about updating our 40 year-old drug law is so stymied.


He laments the government's dismissal of the Law Commission's through review of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1975 as a critical missed opportunity. And he concludes:

There are risks in reform, always. But there may be greater risks in continuing to do what we do now.

This story was produced by Russell Brown. The Executive Producers were Justin Gregory and Tim Watkin.

You can subscribe or listen to every FROM ZERO episode at rnz.co.nz/series and on ITunes and Spotify.

If you have feedback on this series or stories you want to share, you can email us at justin.gregory@radionz.co.nz.

Listen to other episodes of From Zero

From Zero: Episode One 

From Zero: Episode Two

From Zero: Episode Three

From Zero: Episode Four

From Zero:Episode Five

From Zero: Episode Six