17 May 2024

A bold call from experts on drug legalisation

From The Detail, 5:00 am on 17 May 2024

A push to legalise all drugs in New Zealand hasn't come from stoners and the strung out - it's backed by 155 academics and experts who say the current regime doesn't work 

hand holds packet with white narcotic - cocaine, meth or another drug closeup

Photo: 123rf

New Zealand's drug legislation hasn't been overhauled in nearly 50 years, in spite of a recommendation from the Law Commission in 2011 to do so.  

Our Misuse of Drugs Act was passed in 1975 and is based on a United Nations framework set in 1961.  

Now a new organisation, Harm Reduction Coalition Aotearoa - backed by 155 experts - is calling on the Government to not only amend the legislation, but scrap it all together, and legalise all drugs. 

Dr. Rose Crossin is a professor at the University of Otago and a member of the coalition.  

She acknowledges that it would be a world first but is a strong advocate for reform, saying the drug causing the most harm, alcohol, is already legal. 

"What it comes down to is a choice about where we would like the control of drugs to sit ... we've got a very powerful alcohol industry which I would argue has a policy influence, but for other drugs, we're letting the black market run our drug policy," she says. 

But what would it look like if New Zealand were to legalise the drug market? 

Crossin says the proposed Psychoactive Drugs Act would regulate the supply of all drugs, including alcohol, under the same framework. 

It is taking a harm reduction approach which is centred around people being able to make informed choices. 

That could include having drugs packaged with dangers clearly displayed, like we already see on tobacco and cigarettes. 

"For some drugs, maybe they should only be available by medical prescription, or we could consider whether only specialist pharmacies would sell them," she says. 

No country has gone as far as legalising the entire drug market, however Crossin says there are examples where easing restrictions on some drugs has worked. 

Germany is the latest country to relax its laws on cannabis, becoming the largest European country to legalise the possession and cultivation of the recreational drug. 

Doctor Fiona Hutton, who is a criminology professor at Victoria University, says in countries where cannabis has been legalised harm has reduced, because the substance supply is carefully regulated. 

"Because people don't want to break the law to consume the substances that they would like to consume. People would much rather get substances through a carefully regulated supply," she says. 

But there are also examples where easing drug laws hasn't worked.  

Last month the Canadian government gave the province of British Columbia permission to backtrack on a pilot programme introduced in January 2023 which decriminalised all drugs. 

It attempted to address the toxic drug crisis by letting adult drug users carry up to 2.5 grams of drugs for personal use without facing criminal charges. 

But it very quickly became clear police were unable to deal with public drug use, and the change was making public spaces more dangerous. Using drugs in public spaces is now illegal again.

Despite that, Crossin maintains that Canada's approach to cannabis is one of the best examples of how drug legalisation can work in reducing harm. 

But she also gives a few examples of what New Zealand shouldn't do. 

"There are certainly some states in the US where their model of cannabis legalisation is very profit-driven and you can drive down the highway and there are billboards advertising cannabis," she says. 

Legalising all drugs may seem far fetched, but Hutton says there are a lot of examples throughout history that were thought to be impossible which did get over the line.  

"But if we keep asking the questions, and we keep agitating and we keep presenting the evidence, then hopefully we will get some traction sometime."

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