Parliament versus Dunne and Hague on drugs

Most of Parliament seems stuck in the dark ages of drug enforcement despite the efforts of Associate Health Minister Peter Dunne and Green health spokesperson Kevin Hague to move New Zealand with a significant shift in approach around the world.

Dunne is showing more signs of being keen on a significant softening in New Zealand’s approach to illicit drugs, from a punitive legal focus to an emphasis on health.

Radio NZ: Govt may soften approach to drugs – Dunne

The government is considering taking a more tolerant approach to minor drug offences, says Associate Health Minister Peter Dunne.

The potential change comes as a joint study by Johns Hopkins University in the US and the British medical journal The Lancet says the punitive approach to drug offending has done more harm than good.

Five former presidents have also said the global War on Drugs needs to be completely overhauled, according to the Economist magazine.

Mr Dunne told Morning Report today he was not sure New Zealand’s drug law was still fit-for-purpose and he wanted drugs to be viewed as more of a health issue.

“Under the general focus of trying to get the appropriate legal balance, the issues of the utilisation of drug paraphernalia are being looked at, issues relating to the penalty regime is being looked at. And I’m also asking the expert advisory committee on drugs when it classifies drugs, to take a focus that is more health-related than previously.”

He said he was open to reviewing evidence around the decriminalisation of cannabis.

Kevin Hague has has for some time promoted an easing in our drug laws.

Green Party health spokesperson Kevin Hague said he wanted cannabis legalised and regulated.

Mr Hague told Morning Report the Green Party was currently clarifying its drug policy, but expected it to favour the decriminalisation of cannabis.

He said all drugs should be treated from a health perspective and regulated in terms of their potential for harm.

However National ministers look like continuing to oppose any significant change as Radio NZ reports in Appetite for cannabis decriminalisation limited:

But most government ministers in this country have shown no interest in adopting this line and liberalising the laws on cannabis.

Justice Minister Amy Adams said there was very little support for any change when this was looked at last time, and it had not come up again recently.

Her National Party colleague, Health Minister Jonathan Coleman, was even more definite.

“I am not in favour of decriminalisation,” Dr Coleman said.

“We have got too many drugs in society. Cannabis is very carcinogenic, I don’t think it would be a great idea to have more people smoking more cannabis.”

But that misses the point, it’s not about “more people smoking more cannabis”, Dunne’s change of approach is in trying to reduce use and reduce harm through a switch from the failed punitive legal approach.

New Zealand First…

…is adamant it wants to uphold what it calls this country’s social fabric and traditional family values – and says any change on cannabis laws would have to be approved by a referendum.

But they were all for referendums until we had some they didn’t want, on flag change. This looks like effectively being a no change position.

Labour Party health spokeswoman Annette King…

…said the non-medical use of marijuana was not even being looked at by her party.

“Actively being dealt with right now is the issue of medicinal marijuana, but the issues that Peter raised in terms of [cannabis] decriminalisation, there is no direct work being done on them at the moment,” she said.

With National remaining in the dark ages of drug law and NZ First and Labour appearing to be not keen on any change it looks like Dunne and Hague will have to work on whatever improvements can be made under existing law.

Hague questioned Dunne on it in Parliament yesterday:

9. KEVIN HAGUE (Green) to the Associate Minister of Health: What steps will he be taking to ensure New Zealand drug laws are still fit for purpose given the recent findings by Johns Hopkins University and British medical journal The Lancet that the punitive approach to drug offending has done more harm than good?

Hon PETER DUNNE (Associate Minister of Health): In August last year, as the member I think will be aware, I published a new National Drug Policy. This contains 28 wide-ranging actions over the period from 2015 to 2020 that take a compassionate, proportionate, and innovative approach to addressing drug harm. I believe that this policy, like the attitudes being expressed in a number of countries around the world, reflect the view that the harm from illicit drug use is best addressed primarily through a health lens. This does not mean there is not still a role for law enforcement, but it should not be the primary approach, and the Government’s actions contained in the National Drug Policy reflect that position.

Kevin Hague: Does the Minister agree that the primary goal of the drug policy should be the reduction of health-related harm and that the regulatory response to particular drugs should be proportional to their risk of such harm?

Hon PETER DUNNE: Yes, I do. In fact, when I spoke to the United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs in Vienna last year I stated that in the New Zealand national statement the central pillars of a drug policy should be about proportion, innovation, and compassion. I believe we are generally achieving those goals in New Zealand, but, obviously, there is more to do, and I look forward to reviewing the National Drug Policy at its mid-point sometime next year.

Kevin Hague: What prospects for change does the Minister envisage at the upcoming United Nations General Assembly special session in New York on the world’s drug problem?

Hon PETER DUNNE: Having attended the United Nations convention meetings for a number of years now, it has been noticeable that there has been a perceptible shift in international attitudes from what one could describe 5 or 6 years ago as, essentially, a legalistic punitive approach to a much greater emphasis on public health issues being a driving force today. I also want to make one other point, which New Zealand has raised strongly over the years, and that is the use of the death penalty, particularly for drug offences. I hope that one of the outcomes of the New York meeting will be a very strong call for its abolition.

Kevin Hague: Is the Minister open to a cross-party working party of MPs from across the House to form to discuss moving drug law reform forward?

Hon PETER DUNNE: Yes, I am. I am certainly open to working with colleagues who have a range of views on the subject, and I particularly want to thank the member for the interest that he has shown and the approach that he has taken over a considerable period of time. I appreciate that.

But working with Hague is unlikely to achieve much if the rest of Parliament is determined to remain in the dark ages (National) or too gutless to address drug issues (Labour) while much of the rest of the world is waking up to the failure of past and current drug laws and their enforcement.

Radio NZ:

Losing the War on Drugs

The War on Drugs was started 45 years ago when the former United States president Richard Nixon called drug abuse America’s public enemy number one.

Since then, the War on Drugs has helped bankroll military operations against drug producers in Latin America, and led to a crack-down on drug use within the United States.

While New Zealand played little part in this, it shared the majority of US policy of prohibition.

The Economist said the former presidents of Brazil, Mexico, Colombia, Nigeria and Switzerland had published strong attacks on the War on Drugs in a collection of essays titled Ending the War on Drugs.

In it, the former presidents argued the War on Drugs was costing taxpayers $US100 billion per year, but was helping traffickers earn $US300b a year.

The Johns Hopkins and The Lancet report said the War on Drugs had undercut public health worldwide and done little to combat drug use.

“The goal of prohibiting all use, possession, production and trafficking of illicit drugs is the basis of many of our national drug laws,” wrote Chris Beyrer, an epidemiology professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

“But these policies are based on ideas about drug use and drug dependence that are not scientifically grounded,” he wrote.

The research found that harsh drug control policies actually increased the risk of death from overdose.

It also found that enforcement of drug control policies undermined the wellbeing and health of drug users and the communities they live in.

By keeping their heads in the sand, or worse wilfully ignoring a major shift in approach to drug use internationally, National, Labour and NZ First are ignoring the well being and health of drug users and the communities they live in.

Shame on them.

Dunne and Hague have a big job to change an appalling cling to a failed approach by most parties in an out of touch or self-interested Parliament.

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  1. This is an excellent round up of the current political processes relevant to New Zealand drug policy. Good to see someone calling it like it is, e.g. “Parliament is determined to remain in the dark ages (National) or too gutless to address drug issues (Labour) while much of the rest of the world is waking up to the failure of past and current drug laws and their enforcement.”

    If we consider cannabis policy specifically, the recent developments around the world, with movement away from prohibition and towards legalisation (the US, South America, Europe, Australia), we see New Zealand being left behind. This is most evident where medicinal cannabis is concerned. Along with the medical needs of thousands of Kiwis being ignored, there are also huge opportunities being lost, for example in the production of top drawer medicinal cannabis products and the enormous potential for the hemp industry, currently stymied through being yoked to the Misuse of Drugs Act.

    Health Minister Jonathan Coleman’s observation on Radio New Zealand that cannabis is “very carcinogenic” is complete rubbish, with there being very limited and equivocal evidence suggesting anything like this. His ignorance and that of his colleagues regrettably sums up the status of New Zealand’s current drug policy, the legacy of our 1970’s rush into the cul-de-sac of prohibition, influenced significantly by misinformation from the US which ironically appears now to be grasping enthusiastically at the nettle of reform.

  2. Well said Dr. Geoff.. “Team Key’ need to take the blinkers off & get off their ‘high horse’. Nearly every other major OECD country is conceding Nixon’s WAR on Drugs has failed & are calling the Armistice. BUT here is little ‘ol NZ.. we just get further & further ‘behind the pack’

    Its 2016 not 1961.. time to move on ! :/
    ‘Reefer Madness’ has caused: ‘Drug war madness’

    Maybe Dunne should change his name to Canute ?

  3. The real issues around drug law reform in Aotearoa/NZ (IMHO):

    1) Apathy.. most are used to/stuck with the ‘devil they know’. Misinformation/mass brainwashing has finished the job
    2) A powerful group, (‘the Prohibition Industry) will push for the status quo OR minimal changes, regardless of the evidence against it.. lobbying Govt.
    3) The politicians are just gutless & still push the B-S : ‘not enough support’ OR ‘any excuse to maintain the status quo’ (inc. ‘reefer madness’ nonsense)
    4) Whilst NZ has amongst the highest use rates.. a majority, hide in the shadows.. fear of arrest/prosecution.. the stigma of being labeled ‘DRUGGIE’ etc.
    5) Allegations of ‘donations’ from : Big Tobacco, Alcohol, Pharma. etc is influencing the MPs ‘decisions’
    6) etc. etc. etc. etc. 😦

  4. Alex

     /  2nd April 2016

    Maybe this would be enough to set a crack on the floor for parliament, recently Pennsylvania made Autism a qualifying condition for medical cannabis:

    We are seriously falling behind


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