Dunne speech on drug policy

Yesterday Peter Dunne gave a speech on New Zealand Drug policy in the keynote address at the 8th Australasian Drug and Alcohol Strategy Conference, Te Papa, Wellington.


It gives me great pleasure to be here to talk about our shared interest in influencing attitudes towards alcohol and drug use. It is an honour and a privilege to be asked to give one of the keynote speeches.

I also look forward to taking your questions afterwards.

Drug policy in New Zealand is an ongoing balancing act. And because the tightrope tends to move, it is vitally important for us to keep checking whether we have our balance right.

Because we need to cover overseas as well as local experiences, today’s speech is going to be a rather rapid fly-by view of both international and local drug policy.

Recently, I had the good fortune to be in Vienna to take part in the 60th session of the United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs. It was one of the most constructive and encouraging international events that I have attended.

I was delighted to express New Zealand’s support for the work of the Commission and the UN’s Office on Drugs and Crime.

Over the last few years of attending such meetings, I have seen welcome signs of an increasing shift internationally towards a health focus on drugs, rather than drugs being treated as primarily a law and order issue.

This has profound implications for how we treat drug users. It means drug use disorders should be treated in the health system. So people with these disorders need access to essential medicines, including controlled drugs, but we need to minimise the risk that these drugs will be diverted or misused.

It also means people need continued support for recovery through their rehabilitation and reintegration into everyday life. We all know health is more than just the absence of ill health, or treatment of it.

A truly health-focused drug policy has to include building resilience and responding to the reasons why people use drugs. And it has to respond in a balanced way to the harm associated with drugs.

While there is still a long way to go in some instances, it is generally encouraging to see this happening more and more. Yes, a number of countries still impose the death penalty for drug offences – and a small minority condone the barbaric extra-judicial killing of drug users and dealers.

New Zealand will always stand firm in opposing that.

But on the whole, drug policies the world over tend to take a wider frame of reference and look for a proportionate response to drug-related harms.

I will just focus for a moment on what this means to us in New Zealand. We have seen a shift away from a relatively narrow punitive approach to drugs to a more balanced view.

You can see this shift in our national drug policies. New Zealand’s National Drug Policy balances three complementary elements. These strategies – problem limitation, demand reduction, and supply control – have been part of all the drug policies that we have had.

The goal, however, has changed and become more broadly health-focused. While the previous policy had a harm minimisation goal, the current one explicitly aims to promote and protect health and wellbeing as well as aiming to minimise alcohol and drug-related harm.

That may sound straightforward, but there are several questions worth raising about that goal. For one thing, how much do we know about alcohol and drug-related harm in New Zealand?

It is all very well to talk about effects on individuals and the community. These are very real, and we all see the weekly media articles about them. But we do not have accurate measurements of the size of the problem.

We have a New Zealand Drug Harm Index which gives us some indication, but we know that the drugs being used and the way they are being used are changing. So the index has to be a living, changing document.

Knowing about the harm is one thing, but knowing when we have minimised is more complex. And whose health and wellbeing are we promoting and protecting?

The easy answer is to say ‘everyone’s’. But is everyone getting the same degree of protection and promotion?

These questions are not easy to answer. But we know that our health services, enforcement services and others working together to strike the right balance of education, support and enforcement is the best way to address them.

It requires a people-centred approach where a range of agencies – health, police, correctional services, social services and others – work together to respond to individual, family, and community needs.

As a small country, we know the value of working together. We do not usually have the resources to get things done other than by cooperating with each other.

As the leader of a party which has a confidence and supply agreement with the government, I also have a particular appreciation of the need to work collegially and find common ground in order to make progress.

But it is not always the norm in other, larger countries, where achieving inter-agency co-operation is in itself a challenge. Our agencies cooperate with each other via an interagency committee on drugs, tasked with the challenge of achieving the objectives of the National Drug Policy.

In the area of interagency cooperation, New Zealand has seen particularly encouraging collaboration between Police and Health at local, regional and national levels.

During my attendance at the UN this year, I had the opportunity for a bilateral meeting with the Portuguese delegation. The Portuguese approach of putting the health system front and centre when drug use is an issue is admirable and something to aspire to.

Unfortunately, whenever Portugal is mentioned, the focus is often solely on the tolerance they apply to low-level use of drugs, while overlooking the other side of the story about possession and cultivation remaining illegal, and the very strong use of mandatory assessment and treatment programmes in place for all drug use.

I have long felt that pursuing sick and disabled people for inconsequential cannabis use related to their ailments is both imprudent and a poor use of Police resources – formal Police guidelines for such situations would be a welcome development.

An excellent example of positive collaboration between Police and the Ministry of Health is illustrated in a new approach to reducing demand for methamphetamine.

Police and the Ministry of Health developed the approach together last year. The idea for this new approach grew from Operation Daydream. It began as what you might call a standard operation in the sense that police arrested a number of people who were supplying methamphetamine.

However, it departed from standard practice when it came to users identified during the operation. Rather than prosecute, police contacted them to discuss their issues and offer referrals to treatment services. This proved to be a positive and productive approach.

The users engaged with officers, and gave them some insights into the reasons that they were using methamphetamine. What they then did with the information was set up a public meeting with some users and some members of the community who had never set eyes on methamphetamine.

Getting these two groups of people together was a powerful experience for all concerned. Even something as simple as talking to each other can make a positive difference to people’s lives. So we are building on this initiative.

The current pilot programme brings together police, health and community efforts to respond to the needs of a particular area and its people – in this case, Northland. That will in itself be a positive thing that brings people together.

It also represents a shift in attitudes, with a district health board partnering with local police and community organisations to improve outcomes for people in the area.

Innovation also happens centrally of course.

The unique part of New Zealand’s response to the issue of new psychoactive substances is of course our Psychoactive Substances Act.

I have a history with this Act as the Minister responsible for its introduction. Prior to the Act, we had a losing battle on our hands with new psychoactives. This was because new substances were emerging in the market too quickly for us to establish the level of risk that they posed.

This system meant that users of new psychoactives were consuming drugs that were not fully understood, and risking all sorts of harm to themselves and others.

Previously, New Zealand faced precisely the same problem as other jurisdictions. We had a range of unknown substances, posing unknown risks.

The existing controls were based on the old world of well-known and well understood substances. For the old drugs, the risks could be judged, and they could be scheduled in our Misuse of Drugs Act with the appropriate controls.

But that approach depends on the substances being understood. The government could legislate based on the risk of a substance, but it had to know the risk first.

For something like cocaine, where we can draw a picture of the molecule, and identify risks and medicinal uses in detail, that approach works well.

For the new psychoactive substances, that approach simply did not work. By the time it had been identified, investigated and legislated against, the original substance could be replaced by 10 new ones.

Instead, New Zealand’s response was to reverse the onus of proof. Under the new legislation, licences must be obtained by people or businesses who wish to import, research, manufacture, wholesale and retail psychoactive substances and products.

The Act also restricts the sale of these products, when approved, to people aged 18 years and older. That is an apparently simple change, but a world-leading solution that has effectively reduced the level of harm to users of new psychoactives.

The Act was amended in May 2014 to prohibit animal testing data being used for the purpose of product approval.

At this time the necessary tests cannot be done using entirely non-animal methods. I do not see this situation changing for the foreseeable future. I am advised it will likely be at least 5 years before any applications for product approval are received, as they must wait for non-animal test methods to be validated.

Once this happens, we will have the flexibility with our psychoactive substances legislation to fully control the window of opportunity. At that time our innovative policy approach will fully come into effect.

The work we are doing now on new psychoactive substances is bringing to bear expertise from both within and outside government to develop an early warning system that will help identify and respond to emerging drugs. Early warning systems were a popular topic at the Commission on Narcotic Drugs meeting.

As you may recall, I spoke about having seen an increasing international shift from a law and order focus to a broader focus on health. One thing that particularly stood out from the Commission’s discussions was alternative approaches to the possession of drugs.

My colleagues in Vienna agreed there are many ways in which the system can send a message that illegal drugs are unacceptable – and that these ways do not always need to involve criminalisation. We can take these ideas forward in developing options for further minimising harm within our National Drug Policy framework.

As I said to begin with, New Zealand’s drug policy continues to be a balancing act.

This year agencies will check the initial agreed actions in the National Drug Policy, to ensure we keep on striking the right balance. To change attitudes and minimise the harm that can come from the use of alcohol and other drugs, we must stay open to new ideas and new frames of reference.

I have said many times that the principles of compassion, innovation and proportion underpin our national drug policy. Consistent with that theme we need to be constantly open to alternative approaches and ways of doing things, always so long as robust pharmacological, clinical, and criminological evidence is there to back up the positions we take.

I hope this conference builds on existing efforts to change thinking and behaviour towards alcohol and drug use and I wish you all a rewarding and productive time here in Wellington.

36 Comments

  1. Kevin

     /  May 5, 2017

    “Over the last few years of attending such meetings, I have seen welcome signs of an increasing shift internationally towards a health focus on drugs, rather than drugs being treated as primarily a law and order issue.”

    Yet in NZ temperate drug users still risk being dragged into court and getting a criminal record for something that harms no one.

    “This has profound implications for how we treat drug users. It means drug use disorders should be treated in the health system. So people with these disorders need access to essential medicines, including controlled drugs, but we need to minimise the risk that these drugs will be diverted or misused.”

    Translation: I have no plans to legalise medical cannabis because.

    “A truly health-focused drug policy has to include building resilience and responding to the reasons why people use drugs. And it has to respond in a balanced way to the harm associated with drugs.”

    There are three reasons why people use drugs – for recreation, to cover up shit that’s happened in their lives, and because their addicts. Purely recreational users you leave alone unless they’re misusing, the second you offer help and therapy, and the third you provide rehab for provided that they genuinely no longer want to be an addict.

    “I have long felt that pursuing sick and disabled people for inconsequential cannabis use related to their ailments is both imprudent and a poor use of Police resources – formal Police guidelines for such situations would be a welcome development.”

    Translation: I’ll continue to tut tut from the sidelines but actually do nothing.

    “The Act was amended in May 2014 to prohibit animal testing data being used for the purpose of product approval.”

    An action which basically bankrupted the NZ legal high industry.

    “I hope this conference builds on existing efforts to change thinking and behaviour towards alcohol and drug use and I wish you all a rewarding and productive time here in Wellington.”

    Blah de blah blah blah. How about changing the law to so that mere possession of small amounts is punishable with only a fine instead of a conviction? That’d do for a start.

    • Gezza

       /  May 5, 2017

      Gone by election day suppertime, with a bit of luck this time.

  2. More B-S & misinfo. from Mr prohibition/status quo.. well passed his useby date (along with the MODA 1975) !

  3. When Dunne said, during the debate around ‘Psychoactive substance act’; that synthetic cannabis is ‘low risk’ BUT, that natural herb is NOT… followed by news his son worked for a company selling these synthetics, I was surprised that any rational minded person, would take him seriously on this issue, from then on.
    Like others who are still staunchly prohibitionist, you have to wonder why ? when most other OECD countries are now ‘decriminalising’ or legally regulating cannabis & other drugs, as the better option.

    The definition of insanity is ‘repeating something (that failed) expecting a different result/outcome’. maybe Dunne needs to think about the outcome of Alcohol prohibition (1920s USA) that was repealed as a failure.. then ask why he thinks cannabis/other drug prohibition IS working (NOT) 😦

    Where’s your credibility man ?

    • Damian

       /  May 5, 2017

      You’ve got it your facts wrong. Dunne didn’t say synthetics were low risk, the act said that they needed to be proven low risk to be sold. Which none have been, hence why none can be sold.

      He’s also said that once cannabis can be proven as low risk then why would allow it to be sold.

      Dunne has almost singlehandedly changed the govt towards a health based approach. If you want it legalised, that’s the best news since it was banned.

      • Hes also a PR nightmare, as he fails to separate UF policy from that of the Government. I know hes far more sympathetic to Medical Cannabis etc than hes been portrayed in the media, and yet he takes it on the chin on behalf of National…. I guess that’s why David Seymour wanted some distance from Government so he can be on the same team but hold them to account and be critical when required…..

        • Damian

           /  May 5, 2017

          Definitely more sympathetic than he’s portrayed. He’s keen to see the best outcome for NZ which means evidence based, which isn’t as fast as some would like but we’ll get there.

          As a minister he has less opportunity to criticise the government or disagree, although he has. He made a comment recently in a article (that I can’t find sadly) that if medical cannabis is safe, then why wouldn’t we let people grow their own. Which you can take how you want.

          Seymour is definitely in a better position to be a critic but also less opportunity to actually make a difference so it’s a trade off I guess.

          • I saw that one too. I run MCANZ, and as it currently sits, there’s no legal barrier to having 10k patients on non pharma hash oils (that are standardized) the legal barrier is making them in NZ. I’m working on a second round of much cheaper non cold chain storage product. Coming into election time UF really needs to distance itself from National Government policies on the issues Peter has come a cropper on. Tragically the PSA was lauded world wide as they way forward, in practice its been a juicy media beat up. My only focus is Medical Cannabis policy, would be great to see a UF candidate rark up on the police for not testing the “public interest” They just raided a quadriplegic last month……. Peter Speaks softly about this, perhaps another UF candidate could speak a bit louder (hint hint)

            • Damian

               /  May 5, 2017

              Definitely agree about the distance part and we are doing that where we can. One challenge is getting people to listen (despite working with Labour we’re accused of being only there to support National), but we’re working on it.
              Media does not help drug reform with sensational stories with few facts, but I think the public is coming around. I also firmly believe that politicians have a duty to not only listen to the public but also educate so the debate is evidence based. That’s critical for the medical cannabis.

      • Kevin

         /  May 6, 2017

        “Dunne has almost singlehandedly changed the govt towards a health based approach. If you want it legalised, that’s the best news since it was banned.”

        What, exactly, has he done? His making synthetic cannabis legal in the hopes that’d stop people using meth was a total disaster. And as for the Psychoactive Act all it’s done is ban any psychoactive drug no matter how harmless it actual is.

        Alcohol is a drug. Tobacco is drug. Caffeine is a drug. Hell, even Capsaicin, the stuff that makes chilli hot, can be called a drug. This makes that most people are drug users and that most most people, even those that use illegal drugs, do so with few or any problems. This means that drugs policy is a justice issue and not a health issue.

        And what has been done on the justice side of things? Quite a bit actually! The Misuse of Drugs Act has been amended so that judges are told not to throw cannabis users in jail and most importantly a big distinction has been made between those that just use and those that sell (a big step towards decriminalisation).

        Meanwhile Dunne and the EACD can’t even decide whether to allow cannabis with a minimal level of THC. More useless than tits on a bull.

        Fortunately for us on the justice side of things Dunne and his merry bunch of idiots on the “health” side can be safely ignored. Start by making possession of small amounts no matter what classification punishable by a fine at most. And once society is used to the idea that most people are temperate drug users then legalise the whole lot.

        • Damian

           /  May 6, 2017

          Okay, well I’m not sure you understand the difference between it being a justice and health issue – justice is very black and white, health is evidence based. Most evidence says that moderate cannabis use is low risk, meaning it should be legal.

          I’m not sure what you’re trying to argue…?

  4. Zedd

     /  May 5, 2017

    @Damian
    now whose feeding the misinfo. ?

    Synthetics were sold legally for a short while, until public protests saw them also, added to the prohibited list.

    Dunne recently said he was given assurance from Police Comm. Bush, that they would ‘use discretion’ in medicinal cannabis cases.. BUT that has been stepped back from now. Dunne is just pandering to those who support the status quo ! (JOB PROTECTION)

    Please explain then, why Aotearoa/NZ is one of the few OECD/western countries that still has effective ZERO-tolerance to medicinal cannabis (except Sativex at >$1000/month) ? Canada, 28 USA states, 3-4 Aust. states, several EU countries already allow its use, when prescribed by doctors. Is Dunne effectively saying he does not trust them ?

    He is still pushing ‘scare tactics’ that allowing the natural herb, medicinally.. saying “is just a excuse to legalise recreational use”. Again total B-S, anyone who wants to buy black-market herb, can already do so. NZ has amongst the highest illegal use rates in the world per capita.. so, Please dont tell me Dunne’s actions are working ! That total B-S.

    btw; are you either a member of U/F or employed by ‘Big-pharma’ ? :/

    • Damian

       /  May 6, 2017

      But the test remains – prove them low risk and they can be sold again.

      We don’t have zero tolerance for medicinal cannabis, we have an outdated law that needs reviewing. And cannabis is still illegal in the US by Federal Law. We allow it here when prescribed by doctors also, its just massively expensive which is unfair.

      The changes are working,, slowly you’re not able (or willing) to see.

      Yes, I’m a member of UF but I’ve never worked for big pharma – not a fan of them at all.

      • Kevin

         /  May 6, 2017

        “But the test remains – prove them low risk and they can be sold again.”

        Except with the ban on using animals it’s currently impossible to prove that a psychoactive is low risk. In other words for the sake of a few rats and mice Dunne has bankrupted an entire industry.

        • Damian

           /  May 6, 2017

          With almost unanimous support from Parliament – almost every sine MP voted for it. And I’m not worried about the psychoactive drugs industry, that stuff was awful, made a lot of people very sick. Dreamed up in a lab (which is probably giving them too much credit) to take advantage of a gap in the law.

          Happy to explore how we make the natural products legal and safe.

          • Kevin

             /  May 6, 2017

            I didn’t like the industry much either but the fact is it was an industry that made money, paid taxes, and employed people. As for unanimous support so what? A sensible approach would have allowed for limited animal testing e.g. rats and mice, but prohibited testing on monkeys etc.

            • Damian

               /  May 6, 2017

              Not in NZ, most of it was imported from overseas so minimal economic benefit to NZ especially balanced against the health impact. To test the psychological effects they needed to use rabbits and dogs, which Labour and the Greens protested so the government agreed to ban.

  5. Dunne sounds like a advert for ‘Reefer Madness’ (1940s anti-cannabis propaganda)’
    1) CAUSES insanity
    2) Gateway to HARD drugs
    3) the most evil, insideous drug known to mankind etc.

    Cannabis is a class C drug (supposedly less harmful, than many others) & yet it seems to be treated like SUPER-A; the most harmful.

    The one thing that he seems to forget, is that likely over 60% of all adult kiwis have tried the stuff & know what ‘smoking a joint or bong’ does to them. Its 2017 not 1937 !

    Time to ‘cut the CRAP out’

    • Kevin

       /  May 6, 2017

      “1) CAUSES insanity
      2) Gateway to HARD drugs
      3) the most evil, insideous drug known to mankind etc.”

      For a moment there I thought you were talking about alcohol. My mistake.

      • Zedd

         /  May 6, 2017

        @Kevin

        the WAR on Drugs, is just a revamped continuation of Alcohol prohibition (1920s USA) promoted by those who wish to maintain the status quo (Job Protection; Police, customs, courts, corrections etc.)

        BUT as I’ve said before; ‘repeating something (that failed) expecting a different outcome’ is the definition of INSANITY !

        Its called misinformation OR Disinformation (deliberate misinfo.) !

        • Kevin

           /  May 6, 2017

          Correct. And those promoting the war use the same techniques that the Prohibitionists did including such things as “one sip and you’re addict”.

    • Damian

       /  May 6, 2017

      He’s never said those things but for some reason you have to make up things to dislike.

      Time to cut the crap out indeed.

      • Oh Really ?

        may I suggest you take your ‘rose-tinted glasses off ?’ & see the reality; NZ has some of the most draconian drug laws/arrest stats. in the OECD per capita : ZERO-Tolerance to all but Alcohol & tobacco

        • Damian

           /  May 6, 2017

          I’m not wearing rose tinted glasses.
          Not sure that’s true about stats, love to see the numbers (the US has the largest prison population ever).

          I’m not arguing that our laws are where they should be, I’d love to see some proper reform. But I’m saying that Dunne isn’t the problem, the other MPs are.

          If you want to see reform, then evidence based debate will be how it happens. There is plenty of science that supports legalisation, so keep focus on that and it’ll happen. Targeting Dunne is the wrong approach.

          • Dunne is the ‘mouth-piece’ for this prohibitionist Govt. I know he may have different views than Zero-tolerance, BUT that all I hear; ‘NO further reforms coming anytime soon !’

            btw; I listen to the debates & misinfo. is ALL I hear from this Govt. (& its reps).. 😦

            • Damian

               /  May 6, 2017

              As minister, yes he is to a point.But he’s also able to influence govt and change minds. It’s a slow process but its working.

              I hear a different message, the science is catching up and this should be an evidence based discussion.

            • @Damian

              IF you want to see ‘evidence based’ then why are Alcohol & Tobacco STILL Legal ? On the same scale as MODA 1975, Alcohol apparently should be Class B & Tobacco a Class A drug (1000s of deaths/year)

              I may take a different view, BUT I do listen to ‘the evidence’ & PROHIBITION/Zero-tolerance is NOT/never has been the rational solution, regardless of all the nonsense coming from this Govt. & its coalition.

            • Q) is your surname Dunne too ??

          • Kevin

             /  May 6, 2017

            The right approach is to ignore Dunne completely and target the justice minister.

            • Damian

               /  May 6, 2017

              No, don’t target the ministers. Change public opinion, ensure that the debate is evidence based and reform will happen.

            • they’ve been saying that for >40 years.. & counting,.. still waiting

            • @damian, public opinion is already there, evidence is already there for chronic pain among other things. Basically we have to wait for the old people with backwards views to die off. That is evidence based, WHO advice is essentially good luck trying to change the prescribing habits of doctors over the age of 35….. Let alone politicians……… The ministers do need targeting with some evidence… (constructively, not the vitriol Peter has received) right now I’m working with a family who’s kid has had 15 different medicines trialed, and 2 brain surgeries, and even though the MOH would likely approve him for a non pharma CBD product, Starship doesn’t have the guts….. And Bill English says things like we have a good system, and its now easier to get product, utter bollocks….. every day is another 50 seizures for this kid., he deserves a chance, and now we need to lawyer up.

            • well said Shane !

              I just watched the rerun of ‘A life of its own’ Aust. doco on Med-use. They are now growing & producing cannabinoid medicines ‘over the ditch’.. but not here.

              One of the mothers of a child with severe epilepsy stated ‘we have been hoodwinked by the misinfo. around cannabis’ Been told its an Evil drug etc. etc.

              one doctor (in Israel) even stated that there has been several decades of deliberate lies about the drug, which has stopped research into its potential uses. BUT here in NZ we still hear this B-S.

              Also they showed a list of the countries which have the highest illegal use rates’ NZ was at the top, followed by USA & Aust. !!!
              what does this say ?

  6. btw; Its J-day.. may I suggest, you get out & see the reality of ‘peaceful pot-smokers’
    WE are not all suffering ‘Reefer Madness’ Even If Dunne & others claim it !

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