“We desperately need sensible drug law reform.”

Chloe Swarbrick:

We saw exactly what was foretold by Green MP Kevin Hague. We have seen the proliferation of psychoactive substances and their harm increase as a result of a lack of regulation. The chemicals have got nastier and cheaper to produce and throw together.

“We are going to be seeing a significant increase in harm” , former MP warned in 2014 when Parliament revoked interim licences for Psychoactive Substances, forcing the issue underground. Sadly, Kevin was right. We desperately need sensible drug law reform.

CHLÖE SWARBRICK (Green): E Te Māngai, tēnā koe. Tēnā koutou e Te Whare. I rise tonight to speak to the Psychoactive Substances (Increasing Penalty for Supply and Distribution) Amendment Bill. To begin with, I would like to acknowledge the sponsor of this bill, Simeon Brown, who I’ve met with about the contents of this bill to discuss my concerns. My concerns are perhaps best summarised, in a nutshell, in reference to the point made by the Hon Nick Smith about how this bill represents a practical measure to combat drug use and drug abuse, addiction, and harms. To that point, I would say that practical measures work. This bill will not work. This piece of legislation is contrary to all of the evidence, to every piece of advice that we know with regard to how we tackle drug harm that is currently rippling through our communities.

I want to acknowledge, to begin with, the loss of lives that have been experienced in communities throughout this country: the sons and daughters that have been mentioned, but so too those who are homeless and jobless and amongst the most vulnerable in our society, which the research and evidence and coroners’ reports show are typically the users of these synthetics.

I think that all politicians, fundamentally, want the same thing here. We want reduced harm, we want safer communities, and we want investment in solutions that will actually work. So I think it makes a whole lot of sense to unpack how we got here and into this mess to begin with. In the early 2010s, synthetic substances began to emerge on the market, and what Parliament found is that we could not legislate to keep up with emerging substances by using the flawed model of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1975. In 2011, the Law Commission provided a deeply comprehensive report on the efficacy of that Misuse of Drugs Act 1975, and it recommended a complete repeal and replacement of the legislation, which was simply not working to reduce harm. It also recommended new regulations for emerging substances.

In 2013, the Psychoactive Substances Act, which this amendment would change, was passed unanimously in this House. It was heralded internationally as a world first to provide sensible regulation for new psychoactive substances, but that optimism quickly dwindled. It contained a provision in its original sections for the interim licensing of products that hadn’t yet been reported or complained about, but in May 2014, after the problem became visible as a result of the regulations that were imposed around that interim licensing, such as where they could be sold, politicians responded to moral panic and all parties at the time, except for the 14 Green MPs in the House, voted for those interim licences to be revoked. Speaking to that knee-jerk revocation of those licences, Kevin Hague, who is a former Green MP and health spokesperson, on the third reading of that Psychoactive Substances Amendment Bill warned about what would happen, and I quote: “Prohibition takes supply out of the hands of regulated, controlled retailers and instead puts that supply into the hands of criminal gangs or other illicit suppliers. Unfortunately, what that means is … the drug dealer on the street [or] in the alleyway behind the shop[s] at Naenae and the drug dealer in the tinny house are not subject to [the] same controls. Those people supplying the demand … will not go away as a result of [a] bill [that] tonight will not be checking … for their ID or for proof of age. We should expect that supply to people under age will increase as a result of this bill. Those people will not be making a distinction between those products that are low risk and those products that are high risk. We should expect that the supply of products that are high risk will increase as a result of this bill. Those people, those illicit drug dealers, will, in addition to having a range of psychoactive substances—those currently legal and … illegal—have, in another pocket, … drugs like methamphetamine. So the product of this bill will be that … demand, which will not go away [will actually be increased]. We are going to [see] a significant increase in harm.” And what did we see? We saw exactly what was foretold by Green MP Kevin Hague. We have seen the proliferation of psychoactive substances and their harm increase as a result of a lack of regulation. The chemicals have got nastier and cheaper to produce and throw together.

I want to quote here from a user from west Auckland who was interviewed by Vice Media, who stated, and I quote, “You get all these people addicted, like actually [expletive] addicted, and then you just take it away and [you] make it illegal? Of course it’s gonna go underground, and people are gonna start making [expletive] that is harmful.”

I also want to speak to the experience of the CEO of Lifewise, Moira Lawler, who is one of the providers of the Housing First model, which is often celebrated by many in this House as a perfect way to tackle homelessness by way of wraparound services. Moira, in relation to the synthetics crisis, stated, and I quote, “[We] had one of our whānau arrested and charged with dealing and one of the things the police said [which] really stuck [in my mind] was that their unit was full of coins. You don’t make your fortune dealing synthetics … [but] People use it because it’s all they can afford.”

We’ve also had the police submit on this bill, saying that they are not going to arrest their way out of it. We have had ample evidence, as has been quoted by previous speakers, such as from the likes of Massey’s SHORE & Whariki—the research centre—which states “Experience from overseas is that increasing penalties for drug trafficking increases convictions and prisoner numbers while [having only] a minimal impact on drug prices and availability.”

In 2017, when media reported that at least seven people had died from synthetic usage, former Prime Minister Bill English said it was an issue of personal responsibility and denied Government intervention was needed. That death toll from synthetic use rose to 25 in 2017, and now to 45 in 2018, and I am glad that the National Party has now changed their position from labelling this an issue of personal responsibility, because that is far too often an abdication of political responsibility.

Hon Dr Nick Smith: Well, support the bill—support the bill.

CHLÖE SWARBRICK: Political responsibility, Dr Nick Smith, looks like the boldness to do what works.

On Monday of this week, I was at the opening of the harm reduction conference in Christchurch. It was timed to commemorate 30 years of needle exchange in New Zealand, which was introduced in 1987 by health Minister Dr Michael Bassett in the Lange Government. Due to that policy 30 years ago, New Zealand has a prevalence of HIV among those who inject drugs in New Zealand of 0.2 percent compared to 13 percent internationally. At the bill’s introduction, Dr Michael Bassett stated “I do not think it is possible to have a perfect solution when the position is … a balance of awfulness.”

No one here is saying that drugs are cool or fun; what we are saying is that they exist and we have to deal with that. We have to reduce harm, and if we want to do something, why do we not do something that works? This entire system is broken, and we have known it for a very long time. We have known it because the evidence and the advice provided to politicians shows—[Interruption]

ASSISTANT SPEAKER (Poto Williams): Order! Order!

CHLÖE SWARBRICK: —that increasing penalties will not reduce drug accessibility—

Hon Dr Nick Smith: Two years is inadequate.

ASSISTANT SPEAKER (Poto Williams): Order, Mr Smith.

CHLÖE SWARBRICK: —or affordability. We must treat drugs as a health issue, and that looks like taking them out of the shadows and providing regulation.

When people imagine regulation, they think of a free-for-all. They think of chaos. They think of bringing the issue into the light. But what we have right now in the shadows is chaos. Anybody anywhere in New Zealand who wants drugs can access them. Drug dealers, as was stated by Kevin Hague, are not checking ID, nor are they checking the safeness of the substances that they are flicking off. We know that arresting these dealers is only going to result in further dealers popping up, because the evidence shows it. So if we want to do something that works, we have to follow the evidence.


‘Synthetic cannabis’ crisis requires urgent action

Synthetic drugs, inaccurately referred to as ‘synthetic cannabis’, have been causing major problems for years. The National government got spooked by bad publicity and neutered a ground breaking way of dealing with them in 2013  – Psychoactive Substances Bill a ‘game-changer’ but National lost the plot after some adverse publicity.

But these drugs are still a major problem – in part because of Parliament’s failure to address the ongoing failure of current drug laws, especially for cannabis which is far safer than synthetics.

National have tried to address things through a Member’s bill, but this has been slammed: ‘Naive nonsense’ – Peter Dunne slams Simeon Brown’s bill increasing synthetic cannabis penalties, saying it just won’t work

Former Associate Health Minister Peter Dunne has slammed a member’s Bill proposing to increase penalties for dealing synthetic drugs, saying penalties simply will not solve the problem.

Numerous deaths, especially in the Auckland region, were attributed to deadly batches of synthetic drugs last year.

Pakuranga MP Simeon Brown’s Bill, which would amend the Psychoactive Drugs Act 2013, would increase the penalty for dealing the substances from two years in prison to 8 years, and has passed its first reading.

National’s Mr Brown wrote that “this Bill is necessary in order to protect our communities and young people from these harmful drugs, to deter those who are supplying them into the market, and to give Police stronger powers to crack down on suppliers”.

Mr Dunne, speaking this morning with TVNZ 1’s Breakfast called Mr Brown’s Bill “naive nonsense” and put it down to being an “easy win” for him.

“It’s been the easy one over the years – make the penalties tougher, hit those who are supplying,” Mr Dunne said.

“There is a case for changing the penalties, because they are a bit out of line with the Misuse of Drugs Act, but to suggest that is the answer is simply naive nonsense.”

Mr Dunne said synthetic drugs were under control in 2013, but parliament had backtracked due to “moral panic” from the public about the drugs.

“These drugs had actually been on the market for years – we’d brought them under control,” he said.

“Parliament then backtracked and decided to change the law and the consequence of that, plus the unrelated but pretty important issue of a ban on animal testing of these substances, meant the law has been stymied for the last four years and the market’s gone underground.

“The only way to get on top of it is to go back to what the Psychoactive Substances Act was all about – have products tested for the level of risk and sold properly through regulated stores.”

Mr Dunne said increasing penalties would  be popular with Mr Brown’s constituents, but it would not solve the problem.

“The problem is, because this market is underground and is expanding, we’ve lost control of it.

RNZ:  Govt departments urged to find solution on synthetic cannabis

Government agencies have been asked to urgently find ways to reduce the harm caused by synthetic cannabis.

Figures from the Coroner show 40 to 45 people died in the year to June because of synthetic cannabis, compared with two deaths in the previous five years.

Acting Prime Minister Winston Peters said the ministers of health, justice, police and customs would seek advice from their agencies and put their heads together to find the best solution.

“There has been a lot of work on this in the past but I think we have to be honest in that we haven’t come up with the kind of solutions which have seen a turnaround or a victory against the people who are peddling this stuff.”

Mr Peters would not rule out including part of National Party MP Simeon Brown’s bill, which would increase the maximum jail sentence for selling or supplying synthetic drugs from two years to eight.

“The police say that that would not work.”

RNZ:  Synthetic cannabis crisis: ‘They are looking for help now on the ground’ – Drug Foundation

The Drug Foundation wants the government to come up with a practical response to the synthetic cannabis crisis, not a bureaucratic one.

Executive director of the Drug Foundation Ross Bell said his fear was that officials would look at policy responses or suggest tougher penalties – neither of which was a solution.

“We need action on the ground now, if you see a lot of the community voices, the parents who have suffered tragedy here, they’re not looking for policy responses, they’re not looking for tougher penalties, they are are looking for help now on the ground.”

Mr Bell said there were practical things that government agencies could be doing now, or should have been doing last year in response to this.

He said part of that was sharing information much more quickly.

“So that St John Ambulance for example, knows what the hell is going on, getting resources on the ground, helping those communities that are experiencing these issues, getting resources there around harm reduction, drug treatment and making sure people who need help don’t have to sit on a waiting list for so long.”

Mr Peters said it couldn’t be denied that governments had tried and failed to address the issues around synthetic cannabis.

“We have to look at what we’ve been talking about in the past and reviewing in the past, and with a multiplicity of agencies set out to provide some serious solutions and as fast as possible.”

But continuing to fail to deal with laws and policing related to natural cannabis is  apart of the problem.

Winston’s insistence of a referendum won’t cut it – it needs urgent and decisive action from those in power in Parliament.

2/2 The challenge now is to make that Act work as intended, not waste time reinventing the wheel while people die