Recently, the Police, with significant sponsorship from the Ministry of Health, hosted a major Australasian conference on alcohol and drug policy. It attracted an impressive collection of international speakers, including Michael Botticelli (a man whom I have known and worked with for a number of years) who was the head of President Obama’s National Drug Policy unit.
In my own remarks to the conference I spoke about New Zealand’s National Drug Policy, and where it might head in the future. I observed that I was personally interested in, and supportive of, Portugal’s approach of putting the health system front and centre on drug policy, but I further observed that, unfortunately, whenever Portugal is mentioned, the focus is often solely on the tolerance they apply to the 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. My interest is in the full Portuguese package, not just the tolerance applied to low-level use of drugs like cannabis. Sadly, far too often, when people cite what is going on in Portugal, they focus only on this point, and not the overall package.
Over the years I have been involved in drug policy I have constantly stressed that we need to be open to new developments, but that any alterations in policy should always be firmly evidence based. Whether it be about access to cannabis-based medicinal products, or the general treatment of other drugs, that has been, to the constant annoyance of my critics, my absolute standard, and it is not going to change. It was the logic behind the Psychoactive Substances Act, which was about regulating the burgeoning synthetic drug market based on the level of risk specific products actually posed to the public. (That Act closed that market down, although to my critics, it somehow had precisely the opposite effect – a simply idiotic claim not borne out by even the slightest of facts.)
The 2015 National Drug Policy introduced a number of specific actions to reinforce the central message that drug issues are primarily health, not legal, issues, and foreshadowed a major rewrite of our creaking 1975 Misuse of Drugs Act during the next term of Parliament, once these actions have been completed.
From UnitedFuture’s perspective, now is the time to be looking at what that next set of steps might be. I envisage a two-stage process. First, we should move to an overall approach similar to the full Portuguese model, where the cultivation and possession of all drugs remains illegal, and all drug users are referred for assessment and treatment, but where there is a tolerance exercised for the possession of what are essentially Class C drugs under the current Misuse of Drugs Act. In that event, persons caught with – say – no more than the equivalent of one week’s personal supply would be referred directly to treatment rather the Courts, in an extension of our current diversion scheme. This would require significant additional investment in the provision of assessment and treatment services, but that makes far more sense than investing similar amounts more in the Courts and prison services for the same purpose. At the same time, it would free up more Police resources to concentrate on catching the criminals behind the New Zealand drugs scene.
The second stage of the process, when the Misuse of Drugs Act is rewritten, would be to transfer the current Schedule of Class C Drugs from that Act to the Psychoactive Substances Act. This would mean that they would be regulated the same way as synthetic substances, where the test is evidence based around the risk posed to the user, and where there are clear controls on the manufacture, sale and distribution of any such products that might be approved. For its part, the Psychoactive Substances Authority would be required to determine an alternative to animal testing – the prohibition of which is what currently prevents that Act from working fully.
One issue that is often properly raised in the context of drug law reform is the role of the gangs as producers and distributors of drugs like cannabis. It is argued with some validity that legalising cannabis would legalise the criminal activities of the gangs and deliver them total control, something none of us are in favour of. But, the Psychoactive Substances Act provides a way of resolving this issue. Under the Act, before a product can be submitted for testing, the producer first has to have been granted a “fit and proper person” licence. No criminal organisation will be ever meet that standard or be granted such a licence, which would completely exclude the gangs. Instead, we would have a regulated market for all drugs, synthetic or otherwise, that the Psychoactive Substances Authority considers pose a low risk to users. The possession and supply of all other drugs would remain illegal, and the law would take its course.
The approach UnitedFuture proposes therefore has three key components: mandatory and comprehensive treatment for everyone caught with drugs; a pragmatic approach to anyone caught with minor amounts of low level drugs; and, shutting the criminals out of the cannabis industry. As such, it fits four square with the compassionate, innovative and proportionate approach drug policy I have long advocated.