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Matters of Substance

Through the maze - healthy drug law reform

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Our Misuse of Drugs Act has been around for nearly 34 years. It was first developed at a time when our understanding of good drug policy was in its infancy and patterns of drug use were very different from today. It is now being reviewed, providing a rare opportunity for New Zealand to bring its drug law into the 21st century. In this essay, the Drug Foundation puts the case for reforming the Misuse of Drugs Act from a criminal justice-focused law to one that explicitly supports the health of people who use drugs and reduces drug harm across our communities.


The frontiers of human discovery advance at a remarkable pace. The way we see the world changes as events and knowledge alter our understanding of our environment and of each other.

The challenge for policy makers is to ensure that legislation keeps pace. Sometimes, important laws are allowed to fall out of step with public attitudes and scientific learning. That is the case with New Zealand’s now 34-year-old drug control law.

Our world is radically different from that of 1975, when a Bill Rowling-led government drafted the Misuse of Drugs Act. Back then, many New Zealandershad little or no exposure to drug use. Today, nearly half of New Zealanders under 65 acknowledge using cannabis at least once.

Some things have not changed. We know, as we did in 1975, that the misuse of drugs can hurt communities and individuals, but we have the benefit of 34 more years of scientific research, leading to a much better understanding of the best ways to reduce the harm drugs can cause. When it comes to policy and legislation, we know what works and what does not.

Since 1975, New Zealand politicians have made amendments to the Misuse of Drugs Act on several occasions. Unfortunately, many of these changes were driven by short-term political considerations. Today, we are left with a patchwork quilt of poorly considered amendments and outmoded assumptions.

In 2008, the Government asked the independent Law Commission to comprehensively review the Misuse of Drugs Act. This provides a long overdue opportunity to update the law, to ensure that it is ready for the future and supports the drug harm minimisation goals of our drug and health policies.