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Drug treatment policy often misguided says criminology professor

Release Date: 
Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Overcoming problem drug use has much more to do with addressing socio-economic factors than physiological or psychological addiction, a Drug Policy Symposium was told today in Wellington.

Associate Professor Julian Buchanan, from the Institute of Criminology at Victoria University of Wellington, said our prisons and drug treatment facilities are full of people who have experienced considerable exclusion and stigma since childhood, and that curing them of drugs is not the answer to their difficulties.

“The vast majority of people who get themselves in a complete mess with drugs are people whose lives were already a mess before they starting using.

“Of course their drug use is just making things worse, but to help these people we must adopt an approach that seeks to deal with their underlying difficulties and not make the mistake of simply dealing with the surface problem.”

He said a significant proportion of problem drug users have a history of a disrupted childhood, low educational achievement and marginalisation which make steady employment difficult to secure and sustain.

“These people have become feared, distrusted and sometimes hated by wider society. The biggest hurdle they face is not overcoming drug addiction – but overcoming social exclusion.”

He said tough and uncompromising drug policies do not reduce drug use. Instead they fuel underground markets led by violent gangsters, and the cost of this to individuals and communities is enormous.

“The ‘war on drugs’ approach makes it near impossible for problem drug users to find their way back into society, and just encourages them into further drug use as a way of coping and managing the grim realities that have become their lives.”

Professor Buchanan said there were valuable lessons New Zealand could learn from European countries like Portugal and Switzerland where drug laws are much less draconian and have resulted in less crime, reduced health risks, and better rehabilitation and reintegration for those who misuse drugs.

Professor Buchanan was speaking at the Through the Maze: Making treatment better Drug Policy Symposium organised by the New Zealand Drug Foundation and New Zealand Society on Alcohol and Drug Dependence.

The purpose of the invitation only symposium was to help focus the attention of policy makers and funders on ways to develop a high quality addiction treatment system that gets more people into treatment and retains those who are already in. 

The Symposium’s organisers believe this is a challenging time for addiction treatment services in New Zealand. Alcohol and other drug abuse is the sixth highest contributor to New Zealand’s burden of disease. Yet successive governments have underinvested in addiction treatment services that are proven to reduce alcohol and other drug harm.

NZ Drug Foundation and NZ Society on Alcohol and Drug Dependence media release