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Should we lament the fact that, even though this was an election year, there was no considered discussion of drug policy ideas between political parties? On the other hand, knowing how difficult sensible political engagement is on this tricky issue, should we just be quietly grateful?
It’s Catch-22. Drug policy deserves greater political attention, and there’s no good reason why parties can’t develop meaningful manifestos. But they don’t. Instead, drug debates are typically characterised by strident, ideological and simplistic rhetoric – “you’re either with us or against us”. We only need look back a few months to the unnecessary legal high U-turn, which only happened because of election year sensitivities.
While drug policy didn’t feature in the election, we were able to glean party positions from responses to a New Zealand Herald poll showing, for the first time, majority support (52 percent) for cannabis law reform.
The National Party retained its blind faith in the status quo. Labour, and not for the first time, claimed it’s not a priority. So did the Greens, who previously were big supporters of reform. ACT, the party of individual rights and liberty, copped out saying they’ll leave it to their MPs’ consciences. The only party that tried to develop a position was Internet MANA, but its leadership just couldn’t hold things together.
It’s no longer tenable to say drug policy is a low priority. Yes, it’s hard and complex, and solutions will be tricky to come by. But political leadership needs to be shown.
What are our priorities for drug policy reform? Drawing inspiration from the Wellington Declaration, there is much to do. Let’s start with:
• Scaling up harm-reduction services, especially needle exchanges, and replicate the successful Christchurch hep C clinic in major cities.
• Giving real effect to recommendations from the alcohol marketing forum and not shy away from alcohol pricing.
• Supporting schools to keep young New Zealanders engaged in education, including those busted with booze or pot.
• Rebalancing unfair funding between DHB and NGO addiction treatment services, and investing more in treatment and recovery efforts.
• Reforming our 40-year-old Misuse of Drugs Act so the law supports rather than hinders health-focused drug policy.
If our politicians continue to shy away from drug debates, we should invite them to take a backseat and allow the public to have the necessary dialogue instead.
You can still read and sign up to the Wellington Declaration – nzdrug. org/wellingtondec