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Director's Cut: December 2020

17 December 2020

In her first Director's Cut newly appointed Executive Director Sarah Helm describes the momentum for change as irrepressible thanks to the hard work of all of us.

Sometimes you have to repeat yourself until you are heard.

The Drug Foundation, and you: our many friends, members, partners and stakeholders have been bravely speaking up about drug use and saying things that no one else would.

And at last, we are increasingly being heard.

Drug checking is now legal, and KnowYourStuffNZ hosted the first ever legal drug checking session in our offices earlier this week. What a great way to end 2020. With some consideration being given to resourcing and a promise to extend this temporary legal provision, we have a much-needed opportunity to prevent unnecessary harm to people who use drugs.

The fact this reform has been introduced with very little public concern and even with support from multiple political parties is a sign of good progress and things to come.

I don’t need to tell you that we need a change in approach and to shift our legal framework and resourcing from a judicial one to a health-based one.

The ever-so-close cannabis referendum results, and the improvement this demonstrated against prior polling (e.g. in 2018 a Drug Foundation poll showed 67% of voters supported some form of law change, with only 35% supporting legalisation and 32% decriminalisation at that time), demonstrates the public have heard us, and increasingly agree our current approach to drugs hasn’t worked.

There is a mood for change.

The Misuse of Drugs Act was passed way back in 1975. In the same year, Muldoon became Prime Minister, Abba was in the charts and Te Rawara leader Dame Whina Cooper led an historic land march. Since then, we have had cassette tapes, VHS, and fax machines come and go. The Waitangi Tribunal, Human Rights Act and same sex marriage have been enacted.

And the ‘war on drugs’ has failed. Even the United States of America as its main provocateur seems to have conceded. (See our new article Surprising direction of US drug law reform).

The dated legislation is based on a presumption that prohibition will dissuade people from using drugs and that meting out convictions and penalties to people who use drugs will correct behaviour. Wrong. Some 95% of people convicted of a cannabis-related offence continue to use at the same or an increased level following arrest. Māori continue to bear the biggest brunt of harms. And in 2019/20, young people shouldered almost half of our 3,067 convictions for minor drug offences (possession, use, drug utensil - all drugs).  You'll find more detail in our 2020 State of the Nation report

I don’t need to tell you that we need a change in approach and to shift our legal framework and resourcing from a judicial one to a health-based one.

Alongside our problematic legal framework, we continue to struggle to get enough funding and support for public education, community action, early intervention and treatment. A much-needed funding boost has alleviated pressure and allowed for more innovation, but services are still struggling to meet demand. For more background, see our recent feature on Constant pressure.

Thank you for your incredible work in 2020, in the face of at times insurmountable challenges.

Meanwhile, despite the good intention of the government, medicinal cannabis continues to be inaccessible for most people. In the words of Helen Kelly: “It’s a mild, cheap and low-key medicine being denied”. And this is still true for working and low-income people, or people whose GP’s don’t know how to prescribe it. The cost of a prescription is in excess of $240/month, for some over $1,000/month, if a patient can access a prescription at all. People are still risking falling foul of the law to access this medicine, or to produce their own. 

And yet, I am enormously hopeful. Because there is momentum for change.

Thank you for your incredible work in 2020, in the face of at times insurmountable challenges. It has been worth it. For those that are able, enjoy a restful period over Christmas and New Year’s with your loved ones. And let’s work together in 2021 to capitalise on the momentum you have collectively built this year.

Lastly, thank you to those who I have met so far for making me feel welcome back into the sector. I look forward to meeting many more of you and hosting some events next year to help consolidate our work. It is an honour to stand on the shoulders of giants. The Foundation has said a reluctant farewell to two outstanding humans who have pushed fearlessly for evidence-based approaches to drug harm. Nga mihi arohanui ki a kōrua, Ross and Tuari. They remain part of our whānau.

Meri Kirihimete for those that celebrate Christmas, and peaceful season’s greetings to you all.

Sarah Helm, Executive Director.

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