I have some sympathy for the how the Misuse of Drugs Act must feel as it turns 40 this year, having myself experienced that milestone in the recent past.
But while I’m still in my prime [Wishful thinking – editor.], New Zealand’s drug law has long shown serious signs of aging and is now well past its use-by date.
Like many 40 year olds, the law has got sluggish. Despite being amended 18 times in the past eight years it has failed to keep pace with a rapidly changing drug market, including the influx of new psychoactive substances effortlessly traded over the internet.
And then there’s the big question about the law’s fundamental effectiveness. Has it succeeded in doing what it was designed for? Over its lifetime drug use in New Zealand has not been supressed. We remain among the world’s highest users of cannabis, and until recently were up there with methamphetamine. While wider social factors will be the main determinant of drug use patterns, it is our drug law that determines how we respond. It has performed poorly.
In the five years since the Law Commission’s review of the law there’s been an almost seismic shift in global drug law reform. New drug control models are being tried in Uruguay and the Czech Republic, and great momentum is building in the US. And let’s not forget New Zealand’s experience with regulations, which itself contributes to the global knowledge base of innovative approaches.
We must now turn our attention to modernising our drug law, a project that should go hand-in-glove with the government’s refreshed National Drug Policy. It’s here that we must grapple with the devilish detail and move beyond the proclamations of ‘decriminalisation’ or ‘legalisation’ or ‘tough on drugs’.
As the wonderful Mark Kleiman says elsewhere in this magazine, “Debating whether to legalise pot is increasingly pointless…the important debate now is how to legalise it.”
This demands from us all a much better informed level of discussion on specific models for law reform. Fortunately, we’ve just been here with the recent development of the regulatory approach over new psychoactive substances. You’ll recall the very specific details about matters we were required to consider, such as where can products be sold and who can sell them; can we test products on rats only, or rabbits or none at all; what are safe dosage limits; should the containers be child-proof, and so on.
The Law Commission has already presented a possible model, proposing a cautioning and health referral system which could be fast-tracked for substances with greater harm profiles. I reckon that’s a pretty good starting point for our current law’s retirement plan.
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