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Directors Cut

Ross Bell MOS

Ross Bell
Executive Director

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Here we go again. It’s an election year and the dog whistling about people who use drugs has already begun. It was astounding to recently hear Prime Minister Bill English claim the country’s skill shortage is due to young people failing workplace drug tests. To paraphrase, young Kiwis are lazy stoners.

There are many things we could unpack from the PM’s comments, but let’s just look at the facts. For a data guy, Bill’s been sloppy.

For starters, the government’s own data shows about 150 people failed pre-employment drug tests in the past three years. With an average of 30,000 tests a year, that’s a failure rate of less than 1 percent.

A major private sector testing company, citing its own figures, said that, despite a massive increase in pre-employment and workplace random testing, only about 5 percent of tests are non-negative. So although the PM has heard lots of anecdotes from lots of employers, drug use isn’t really the barrier to employment on the scale implied.

If he’s concerned about young people not getting work, the PM should look no further than our failed drug law. Recent Ministry of Justice figures show that, over a seven-year period, 16,700 people aged 17-25 were convicted of drug or drug utensil possession. Having a drug conviction has a lifelong impact on a person’s employment and travel prospects.

 But the PM’s use of anecdata isn’t the only thing that bothers me. If he really believes what he says, what’s he going to do about it? Is it right for him to muse as he did without outlining a plan to fix the problem?

Well, here are a few suggestions for the government: Remove the drug conviction barrier by decriminalising drug use (this would have the added bonus of freeing up law enforcement to address serious crime).

Invest in good drug prevention, education and treatment programmes, and eliminate treatment waiting lists.  Less than a quarter of the government’s spending on drug control goes to health interventions; the lion’s share goes to Police, Customs, courts and prisons.

Provide incentives for employers to recruit people new in recovery. This is what Portugal did at the same time they decriminalised drug use. Having a job can be a really important part of someone overcoming drug dependence.

Finally, help employers develop better ways of building a strong health and safety culture in the workplace that doesn’t rely on simplistic and ineffective drug testing programmes. You don’t build trust in the workplace by having your staff pee in a cup.

That New Zealanders use drugs isn’t in debate here. But the complex matters of drug use, employment, drug testing, and health and safety deserve more than lazy scapegoating.

We expect better-quality debate and analysis in this election year.

Ross Bell
Executive Director

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