The ink was barely dry on the Law Commission’s Controlling and Regulating Drugs report when critics began the ritual wailing and gnashing of teeth about it being “soft on drugs.”
The responses from the Sensible Sentencing Trust and Family First were predictable, but avoidable. Media outlets giving airtime to these so-called “experts” (neither lobby group having any track record in evidence-based drug policy) was extremely unfortunate. One newspaper even published a story about the Commission’s proposal to decriminalise cannabis – a recommendation that was nowhere to be found in their report. Had these people actually read the report?
Sadly, drug policy debates in New Zealand descend too quickly into dogmatic rants about ‘soft’ versus ‘hard’ drug policy, with little in the way of analysis or fact informing those debates.
The report includes 144 recommendations for law reform, the most significant being that the Misuse of Drugs Act 1975 be scrapped and replaced with a new law administered by the Ministry of Health. This recognises what many of us have been saying for years – the ‘drug problem’ in our country is primarily a health issue best addressed through health and social policies and interventions.
In this regard, the Law Commission, in 2011, has come to the same conclusion as the Blake-Palmer Policy Review 1968–1973 which said, “There are kinder and more effective methods than reliance on criminal law alone to deal with the misuse of drugs.”
A health-focussed law does not equate to a “soft” drug law. The Law Commission clearly states: “We have not suggested any dilution of New Zealand’s prohibition approach… Nor should we wish to. We believe that there must continue to be vigorous law enforcement focus on large scale commercial dealing, backed up by strong penalties.” Nothing soft about that.
The Law Commission does articulate a clear way forward, especially for a new regulatory approach to so-called “legal highs” and a mandatory diversion scheme for lower level drug offending. Here the Law Commission simply draws from the experience of our Australian cousins who have been running highly successful diversion schemes since 1999.
The Government is now considering its response to this seminal report. A sober and considered response from them will allow us to move our drug law into the 21st century.
NB Over 10 years the Drug Foundation has published 500 articles in the Matters of Substance magazine. Half of these stories are available here as webpages, and the rest are in PDF format only (download May 2011 copy 3.2 MB).
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