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Every election, we put together a briefing to the incoming parliament. As we make the final touches to our latest recommendations, I’ve been reflecting on what we told them three years ago.
The previous government made some progress towards a more health-focused approach to New Zealand’s drug problem; our new briefing will certainly highlight the areas where progress has been slow and where reform is urgent.
But there are two issues where no progress has been made despite a supportive policy environment – opioid overdose prevention and an early warning system for new psychoactive substances. Both highlight failed implementation by government and its agencies.
Three years ago, we advocated strongly for naloxone – the overdose reversal medicine – to be more widely available. Our advocacy was successful. The Medicines Classification Committee agreed to change the status of naloxone, allowing it to be accessed without prescription as part of an approved overdose pack. This pack could be distributed widely through the needle exchange programme, both to people who inject drugs and to their friends and family.
We naively assumed that, the decision having being made, the agencies responsible for implementing it would crack into gear and get it done. This was not the case.
Instead, they have given us excuses why it is not their responsibility and highlighted barriers to implementation that still exist as though it was someone else’s role to remove those barriers. This bureaucratic inertia is agonisingly odd. After all, we are talking about preventing deaths.
The same inertia exists in a very stark way with the recent deaths from synthetic cannabinoids (which our cover story examines in detail).
Government agencies had agreed to establish an early warning system for psychoactive substances by June this year. This languishes for lack of funding and lack of motivation. We can only imagine whether things would have been different if this warning system had been in place.
But even without this system, different government agencies had access to good knowledge about the rapidly changing synthetic cannabinoid black market. For reasons known only to them, they chose not to share this more widely – including to the public.
We could very easily find ourselves stuck with the status quo, where agencies with access to good intel continue to sit on it.
So when we write our briefing to new politicians, we will talk to them about drug law reform and the urgent need for more resources for prevention, education and treatment. But we will also vigorously challenge those government agencies tasked with implementation to act with more urgency, especially when it comes to lifesaving interventions.