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Concerns at worrying levels of drug use within some communities in Northland underpinned calls for action at a hui run by the Drug Foundation in Kaikohe. Most people accepted that drug issues should be treated as a health problem, with support expressed by many for some form of drug law reform. The options of decriminalisation and legalisation were both discussed.
The NZ Drug Foundation, in collaboration with Te Hau Ora O Ngāpuhi, ran the hui to discuss the harms current New Zealand drug laws have on Māori. The hui in Northland's Kaikohe, Te Tai Tokerau was the first in a series being run nationwide. It was well attended with around 60 participants and covered many aspects of our current drug law.
There was agreement amongst the four Members of Parliament in attendance that change was needed, with some recognising the need for law change. There was support for health-focused interventions for those that came to the attention of enforcement agencies over drugs, while others at the meeting spoke about the opportunities within existing systems such as Drug Courts and Community Justice Panels.
People agreed that no one gains from punishing those charged for low level drug offences with criminal convictions. The reality of drug harm across Te Tai Tokerau was outlined. Several people spoke about the pain and dispossession of those impacted by serious drug issues. Any change to drug laws needs to be carefully considered and will need some form of consensus within the Māori community.
The meeting was opened with karakia, ngā hīmene and mihi whakatau led by Ben Poa of Ngāpuhi. Kelvin Davis replied to the welcome on behalf of those present. Support for the hui from Te Ropu Poa, General Manager from Te Hau Ora O Ngāpuhi, including providing us with tikanga support, is gratefully acknowledged.
Our first speaker was Tony Dowling, the newly appointed Chief Executive of Te Rūnanga Ā Iwi O Ngāpuhi. Mr Dowling stated that Ngāpuhi recognised the harms drugs were having on our communities and the need for change. He supported the intent of the meeting and formally opened the hui on behalf of Te Hau Ora O Ngāpuhi.
Next up was Ross Bell, Executive Director of the NZ Drug Foundation who outline current issues associated with illicit drug use in New Zealand. He stated that we're primarily seeking to punish people for what is fundamentally a health issue. He said that if we started dealing with drugs through a health link by providing education prevention and treatment, that we're actually going to finally get on top of the problem. He finished by screening a recording of the Chair of the NZ Drug Foundation, Tuari Potiki addressing the United Nations General Assembly Special Session on the world drug problem held in New York in April 2016.
The meeting then turned to a political panel including David Clendon, MP, Green Party; Kelvin Davis, MP, Labour Party; Dr Shane Reti, MP, National Party; and Darroch Ball MP, NZ First. Apologies were received from Rt Hon Winston Peters, MP, NZ First and the Leader of the Mana Party, Hone Hariwera.
National MP for Whangarei, Dr Shane Reti, said he wanted the way the criminal justice system views the use of drugs and narcotics to be changed. He spoke about the National Drug Policy 2015-2020 as the guiding document for policy and practices aimed at preventing and reducing alcohol and other drug-related harm in the community. He recognised the work of the Associate Minister of Health, Peter Dunn and noted that alcohol and drug issues are first and foremost a health issue. He spoke of the need to be compassionate, innovative and proportionate and that these principles had particular application within the school setting. He spoke of his experience as a front line general practitioner for many years in Whangarei and had a real depth of awareness and compassion for this issue.
Green Party MP David Clendon talked about the Green Party's policy relating to drugs, which included a long-term plan to decriminalise the use of cannabis, build on a policy that aims to reduce drug abuse, reduce the illegal drug market and minimise the harms of legal and illegal drugs on society and on individual users. He talked about the social justice issues of our current laws, saying "If we do just want to keep slapping up more young guys and young girls, let's just keep doing what we're doing because we're achieving that pretty well now." He spoke of the challenges around gaining consensus to effect policy reform, and the political implications of building more prisons. He challenged organisations such as the Sensible Sentencing Trust and the associated hysteria that these types of groups create around how drugs are perceived. He supported law reform becuase of the negative impacts of the current law on Māori and the need to remove prohibition.
NZ First MP Darroch Ball, spoke about the political cycle being too short. He stated that youth drug issues often started within Youth Justice system and the need for greater investment at an earlier age to treat drug addiction. He reinforced NZ First's stance of running a national referendum on decriminalising or legalising drugs. He challenged the current government's thinking around building more prisons and brought a strong youth focus to his discussion.
Labour Party MP Kelvin Davis said, "While we continue with that attitude of just seeing people as problems, people who have problems as being the problem, then we aren't going to change anything." He spoke with confidence about drug issues in prisons. He was aware that some prisoners participated in drug programmes and attended church services to enable the exchange of drugs across the prison. He stated that "Prison doesn't work and it robs people of their potential." He spoke about the $100,000.00 per year cost to the taxpayer per prisoner. He suggested that if 40 percent of the total muster out of a potential 500 inmates at the Northland Region Corrections Facility at Ngawha were there for low level drug offences, this translates to something like 200 inmates. The cost to society isn't insignificant and he challenged the government to rethink its investment strategy.
A community panel was convened after a short break. The panel members were: Moe Milne, a well-known health and mental health advocate from Moerewa; Stuart McBarron, Addictions Counsellor from Haruru; Terri Cassidy, a community worker and Māori health researcher from Whangarei; Hinurewa te Hau, Tai Tokerau Electorate Chair for the Māori Party and Segina Te Ahuahu Northland DHB Mental Health and Addiction Portfolio Manager from Whangarei.
There was strong consensus across the community panel that reform by way of decriminalising or legalising drugs was required. Panel members were unaware of what was happening with the allocation of the three million dollars to deal with methamphetamine-related issues in Northland. They spoke about wanting to be part of the solution and challenged the assumption that an increase in frontline Police would do little to reduce the harm.
Ngāti Hine descendant Moe Milne said, "We already know from these past centuries that the system doesn't work for us. We have the solutions but the funding is still being given to the district health boards and police. Why? That system will continue to put more and more Māori behind bars."
Dr Clair Mills, Medical Officer of Health said, "The fact that three-quarters of the people going to prison in Northland are young Māori is really a big public health problem because this means these young people aren't working. They're not able to have a good life. They're not looking after their family. Many of them do have mental health, drug and alcohol issues, which aren't being treated adequately."
Overall, there was general agreement at the hui that more education, prevention and treatment to deal with the Northland drug issue is needed. Gaps in research were identified, both around how to deal with the drug problem at a local and national level, and to validate the use of medical cannabis. One person spoke about not relying on our political system to deal with this issue.
The realities of Northland were expressed well by some participants, who felt that people needing help for drugs were not likely to come to hui like this. There was support for indigenous models of treatment and the awareness that drug use was often a symptom of other socioeconomic, health and wellbeing factors. There was comment that marae structures remained strong in Northland and that a marae model for treatment and rehabilitation would be far more successful in supporting those impacted by drugs.
There was a feeling that Māori may need to be better equipped to solve their own problems – but in the meantime we need to stop making more Māori into criminals due to the current drug policy. There was a call for Police to be involved in future discussions as they are part of the problem and could be part of the solution.
Funding for the Drug Foundation to address the impacts of current drug laws on Māori is provided by the JR McKenzie Trust.
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