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When will world leaders, politicians and community leaders admit that our punitive approach to the drug problem isn't working?

Next week the world gathers at the United Nations headquarters to agree how countries can work together to solve the world's drug problem. The last time they did this, in 1998, they declared the war on drugs was something that could be won.

The chorus was headed by then-UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, who proclaimed, "It is time for every nation to say 'no' to drugs. It is time for all nations to say 'yes' to the challenge of working towards a drug-free world."

By any measure the world has missed that target. And people are beginning to wake up to that reality.

Just last month the Johns Hopkins-Lancet Commission on Drug Policy and Health, in a damning report on punitive drug law, recommended countries decriminalise minor, non-violent drug offences and strengthen health and social-sector alternatives.

In response, our own drug policy minister Peter Dunne reminded everyone his approach is to see the drug problem first and foremost as a health issue tackled best with compassionate, proportionate and innovative responses.

We agree. New Zealand's heavy-handed approach over the past 40 years has done little to address the serious health and social harms caused by problematic drug use. It's only made the problem worse, especially for Māori.

New Zealander is now counted among countries with the highest rates of drug use. We have failed to invest properly in the health of our people, with the government spending more on drug law enforcement and punishment instead of timely prevention, good education and quality treatment.

In our respective work we see the impacts of this imbalance. Whether it is people arriving at the GP clinic with a drug dependence problem, or a school student getting stood down or excluded for drugs, the flow-on effects stretch across the wider whanau.

Many of those who most need support can't get the help they need. An estimated 50,000 New Zealanders can't access treatment for their alcohol and drug problems, and not only because there is not enough treatment available: the stigma associated with drug use and its current illegality blocks people from coming forward for help.

Drug dependence is not the only way we see Māori being harmed. Māori bear the brunt of our current drug law. We are four times more likely to get a drug conviction, we make up about 40 per cent of the prisoner population for drug offences, and miss out on many Police diversion schemes. Criminalising individuals for minor drug offences, such as possession or petty dealing, is a punishment that lasts a lifetime, negatively affecting education and employment prospects.

The government's new drug policy puts people's health front and centre and we applaud that. But that policy is undermined by the punitive, 40-year-old drug law. The prohibition mind-set belongs to another era.

Here's how we should modernise our approach.

We must replace the criminal justice approach with health interventions, just as they did 15 years ago in Portugal. This means decriminalising drugs and shifting people into getting appropriate help. It also means confronting the poverty, despair and alienation that lies at the heart of problematic drug use.

Ahead of the United Nations meeting, here's our challenge/wero:

To our politicians: Acknowledging that the drug problem is a health matter doesn't mean you support drug use or are soft on drugs. Instead of brushing aside the issue in a kneejerk way take a page out of Peter Dunne's book and be willing to let new evidence change your mind.

To our Iwi leaders: Don't be mistaken thinking that the punishment approach to drugs is a cloak that protects our rangitahi and whānau - it's a law creating more harm for Māori than it prevents. We need your leadership to design a new whanau-centred approach that properly addresses the serious drug harms we all see in our community.

We are not ignoring the real devastation that drug use causes our whānau - rather we are saying that using the criminal justice system as the intervention has not worked and, in fact has made it worse.

For inspiration, look no further than Kofi Annan who has taken up this leadership challenge. In his wisdom he has reversed his stance. No longer fighting a war on drugs, Annan now calls for the same kind of health approach we want. He asks, "If our children do develop a drug problem, surely we will want them cared for as patients in need of treatment and not branded as criminals."

Shifting in this direction is a legacy that will be long remembered after any talk of a "drug free world" fades into obsolescence.


Dr Lance O'Sullivan is a Kaitaia GP and was named New Zealander of the Year. Tuari Potiki is Chairperson of the New Zealand Drug Foundation.


This opinion piece was first published in the NZ Herald on 12 April 20-16 under title "Combative stance on drug use part of problem".

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