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MPs are currently hearing public submissions on a potentially significant change to our drug law - the Misuse of Drugs Amendment Bill. The bill has been introduced as a response to the synthetic cannabinoids crisis.
It may not be common knowledge, but Police can already choose whether to prosecute someone they find in possession of drugs. The proposed new law will require them to only prosecute if it’s in the public interest, and to consider whether a health-centred or therapeutic approach would be more beneficial.
This is great news for anyone who favours a health approach to drugs. But the bill comes with a down-side: Two of the most dangerous synthetic drugs, AMB-FUBINACA and 5F-ADB, will be reclassified as Class A drugs.
On the surface, this may seem like the logical approach. In fact, within the confines of our current system, it is the only approach. Unfortunately, the Misuse of Drugs Act is an inadequate and harmful piece of legislation that needs a complete overhaul, as recommended by the Law Commission way back in 2011.
That’s why we can only support this legislation as a temporary measure. Increased Police discretion not to prosecute is an important step forward, but it must be followed by an overhaul of our drug law and backed up with increased investment in health and social services.
In the long run we need a system that does not rely on Police discretion, but instead provides health interventions for those who need them.
This is because discretion is a double-edged sword. Like other health professionals, we are concerned that Māori could be unfairly targeted. Janell Dymus-Kurei of Hapai Te Hauora, Māori Public Health, says discretion creates a “huge gaping hole of uncertainty” which will affect Māori more than any others.
Tragically, up to sixty-five deaths have been connected with synthetic substances since mid-2017, alongside hundreds of hospitalisations. And we know from our own extensive research that people who use synthetic substances heavily are some of New Zealand’s most vulnerable people. Many are homeless, and many are unemployed.
We’re concerned about the effects on not only those who use, but also those who supply synthetic substances – because in many cases they are the same people. Using synthetic substances at the heaviest end of the spectrum can cost hundreds of dollars per day. For many people in that position, the only way to fund their use is to sell to others.
International evidence is clear that focusing on reducing supply and increasing enforcement does not reduce harm for people who use drugs. In fact, high sentences can actually exacerbate harmful drug use by pushing up their price, making dangerous products more economically attractive to dealers.
It can also make the products themselves more dangerous. The higher the risk for suppliers, the more incentive there is to make products stronger, less bulky and thus harder to detect. For example, as the drug war intensified between 1990 and 2007 in the USA, the purity of heroin increased by 60%. The potency of cannabis increased by 161% and cocaine purity went up by 11%.
We cannot fall into the trap of thinking that high sentences are justified because they make communities safer. They do not.
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