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The Drug Foundation yesterday told Parliament’s Health Select Committee that it supports amendments to the outdated Misuse of Drugs Act (1975), which begins to cement in place a much needed health approach to drug use.

“Lawmakers are catching up with the fact that punishing people for drug use does not work. This amendment will ensure people who could benefit from a health intervention get one, rather than a conviction,” said Ross Bell, Director NZ Drug Foundation.

“The scale and severity of the synthetic drugs crisis warrants the changes proposed. The latest figures suggest up to 65 deaths since July 2017 are related to synthetic drugs. We can’t wish the problem away, so this bill goes some way towards addressing the issue.

“While we debate the best way of implementing Portuguese-style reforms, we need urgent action. More people could die from dangerous synthetics, so we need to ensure those people most at risk are channelled to support services rather than the courts. These changes will achieve that.

“Moves by the Police show they are already working on the basis of discretion, and referring many people to social support rather than pursuing conviction. Te Ara Oranga in Northland is just one example of how we can get treatment and support to the people who need it most.

“However, there are some troubling aspects to the Bill. We are concerned that those who already miss out on police discretion, predominantly Māori and young people, will continue to do so. This needs to be monitored very carefully.

“Classifying certain synthetics as Class A puts the very people the Bill is intended to help at risk of criminal conviction – when what they really need is urgent, intensive health and social support.

The Mental Health and Addictions Inquiry recommended a longer-term response to harmful drug use, by removing criminal sanctions for personal drug use and replacing them with a broader range of health interventions.

“The Bill does not go far enough. We’re not alone in saying that while this Bill is a good start, it is just tinkering. We would like to see legislation that picks up on the Law Commission’s 2011 recommendations for health referrals and other health related measures.

“A missing piece of the jigsaw is access to health support for those who need it. A health-centred or therapeutic approach is called for, but there isn’t detail how about this will be put into practice. We expect to see a significant increase in funding for addiction treatment, education and prevention in the upcoming Wellbeing budget.”

The Drug Foundation has joined with other public health and social justice organisations, under the Health Not Handcuffs banner, to call for the drug-related health budget to be doubled.

Read our submission on the Misuse of Drugs Amendment Bill (2019), released 1 May 2019

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