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The Law Commission’s report on drug law reform is timely, smart and welcome. Now our politicians need the courage to respond.

The global war on drugs has failed, according to a new report by a group of eminent people, including former United Nations secretary-general Kofi Annan and entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson. When it comes to reforming New Zealand’s obsolete drug laws, will our politicians be guided by good evidence or will they opt for the status quo for fear of upsetting a small but vocal minority?

After four years of research, extensive consultation, and careful scrutiny of what has happened in other jurisdictions, the Law Commission has tabled in Parliament its final report for reforming the Misuse of Drugs Act 1975.

Its 144 recommendations would, if fully implemented, significantly reduce the health, social and economic harm from drug use in this country. For nearly four decades, we have relied on a punitive, criminal justice-based approach to address illicit drug use. Yet despite injecting hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars into police and prisons to curb the supply of drugs and lock up more offenders, this approach has failed.

Hundreds of thousands of New Zealanders continue to use illicit drugs (nearly half of all adults in this country have used cannabis) and drug users with addiction or associated mental health problems fail to receive the health-based support they need.

While New Zealand has been spared the carnage of drug-related violence on the scale of countries such as Mexico, the consequences of our archaic drug laws have often caused disproportionate harms relative to offending. Many young people receive criminal records for minor drug offences that persist for life, with profound implications for their future employment and travel prospects.

Not all drugs cause the same level of harm and not all drug users are in need of treatment. Prosecuting minor drug offences through the criminal justice system is costly, generally ineffective as a deterrent, and fails to address any health concerns.

This is why the Law Commission recommends diverting minor drug offenders to education, assessment and treatment through a formal cautioning system rather than put them through the courts.

Its proposals include linking the number of formal cautions to drug class. For example, a user of a Class C drug such as cannabis would be required to attend an intervention on their third caution whereas a user of a Class A drug such as methamphetamine would be required to attend an intervention on their first caution.

The commission has also called for a full-scale review of the drug classification system to rectify existing anomalies, and has recommended greater investment in harm prevention, education and addiction treatment.

The commission has recognised that many offenders in the justice system have underlying addiction problems, and has proposed separate funding for treating offenders through the justice sector. All these measures should be welcomed and are fiscally prudent. It is estimated that for every $1 spent on addiction treatment, there is a $4 to $7 drop in the cost associated with drug-related crime.

Contrary to what some have suggested, the Law Commission is not advocating a ‘‘soft on drugs’’ stance. Nor is its report the slippery slope to decriminalisation.

The law will continue to impose heavy penalties on those who profit from the manufacture and sale of illicit drugs. The commission has also made it clear that its cautioning scheme will not change the criminal status of these offences. Users who come to police attention after receiving a final caution would be prosecuted, and the commission has plugged an important gap by recommending tougher regulation for the sale and supply of legal highs.

Police Association president Greg O’Connor’s assertion that a formal cautioning and diversion scheme would encourage more young people to take up drugs is simply not substantiated by the evidence. Diversion programmes in Australia have actually reduced drug use and been associated with lower rates of offending.

Many other countries have recognised that drug use is a health and social issue, not merely a criminal justice one. Using taxpayer dollars to arrest, prosecute and, in some cases, jail those who use illicit drugs or provide them to their friends is wasteful, ineffective and can exacerbate, rather than reduce, drug-related harm.

In calling for a greater emphasis on harm reduction strategies instead of more prosecutions, the commission has given the Government the chance to introduce drug legislation based on 21st century evidence, not outdated ideology.


This opinion piece was published in The Dominion Post, Monday 6 June 2011

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