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Significant harm reduction to the people of New Zealand or simplistic political rhetoric. Those were presented as the alternatives to attendees at the Drug Policy Roundtable in Wellington this morning, during the opening address by Tim Harding, Chair of the New Zealand Drug Foundation.

The Roundtable is a yearly forum for New Zealand’s drug policy makers, health professionals and politicians to discuss the future of New Zealand's drug laws and policies. A number of drug policy experts from overseas are also attending.

"Today’s Roundtable is an important opportunity to identify and debate world leading policy," Mr Harding said.

"But it’s also an election year, and the temptation to score political points with fear-based rhetoric that will only feed public ignorance must be avoided. Therein lies the challenge."

Drug Foundation Executive Director Ross Bell said good drug laws and policies are based on understanding the reasons behind drug use and making it easier for users and addicts to get the help they need.

“It’s all too easy, however, for politicians to play on the public’s fears and suggest approaches designed to curry favour that are not based on sound evidence and will likely make drug problem worse and lead to greater harm in the community.

"The Roundtable is designed to set the scene for the year, and lead balanced, thoughtful and sensitive dialogue on drug policy, especially as our drug laws are under review and political parties are forming their election manifestos."

Professor Doug Sellman, Director of New Zealand’s National Addiction Centre, said New Zealand is arguably in the best position to lead the world in developing rational drug policy.

“We’re a small nation and it takes a relatively short time for ideas to gain the attention of our policy and decision makers. The rapid implementation of our world-leading needle exchange programme 21 years ago is evidence of this.

“We’re also a nation with a history of boldness on a lot of levels. We haven't been scared to lead the world in women’s suffrage, becoming nuclear-free or climbing tall mountains.

“We can also be world-leaders in drug legislation that identifies what the problems are and address them in ways that save lives.”

The Drug Policy Roundtable closely follows the Beyond 2008 Australasian Consultation also held in Wellington earlier this week where community organisations had opportunity to feedback to the United Nations on what has worked in New Zealand in reducing supply and use of illicit drugs.

In 1998, the United Nations General Assembly set a target for a drug-free world in ten years.

Mr Harding said we’re now left with just ten months to rid the world of drugs.

“The UN targets are one of the best examples of unrealistic rhetoric and decisions made for political rather than humanitarian reasons.

“The ‘war on drugs’ philosophy has obviously failed. It’s time for us to seek solutions based on treatment and honest evaluation of solid evidence.”

The Drug Policy Roundtable was attended by representatives from the Law Commission, Police, Customs, the Ministries of Justice and Health, and the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet.

International participants also include Alison Ritter from the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre which advises the Australian government on drug policy, Michel Perron from the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse and Gábor Somogyi of the Beckley Foundation Drug Policy Programme in the United Kingdom.

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