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The government’s initial response to the Law Commission’s report on drug law reform is disappointing. Minister of Justice Simon Power’s declaration that there’s not a single, solitary chance he will be relaxing drug laws is symptomatic of the misinformation swirling around this socially divisive issue and the way in which a complex debate is framed in over simplistic terms, or worse, shut down altogether.

The Law Commission is not advocating legalisation or even decriminalisation of drugs. Rather, in its considered and comprehensive report, it calls for a rebalancing of our drug laws so that efforts to curb supply are also better supported by measures aimed at reducing demand and minimising harm. It has been tasked with aligning our drug law with our existing National Drug Policy, and in the process, of dragging our 35 year old drug law into the 21st century.

Any debate on drug law reform should be grounded in the facts. Even a cursory glance at the statistics shows that clinging to the status quo, as the Minister appears to want to do, is not tenable. Despite the punitive approach of the last three decades, recreational drug use is widespread in this country. In a 2008 survey, nearly one in two adults aged 16–64 years (49.4%) had used cannabis in their lifetime, representing 1,224,600 people. Yet in 2005-06, 333,684 hours of police time were devoted to cannabis drug enforcement at a cost to the taxpayer of $116.2 million. At a time when police resources are under massive pressure (remember last year’s backlog of 108 child abuse files in the Wairarapa?), the existing approach to enforcing our drugs laws is difficult to justify.

It is important to remember that New Zealand’s search for better and more effective drug laws is not taking place in a vacuum. Many other like minded countries have reformed their drug laws, and in the process, embraced a more health-based approach to drugs rather than one that relies solely on the criminal justice system. This has been accomplished within an overarching prohibitionist framework. In Australia, a broad range of diversion programmes was introduced in the late 1990s under the tenure of John Howard, a social conservative prime minister well known for his hard line views on drugs. Indeed, the Australian diversion initiative was implemented as part of his ‘get tough on drugs’ campaign - the law remained tough on traffickers and offenders who failed to take up diversion.

The Australian experience is noteworthy on several accounts and should serve to reassure nervous politicians on this side of the Tasman that diversion or cautioning schemes as part of a comprehensive package of refocused drug laws are a pragmatic and effective way to deal with the issue of personal drug use. They should not be interpreted as getting soft on drugs – quite the opposite, they enable a more focussed enforcement approach in which the full weight of the law is brought to bear on those trafficking in drugs. Such schemes are part of a rebalancing of the state’s efforts to more effectively address all three pillars of drug policy – supply control, demand reduction and problem limitation.

There are compelling reasons to carefully study the Law Commission’s report. Our existing drug legislation is out of date, too complex and clearly not working. It is time for a mature and reasoned debate about drug laws in this country. Our politicians need to facilitate, rather than thwart, the development of a contemporary legislative framework for regulating drugs that properly supports modern drug policy. In the quest for better drug law, it is time to put aside emotion and be guided by reason and the experience of others. The status quo is not working. It is time for change.

 

This is an edited version of an opinion piece that was published in the Dominion Post on 3 March 2010

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