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The New Zealand government could save millions of dollars by diverting New Zealanders with drug problems out of the court system and into the health system, says a major international expert visiting New Zealand for the Healthy Drug Law Symposium (being held in Wellington 18-19 February).

Gino Vumbaca, Executive Director of the Australian National Council on Drugs, says courts and prisons are costing New Zealanders hundreds of millions of dollars and do little to make New Zealand safer or to help addicts overcome their problems. Diverting them to treatment instead would reduce crime and drug use in New Zealand and slash police and court costs.

“Prisons are poorly equipped to provide positive treatment outcomes, and inmates often come out with worse drug problems than they had when they were sentenced. This leads to a ‘revolving door’ effect where they often quickly re-offend and end up back in jail because their core problems aren't being tackled.

“If we can intervene and stop the never ending cycle of drug use and offending, not only do we save communities millions, we also make them safer, and help thousands of people – and their families – to have a better life.”

Mr Vumbaca says there is ample Australian evidence to show that diversion produces better results than prison.

  • In just three years of operation the Cannabis Cautioning police diversion programme in New South Wales saved 18,000 hours of police time, $400,000 in police costs and an estimated $800,000 for local courts.
  • Participants in the NSW MERIT diversion programme were far less likely to re-offend than those who did not complete the programme, and an estimated twice the amount spent was saved.
  • Participants in Queensland’s police illicit drug diversion programme reported increased employment and improved physical and mental health.
  • South Australian police diversion participants reported a 40 percent decline in drug related offending with similar declines reported across the country.

Mr Vumbaca says in Australia it is now costs up to $73,000 a year for a prisoner to be in jail, while it only costs around $30,000 a year for treatment in a residential rehabilitation centre.

New Zealand Drug Foundation Director, Ross Bell, says our current drug legislation needs to change to reflect what we have learned about the benefits of drug treatment in recent years.

“The Misuse of Drugs Act was drafted in 1975 when the prevailing view was that we could punish drugs out of existence. We've been jailing the same drug users over and over again the last 30 years and it hasn't made a scrap of difference.

“We now understand the best way to reduce drug production – and the crime and misery accompanying drug use – is to reduce demand by helping people addicted to drugs overcome dependence, and become healthy, contributing members of society.”

The Misuse of Drugs Act is currently under review by the independent Law Commission. Ross Bell says this provides a rare opportunity for New Zealand to bring its drug law into the 21st century.

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