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Date published: 18th February 2009 | Type: Media release

Drug control in the form of prohibition or a ‘War on Drugs’ has been a spectacular failure, a visiting American expert told a symposium in Wellington today. However, he says the alternative is not to abandon the effort altogether, but to figure out a better way.

Scott Burris, a professor at Temple Law School in Philadelphia, and Associate Director of the Centers for Law and the Public's Health was speaking at the Healthy Drug Law Symposium being held in Wellington.

“There are very legitimate and widespread fears about the consequences of abandoning prohibition, even though it has failed,” he said. “And the challenge for those critical of a ‘tough on drugs’ stance is to come up with ideas about viable alternatives.”

The Healthy Drug Law Symposium is being held as a precursor to a meeting in March of the United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs which will review the progress of its global drug control strategy.

In June 1998 the UN General Assembly Special Session agreed on a 10-year programme towards eliminating or significantly reducing drug manufacture, supply, and demand worldwide. Since then, however, drugs have only become cheaper, purer and more readily-available, and a growing number of critics are calling for a re-think.

However, Mr Burris says most proposed post-prohibitionist scenarios are only vaguely defined.

“I'm not sure anyone really has a clear idea of what that system would look like, which makes it difficult to convince anyone outside the choir that there is a viable alternative to prohibition.

“What we need is a set of guiding principles – a sort of Constitution of Drug Policy that could help provide consensus in moving forward.”

He says the basic elements of this constitution could include:

  • Regulation of illicit use must be balanced with access to beneficial drugs
  • The ultimate goal of good drug policy has to be public wellbeing, maximising the benefits of drugs while minimising their social and individual harm
  • Any regulatory system must be judge by its results, including the harms the system itself produces.

“The long term goal should be to move away from a primarily criminal-justice policy based on zero tolerance towards a public health based system dedicated to reducing dangerous consumption, evidence-based prevention, harm reduction and drug treatment services,” Mr Burris said.

NZ Drug Foundation Director, Ross Bell, said Mr Burris’s comments come at an opportune time, as New Zealand’s Misuse of Drugs Act is currently under review by the Law Commission.

“Whether we like to admit it or not, relying solely on criminal law as the primary way to reduce drug harm has proven ineffective both in New Zealand and overseas. Admitting this actually provides us with a great opportunity to move forward.

“Drug control is too important an issue for us to just press ahead on the basis of fear, ideology and misinformation. What we have to do now is look closely at the evidence for approaches that really do reduce drug harm and protect communities. That evidence is there and needs to form the basis of the laws and policies we develop to address drug misuse – both here at home and as a global community.”

Mr Bell said that though New Zealand national drug policy is world leading in recognising the importance of a balanced approach, the Misuse of Drugs Act is hopelessly out-of-date and based solely on punishment as a deterrent.

The invitation-only International Drug Policy Symposium – Through the Maze: Healthy Drug Law, NZ Drug Foundation and the NZ Society on Alcohol and Drug Dependence. Delegates will discuss both global and domestic issues, including the review of New Zealand’s 1975 Misuse of Drugs Act.

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