The way we respond to drug use right now could be so much better
It comes down to a pretty simple question: If someone you love was using drugs - maybe your child or grandchild, your cousin or best mate – how would you like to see them treated? Would you want them slapped with a conviction - or offered help if they need it?
There are plenty of examples from home and overseas of the great things that can happen when you exchange punishment for compassion. A person who is treated with respect is more likely to seek help if they need it. And governments are more likely to provide them with the right kind of services.
If we changed our approach here, we could save thousands of people each year from an unnecessary and damaging experience in the criminal justice system. Having a conviction for drug use can set you back for life - who wants that for their best mate?
We're calling for three key changes
Let's face it, our outdated laws are a total mess. We need to repeal them and start again from scratch. Let's start treating drug use as a health and social issue, not a criminal one. Here's how:
1. Choose health over handcuffs
That means replacing criminal penalties for the possession and use of all drugs with a health referral model.
Research and experience from around the world shows that criminal penalties have surprisingly little impact on whether people take drugs. True fact. Our high drug use in New Zealand is further proof of that.
Portugal replaced convictions for drug use with health referrals way back in 2001. They've seen a decrease in harmful drug use, and a massive reduction in HIV infections and overdoses. Drug use by young people has fallen - and the average age at which they first try drugs has gone up.
Back home, drug use currently costs us around $1.8 billion per year in health, social and economic harms. And that cost is going up under our current laws. Switching to a health approach will save money in the justice and prison system. More importantly, it will allow those who are struggling with their drug use to get the help they need.
Should we be worried about drug use sky-rocketing if we stop coming down on people like a ton of bricks? Research from many other countries that have lowered or removed criminal penalties shows that's super unlikely. Occasional drug use will most likely either stay the same or increase slightly. But more importantly, that really harmful stuff like drug dependency and overdoses should go way down when we change our approach.
2. Double the addictions budget
We currently spend at least three times as much enforcing our drug laws as we do on drug-related health stuff. Does that sound right to you? It doesn't to us!
We’d like to see all those who need support with their drug use able to access a full range of services, at the time that they need them. Anyone who has tried to find treatment for themselves or a loved one will agree that's not happening in NZ right now. It's not just about residential treatment - it's about care in the community, housing and employment. That's how we'll make a real difference to those who suffer the most from drug use.
Putting money into education and drug-related health programmes really works. So does investing in services that reduce harm, such as drug checking at festivals. The research is pretty hard to argue with. Not only does it make good financial sense, it's just the right thing to do.
3. Regulate cannabis to reduce the harms it can cause, and protect young people
Alongside treating all drug use as a health and social issue, we need to look at cannabis.
Cannabis is the most commonly used illegal drug in New Zealand. Surveys show at least 42% of us have tried it. And that’s despite the fact that it’s illegal. It’s clear that the approach we are currently taking is not working well.
By regulating cannabis we will have a much better chance of minimising the health and social problems that it can cause. There could be controls on packaging, potency, portion size and advertising. Even more importantly, we could enforce strict age limits for purchase – right now, drug dealers don’t check ID.
And we could call a halt to around 4000 criminal charges for cannabis offences every year.
Read more about why we should regulate cannabis, then help us win this one at the referendum!