A raft of health and social organisations have penned an open letter to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern calling for 45-year old drug laws to be dumped and replaced with something “fit for purpose”.
It comes despite the ‘no’ result in last year’s referendum on legalising cannabis, which ran alongside the election.
The letter, from organisations including The NZ Drug Foundation, The Helen Clark Foundation and The New Zealand Medical Association, says The Misuse of Drugs Act, 1975, should be repealed and replaced.
Instead, the letter says the Government should take a “compassionate and evidence-based approach” to drug use and treat it as a health and social issue, not a criminal one.
It is an offence under the current Act to use, possess, cultivate or traffic (deal) in illegal drugs.
Illegal drugs are divided into three classes based on the level of risk of harm, with class A including the likes of methamphetamine and heroin, down to class C which incudes cannabis.
Tania Sawicki Mead, director of one of the organisations, JustSpeak, said the law was outdated: written at a time when there was “a lot of fear, and very little knowledge” about how to respond to drug harm.
The group wanted to see policies and laws that focused on people getting the help that they needed, she said. “The primary response would be one grounded in health, guided by what their health needs are.”
She said from the perspective of JustSpeak, a group of young people focused on criminal justice, the “natural progression” of this new approach would be decriminalising the use and possession of all drugs.
“That’s because no-one benefits … from criminalising people for having problematic drug usage.”
Cannabis legalisation would have seen the Government allow the drug to be sold openly in legal stores, while decriminalisation would just remove the criminal penalty for possession.
Last month Green MP Chlöe Swarbrick was looking to get other parties onboard a cross-party bill to decriminalise cannabis, allowing it to skip the members’ ballot and head straight to Parliament.
The open letter says isolated amendments to the Act, such as the law changes to allow drug testing at festivals, were to be applauded, but would not go far enough.
The Government needed to adopt international best practice, which increasingly favoured removing all criminal penalties for low-level drug offences, the letter says.
NZ Drug Foundation executive director Sarah Helm said under the 45-year-old law “we’re kidding ourselves that we’re doing something about drug issues”.
“It doesn’t matter whether you’re morally opposed to drugs or you have a slightly different take on things, we’re actually not doing much about our drug issues.”
The law stigmatised and criminalised drug users – so why would people want to get help or advice on drug problems, she said.
The foundation’s policy called for “a health-based approach” with drug use still considered criminal, but no penalties at the lower end of offences, she said.
Other signatories on the letter to Ardern, Justice Minister Kris Faafoi and Health Minister Andrew Little included the Auckland and Wellington city missions, the Mental Health Foundation, and Te Hunga Rōia Māori o Aotearoa (The Māori Law Society).