The NZ Drug Foundation has welcomed the Government’s response to synthetic drug deaths. The response strikes a balance between giving law enforcement the tools they need to target criminal networks and changing drug law to make it easier for people to access help when they need it.
“We are so pleased that the Government is willing to confront the consequences of failed punitive approaches to drug harm and instead explore new and compassionate ways to address this public health emergency,” said Ross Bell, Drug Foundation Executive Director.
“The terrible deaths our families and communities have suffered tragically prove our drug laws are not fit-for-purpose: Too much emphasis has been given to law enforcement and prisons, with little support to communities for prevention, harm reduction, treatment and social interventions.
“Of course, it is right to target those people at the high end who traffic and manufacture these dangerous substances. But if we aren’t willing to address the health and wider social issues that drive drug harm, we will continue to repeat past mistakes.
“The government’s announcements today, while long overdue, represent the first concrete step towards treating New Zealand drug problems as a health and social rather than a criminal issue.
“The proposals will remove the barrier of fear that prevents people from seeking help. They should lead to better resourcing of community-based health and social interventions so that people in need can be directed to the right kind of help,” said Ross Bell.
The government has established a fund to support rapid community health and social service responses, which is being made available immediately.
“This will be welcome news for those families and communities who have been affected by synthetic cannabinoids. We have been gathering insights from frontline services and from people who use these substances to find out exactly what help they need. This week we will report to the Ministry of Health on our findings which will guide them to get resources flowing quickly,” said Mr Bell.
The proposed changes to the Misuse of Drugs Act will give Police greater enforcement powers and will mean heavier penalties for criminal groups involved in this market. It will also strengthen Police’s use of discretion and diversion for possession of all illicit drugs.
“This proposal addresses our earlier concerns that a blunt classification to Class A for these substances would impact harshly on vulnerable people. It also gives greater scope to deal with all illicit drug use from a health and harm reduction approach.
“The proposed amendments will formalise the health-based approach that many Police Districts are already following. Police openly say they ‘can’t arrest their way out of this problem’. Improving the ability for Police to refer people to health and social services, rather than arrest them, combined with additional funding for such services is a win-win for everyone.
“One model showing great results is the Northland Police and DHB’s Te Ara Oranga methamphetamine harm reduction programme, where the Police make referrals to health services during methamphetamine investigations. This model should be expanded to other districts.
“In many cases drug treatment isn’t the only answer. Many people who use synthetic cannabinoids are homeless or in insecure housing. Providing homes first, accompanied by wrap-around health and social services would go a long way to addressing the synthetics crisis.”
The Drug Foundation is urging the Government to move quickly on the recommendation from the Mental Health and Addictions Inquiry to replace criminal penalties for drug use with referrals to early intervention, harm reduction and treatment.
“Expanding the use of Police discretion for drug possession is a welcome first step, but we need to confront the fact that our drug law is over forty years old and was designed for different times; Police discretion can also be applied inequitably.
“We need to refresh the 2011 Law Commission drug law review which recommended to the previous government that the Misuse of Drugs Act be scrapped and replaced with a mandatory health referral approach. The government today is taking a welcome first step towards that, but more must be done,” said Ross Bell.
Read the Government media release (13 December 2019)
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95% of respondents reported positive effects, in a study that looked at both prescription and black market cannabis use.