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Māori MPs reconsider drug law

1 Nov 2015
Russell Brown
This article was published 9 years ago. Content may no longer be relevant.

A succession of reports show Māori are affected significantly more than Pākehā by our drug laws. Reducing harm caused by the laws themselves seems something the government is now willing to address, but there remain widely varying views on what must actually be done in terms of policy. Russell Brown looks into the issue and presents the views of four Māori MPs.

"The laws we make need to be reasonable, and it is crucial that our enforcement response is proportionate,” declared Associate Health Minister Peter Dunne when he launched the new National Drug Policy in August.

“We want to make sure that drug use is deterred, where possible, but also that the laws are actually working for individuals, communities and society. We are trying to minimise harm, not create more.”

The Minister’s words – the most explicit government acknowledgement yet that the harms from illicit drugs include the harm caused by the laws against them – would have been notable in any month, but they came only three weeks after a district court judge declared himself “troubled” at having to jail Kaikohe woman Kelly van Gaalen for two years.

Van Gaalen had been convicted of possession of cannabis for supply, although she said she had grown only two plants, and the judge accepted that she had not sold any. Her family lost a mother and Kaikohe lost a prominent and active figure in its arts and business life.

Although van Gaalen is not Māori, two-thirds of Kaikohe’s population claims Māori descent, and the controversial sentence threw the spotlight on the impact of drug laws in small, predominantly Māori, regional towns.

Wherever they live, Māori are more likely to fall foul of drug law. The 2012– 2013 New Zealand Health Survey into cannabis use found Māori were nearly twice as likely as non-Māori to suffer legal problems as a result of using cannabis.
A 2003 study found that, on the basis of equivalent usage, Māori experienced Police arrest for cannabis use at three times the rate of non-Māori.

Visiting US defence lawyer and former judge William H Murphy Jr (also speaking in August) compared the Māori experience with that of black Americans as “the product of colonialism and its aftermath” and lamented the “so-called war on drugs [that] has resulted in a war on people of colour with drugs and white people basically left alone.”

And yet there are many prominent Māori voices who reject Murphy’s call for drug legalisation or even law reform.

“I worry though that, while reform will work for the middle class, it will be the poor who will feel the strongest impact,”

Reverend Hirini Kaa said. “We need our communities to be alcohol, violence and drug free.”

Kaa and others point to data indicating that the burden of substance use disorders falls twice as heavily on Māori as the general population (see below). They fear that any loosening would only make cannabis and other drugs more available. Others insist that the unequal impact of legal consequences simply exacerbates 
the public health problem.

But if both forms of harm fall disproportionately on Māori, what do Māori legislators think? Matters of Substance interviewed Māori MPs from the National, Labour, Green and Māori Parties. We found substantial agreement on some questions and contrasting views on others.

Marama Fox, Māori Party

“We’ve been calling for a review of the justice system – the whole system – for some time, and it seems to fall on deaf ears with the government. The government doesn’t seem to think there is institutional racism. Research after research has shown it, but the government won’t participate in that discussion. If they could just listen to the experts, that would be great, but that hasn’t worked in the past.

“I liked Minister Dunne’s response, and I do think that that’s partially the answer. If you look at the Youth Court, Family Law, their first port of call for youth offending is diversion. So by law, that’s the first thing. Do something else, keep them out of court.

“I’m not interested in decriminalising marijuana. I’m more interested in a restructure of the law, so it’s still a criminal behaviour, but the response is different. Punitive responses haven’t worked.

“I think there should be a law and
 that the law should be focused on diversion and health pathways, depending on the crime. If you’re dealing, well that’s a different issue – you’re making money off this stuff, you’re trying to get people addicted so you can get more money. If it’s possession or use, instead of just ignoring it, the law should be directed to have those people referred to their hauora provider, their health provider, for drug education. Not just doing PD down the road and saying ‘You naughty boy, come and dig some drains for a day’. That doesn’t decriminalise, but it changes the way we enforce the law.

We need our communities to be alcohol, violence and drug free.

Reverend Hirini Kaa

“I know so many people who want to get off marijuana and who never thought it was addictive because they could go weeks without it – but now can’t go two weeks without it. They hit the wall, they start nutting off at the whānau. And it’s easier just to stay in this kind of numb state for ... what, the rest of their lives? These guys have been smoking now for 30 years, and they don’t know how to get off.

“These were parents who’d tried to 
get off and couldn’t, who said they didn’t know what it was like not to be stoned any more. I think it’s soul destroying for Māori communities. It’s breaking up our natural inclination towards whanaungatanga and happiness towards each other.

“I used to do drug education at high school, and when we found kids smoking dope, it wasn’t immediate suspension or expulsion. The first response was a health response. We brought in the experts, we told them about the effects of drugs and alcohol on the brain, we told them ‘This is what you’re doing – if you choose to go down that path, be aware of what you’re walking into and treat it that way’.”

Kelvin Davis, Labour Party

“Does politics get in the way of good policy? Absolutely. Because when we say these people have a health issue, they’re not necessarily criminals. Society says ‘What? You want to go easy on drug users?’, so politicians are always wary of raising these sorts of issues.

“I’d like to see people, instead of being locked up or whatever for drug use, just to be fined, like a parking ticket. The guy’s getting punished, because the community wants to see punishment. It’ll be a deterrent. To my mind, that would be a much better system than having many young Māori arrested each weekend, clogging up the courts on Monday morning and getting criminal records.

“Māori who get arrested for drug use are treated as criminals rather than people who need assistance with an addiction. The criminal justice system does prevent Māori getting help. Even if they have to be locked up, they should be in some sort of facility to get help with their addiction. Prison is just not the right place for most people. They’re horrible places that really do nothing for people.

“The Kelly van Gaalen case probably has created more harm, especially for that family. It hasn’t minimised harm. I don’t think it’s going to change her attitude towards marijuana at all. It’s an example of the law being an ass.

“When I was first in Parliament, the Greens had some medicinal marijuana Bill, and from memory, there were two parts to it. One was to extract the active ingredients and whack it in a pill – and 
I was in favour of that. But the other part was letting people grow marijuana for personal use, and I thought, uh, that just makes it more accessible.

“If my grandfather’s growing a couple of plants out the back, then it just makes it easier for my kids to access it and use the excuse that it was Grandad’s marijuana.

“And people might look at the fact that I voted against that and say I’m one of these conservative anti-drug types. It’s not actually the case. We want to make support for drug users more accessible, not the drugs themselves.”

Metiria Turei, Green Party co-leader

“I would first dispute one of the facts that you list – that Māori men have twice the use rate of Pākehā men and are more likely to suffer ‘substance misuse disorder’. There have been numerous reports that show that, just as in the legal system, Māori are more likely to be targeted and negatively labelled by health professionals than Pākehā. These racist filters operate in almost every aspect of Māori engagement with public services, including the media, and I am always extremely suspicious of such statements. This is important if the assumption of greater harm to Māori from cannabis use is perpetuated in your article. I don’t agree with that assumption at all.

“It is this kind of rationalisation that perpetuates a biased, racist and fundamentally unjust system. If a person 
is depressed or has become obsessed with drugs, they need help through a legal framework that means they can get it easily and quickly. And the single most effective way of delivering that help is where there are no legal consequences for that person or anyone’s drug use. It’s just not true to assume all white middle class people can handle drugs and Māori can’t.”

[Professor Mason Durie was part of the principal investigative team of Te Rau Hinengaro: The New Zealand Mental Health Survey, along with a dedicated Māori research team and a nine-strong Kaitiaki group.]

“What needs to change? The law. Plain and simple, cannabis prohibition
 is dangerous. It creates a culture of fear and mistrust, facilitates poor relationships with legal and medical professionals and is deliberately used by law enforcement 
to target Māori, leading to unjust conviction and imprisonment, splitting
 up of families, the confiscation of property and family poverty. Cannabis prohibition cannot be justified under any public policy principle.

A 2003 study found that, on the basis of equivalent usage, Māori experienced Police arrest for cannabis use at three times the rate of non-Māori.

“The evidence that shows how Māori are treated in the criminal legal system proves it – at every point, Māori are treated worse. There are stacks of reports on this. 
I raised it during that ridiculous Drivers 
of Crime seminar that Pita Sharples and Simon Power held in 2009. Sharples’ only response was to support Māori running the private prisons, which even now just makes me want to weep.

“It is wrong to assume that every cannabis user has a health issue that requires some intervention. That is patently untrue when looking at the extent of use in New Zealand. But where anyone requires help, Māori included, the illegal status of the drug is the primary reason people don’t seek that help.

“The Misuse of Drugs Act needs to be repealed and entirely rewritten according to scientific, evidence-based approaches to harm reduction and respect for human rights as well as health. The new Act should also include tobacco and alcohol. The Proceeds of Crime Act should be reviewed. Should this not occur, another option is to use an evidence-based assessment to reclassify the drugs and use Class D more effectively. And then third, allowing all MDA-classed drugs 
to be assessed through the psychoactive substances legislation. My understanding is that the law currently prohibits
 that course.

“I agree [with Peter Dunne]. As with previous ministers of this portfolio, they do eventually come round although, so far, clearly too late. There is still a critical question of why any ‘enforcement’ is required at all for personal use of drugs. Also, I would want to see a better articulated, more principled stance as 
to the public policy for the deterrence 
of drug use that includes alcohol and tobacco in the assessment. ‘Drugs are
 bad, kids, OK?’ is not a coherent public policy position.”

Dr Shane Reti, National Party

“I do not think there are any benefits for decriminalising or legalising cannabis, for medicinal purposes or otherwise. In terms of medicinal use, such as for pain relief, there are already pharmaceutical forms of cannabis that provide measured doses and quality control.

“Māori are over-represented in our justice system. This over-representation is well known by those working in the justice system and is the focus of considerable efforts across the sector – from Rangatahi Courts for young Māori offenders to iwi justice panels. While these efforts are showing results across all offending, everyone acknowledges
 we need to do more to reduce Māori over-representation in the justice system. I do not think we need a Commission of Inquiry into this.

Wherever they live, Māori are more likely to fall foul of drug law.

“Under the National-led government, drug and alcohol treatment for prisoners’ addictions, and education achievement in prison, have increased hugely. We’re talking almost 1,500 percent more drug and alcohol rehabilitation since 2008. Recent results show this is working, 
as fewer prisoners are returning positive drug tests.

“The National Drug Policy provides
 a more holistic approach to help the government respond more appropriately to the problems drugs pose. It lays out the government’s approach to minimising harm from alcohol and other drugs for the next five years. The new policy 
places more emphasis on the need to promote and protect health and 
improve collaboration.”

The numbers

According to Te Rau Hinengaro: The 
New Zealand Mental Health Survey 2006, nearly a third of Māori will experience a substance use disorder in their lives. Even after adjusting for socio-economic factors, the burden of these disorders on the Māori population is twice the national average
– this is true of no other ethnic group.

The drug that caused the most harm, by far, was alcohol – a quarter of Māori subjects in the survey had experienced an alcohol disorder at the time of being interviewed, but nearly 15 percent had experienced a drug disorder, mainly involving cannabis. Māori men and rangatahi were at even greater risk.

The 2012–2013 New Zealand Health Survey into cannabis use found that Māori men and women were more than twice as likely to use cannabis as non-Māori, Māori cannabis users were 50 percent more likely to report weekly use than non-Māori users and “Māori adults and adults living in the most deprived areas were more likely to report using cannabis in the last 12 months”.

The same study found Māori were twice as likely to experience problems with work or study as a result of cannabis use, 25 percent more likely to experienced related mental health problems and nearly twice as likely to experience legal problems.

The earlier New Zealand Alcohol and Drug Use Survey 2007–2008 found Māori were significantly more likely to have used methamphetamine in the past year than non-Māori. It also found Māori were “significantly more likely to have wanted help to reduce their level of drug use in their lifetime but not received it, compared with people in the total population”.




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