Former Prime Minister Helen Clark calls for new approaches to tackle methamphetamine harm in New Zealand

Former Prime Minister Helen Clark says the "war on drugs has failed" and is calling for a new approach to tackle methamphetamine harm in New Zealand. 

The Helen Clark Foundation and the New Zealand Drug Foundation propose a pathway to reduce methamphetamine harm in a new report released on Sunday. 

Former Prime Minister and chair of the Global Commission on Drug Policy Clark said "the war on drugs has failed."

"We must do what works instead of just trying the same tired old approaches. We must focus relentlessly on harm minimisation rather than just locking people into a cycle of addiction and incarceration," Clark said.

"Expanding Te Ara Oranga nationally is a no brainer. It has been found to reduce offending by 34 percent and is estimated to return up to $7 on each dollar invested." 

Former Prime Minister Helen Clark says "the war on drugs has failed."
Former Prime Minister Helen Clark says "the war on drugs has failed." Photo credit: Newshub

The report commissioned by the Helen Clark Foundation and the NZ Drug Foundation, co-authored by Philippa Yasbek, Kali Mercier, Dr Hinemoa Elder, Dr Rose Crossin, and Professor Michael Baker, makes evidence-based recommendations on how to tackle methamphetamine harm in New Zealand.  

Te Ara Oranga is an initiative launched in 2017 by the Northland DHB, police and community agencies on reducing methamphetamine harm in Northland.

The initiative is about working in a tangible and engaging style with the community and agencies, focusing on delivering a holistic approach to health and policing to produce better outcomes for all, Te Ara Oranga said on its website.

The report makes a range of recommendations on how to minimise the harm caused by methamphetamine:

  • Rolling out successful treatment partnership programme Te Ara Oranga nationally.
  • Provide culturally appropriate support and programmes for Māori and other groups.
  • Ensure services are available in the areas with the highest demand, such as in small towns in the Bay of Plenty, Northland, and Hawke's Bay.
  • Address underlying issues or unmet health needs for groups of people who use methamphetamine, e.g. improve pathways into diagnosis and well-managed treatment for those who suffer from ADHD, given that it is a risk factor for methamphetamine use, especially when undiagnosed and untreated.
  • Funding a pilot programme based on international evidence to provide a stimulant under supervision in limited circumstances, such as to those who have remained addicted despite two rounds of traditional treatment.

Lead author Yasbek said the report recommends a pilot program to test whether a stimulant substitution treatment model tailored to New Zealand's unique context could be effective in helping Kiwis who use methamphetamine.

"A proposed model, based on data from New Zealand, Switzerland, and Canada, suggests it may be helpful for people, who have been through treatment and reduced their use but are not completely able to abstain, by removing them from the cycle of crime and allowing them to stabilise their lives," Yasbek said

"It is better to pilot a tightly controlled supply to those who are using the drug, under limited circumstances and keep them safe and engaged with harm reduction services. The alternative is to leave supply to the illegal market which will just profit from sales and try to keep people addicted."

In a statement Acting Minister of Health Hon Peeni Henare said: 

"The Government has no plans to legalise meth, however we have work underway to reduce the harm caused by drugs and to treat drug use as a health rather than criminal issue. 

"The Government is already doing many of the recommendations in the report and remains committed to taking a health-based approach towards drug use and addiction.

"This Government has supported a number of harm reduction initiatives and law changes including amending the Misuse of Drugs Act to allow Police discretion for a health-based approach when making decisions about prosecution for possession or use of drugs.

"The Northland based Te Ara Oranga Meth addiction programme has helped more than 3,000 people and their whānau and Budget 22 funded its continuation and expansion into the Bay of Plenty in June this year.

"We’ve provided $42 million of funding over four years for more specialist Alcohol and other Drug services including the establishment of new managed withdrawal services and continuing care services in Lakes and Tairāwhiti districts, a managed withdrawal network across the South Island, and we’ve supported new community-based alcohol and drug services in ten locations identified as having high methamphetamine use."

Report co-author and Helen Clark Foundation board member Dr Elder said the current approach is failing communities and whānau.

"We must change how we help whānau struggling with methamphetamine use if we want to really make a difference," Dr Elder said. 

"The recommendations in this report offer the potential circuit-breakers we need to help our whānau who desperately need access to what works and we know that what works is developmentally and culturally meaningful."

Helen Clark Foundation executive director Errington said reducing methamphetamine harm is crucial for improving equity and whānau wellbeing.

"This can't go on. We all deserve so much better. We need tailored support instead of a one-size-fits-all approach," Errington said.

"No-one can argue that our current approach based on criminal law is working - we need to discuss what the alternatives are. We have worked with our partners at the New Zealand Drug Foundation - drawing on international research and working with top New Zealand experts - to bring the public a snapshot of what a better system could look like."