NZ may adopt 'novel process' to drug reform - Andrew Little

The Government may adopt a rarely used process to help shape drug law as the country prepares for a referendum on legalising cannabis.

Justice Minister Andrew Little told Newshub the Government could undertake a citizens jury process to guide public debate on the issue - similar to the process used in the recent Irish abortion referendum.

"I know that in Ireland in the lead up to their Abortion Referendum, they used quite a novel process - a citizens jury process to gauge public reaction.

"That's something I'm interested in looking at doing. It might be a useful device in the way we conduct our public debate here."

Justice Minister Andrew Little.
Justice Minister Andrew Little. Photo credit: Newshub.

A citizens jury is a randomly selected group of civilians who listen to expert perspectives for several days before forming a judgement on an issue.

The groups are typically used when discussing difficult moral issues. The University of Otago hosted one on legalising euthanasia, with the jury ultimately split 10-5 in favour of a law change - a result the organisers said reflected the complexity of the issue.

Mr Little said he is in discussion with New Zealand First and the Greens about putting together the referendum, which will be held some time before the 2020 election.

He said these discussions were about the timing of the referendum, what question would be asked, and whether or not it would be binding.

Mr Little stressed the importance of an information campaign that accompanies the referendum, and how that would be delivered.

When asked whether our drug laws were working, he said there was a growing appetite for change and support for some form of liberalisation of our drug laws.

High-profile Christchurch lawyer Nigel Hampton QC says the costs of our drug laws are "astronomical" and have been morally and fiscally unsustainable for years.

Mr Hampton, who was made a Companion of the NZ Order of Merit for services to law this Queens Birthday, suggested decriminalising the personal use of drugs as an option to reduce prison numbers and harm from drug use.

Globally enforced US-led prohibition laws played into gang - including mafia - cultures, increasing our prison populations unnecessarily, Mr Hampton said. Drug laws are a cause of the development and popularity of more harmful synthetic drugs like methamphetamine, he argued.

Reform was needed, but difficult choices would have to be made about which drugs to change laws around, and whether these drugs would be legalised or decriminalised, Mr Hampton said.

His views were shared by private rehabilitation clinic founder David Collinge, who went one step further, saying completely legalising all drugs could be a way to get rid of methamphetamine.

He said the money currently spent on trying and imprisoning people could be shifted to education and rehabilitation.

He said meth was an epidemic that's tearing apart communities, but that individual users weren't necessarily to blame.

"Dependence on a substance is a health issue, and criminalising users isn't helping them at all - a lot of people have a stereotype of addicts, but I can say that pretty much all of our clients are good people who made poor decisions, or came from unbelievably poor environments where addiction was always destined to happen to them."

He said gangs would lose their business overnight if safer, cheaper alternatives to methamphetamine were made legal and regulated.

He cited Switzerland as an example of successful radical drug reform implemented by a conservative government. Switzerland began giving addicts legal, chemically pure heroin in 1994. It's administered with a doctor present, in safe clinics, using clean needles.

In 2008, a vote brought forward by the right wing Swiss People's Party aimed at ending the heroin program was rejected by more than two-thirds of voters.

Mr Collinge said removing the stress and risk of getting drugs made people less reliant on them to relax.

"With that, people were forming relationships, people were getting jobs, and from hundreds of fatal overdoses every year, not one person - zero - had [overdosed] on legal heroin. Overall drug use is down 30 percent, which is much better than our current model of criminalisation of users."

Mr Collinge said he had to run Wellington rehabilitation clinic Red Door Recovery at a loss because of a lack of Governmental funding, but that they could afford to fully sponsor up to a dozen clients every year on donations.

Sam Tattersfield was an intern at Newshub. He has resumed studying journalism after a brain injury cut short his studies.