Cross-sector coalition calls on Government to treat drugs as health issue, rewrite Misuse of Drugs Act

The Government needs to "urgently" treat all drug use as a health issue, says a call from more than 25 health and social service organisations, charities and prominent individuals.

In an open letter, organisations including the New Zealand Medical Association, Public Health Association, Māori Law Society, JustSpeak and the Mental Health Foundation urge the Government to overhaul the Misuse of Drugs Act. 

"As it stands, the Act is not fit for purpose," JustSpeak Director Tania Sawicki Mead says. 

"To prevent harm, the Government needs to put into gear a pragmatic response by putting energy and resources into drug treatment services and community support, not punishment."

The letter follows the failure of the cannabis referendum in 2020 and echoes recommendations from the Mental Health and Addiction Inquiry, the expert Justice Advisory Group, the Law Commission, and the Government's national drug policy.

In the cannabis referendum, voters were asked whether they supported the proposed cannabis legislation and control bill which included legalising recreational use of the drug. 

The bill failed by a slim margin with 48.4 percent voting in support and 50.7 not. The letter explains the referendum brought to head a "long overdue" public conversation about drugs and the close results hide the consensus among the majority of those who voted: "That the status quo is causing harm and we need to improve our current approach to drug law."

Sawicki Mead says support for changing the Misuse of Drugs Act comes from both sides of the cannabis debate.

"It’s clear that there is a strong consensus from across the health, addiction and social justice sectors that a health-based approach would benefit all of our communities." 

Also sparking the call is the effect a change in the Act would have on Māori, who the clinical director of the National Hauora Coalition Dr Rawiri McKree Jansen says bears the brunt of the criminalisation of drug use and addiction. 

"We know that the current criminal justice approach to drugs causes harm, and we know that this harm inequitably impacts Māori."

Dr McKree Jansen says drug convictions and the associated stigma have "lifelong consequences" which not only impacts individuals but also their whānau, particularly in the way of housing, education and employment. 

The letter says 2019 amendments to the Misuse of Drug Act have failed to shift the unequal outcomes Māori and Pasifika face in drug convictions.

Part of the amendments included specifying that when police are determining whether a prosecution is required for personal drug possession they should consider whether a health approach is more beneficial. 

"The discretion emphasises the Government's health-based approach to personal drug use, and reinforces the police focus on those who profit from drug dealing and not those who use illicit drugs," the Ministry of Health website says. 

Despite these changes, hundreds of people are still facing charges for cannabis possession. Statistics from the Drug Foundation showing 127 people ended up in court over the drug in September 2020. 

New Zealand Drug Foundation executive director Sarah Helm has applauded the Government for its commitment to a health-based approach but says it needs to go a step further and rewrite the country's drug laws. 

"Our 45-year-old Misuse of Drugs Act is outdated and out of step with evidence, international practice, public opinion and Government objectives. It also makes many people too scared to speak honestly about their drug use, getting in the way of people who are using drugs problematically seeking help."

A problem these organisations hope to push action towards with their letter which can be read in full here.