Opinion: It's time to overhaul New Zealand's outdated and harmful drug laws

  • 03/05/2023

By Rosie Crossin and Joe Boden for Newsroom

OPINION: The year New Zealand's Misuse of Drugs Act came into force, Pink Floyd's The Dark Side of the Moon was New Zealand's top-selling album, the first Footrot Flats cartoon was published and Robert Muldoon became Prime Minister.

The year was 1975 - it had been four years since US President Richard Nixon declared a 'war on drugs' and launched a policy failure with global ramifications.

Since 1975 there have been small steps toward better drug policy in New Zealand. In 2019, an amendment was passed that affirmed police discretion on whether to prosecute someone caught in possession of a controlled drug.

However, this discretion is not being applied equitably.

And in 2021, drug checking was legalised. People can take their drugs to a service and check whether it is what they think it is. 

This is a vital harm reduction measure that prevents drug-related injuries and deaths. But, the same person who has their drugs checked could then be arrested for possession of a Class A drug at a music festival or party.

While positive, these actions are not enough. It is time to stop tinkering around the edges and overhaul our drug laws.

The essence of our drug laws - prohibit, control, arrest - have remained unchanged for almost 50 years, with no appreciable effect on the use of drugs. New Zealand followed the US into its drug war but has been left behind while many other countries have recognised that this approach is not working, and have reformed their laws.

Portugal famously decriminalised possession of all drugs in 2001, focusing on the health of people who use drugs and conserving police resources. Canada legalised personal cannabis use in 2018. 

The Australian Capital Territory decriminalised personal possession of all drugs in 2022. Even the US - the originators of the drug war - are reforming their drug laws, with a mixture of state-based legalisation and decriminalisation policies.

Humans have been altering their consciousness with drugs for as long as we can tell - archaeological evidence of opium use exists from 5700 BC. There has never been, nor is there now any such thing as a drug-free world. 

Drug use has the potential to cause harm but, equally, many people who use drugs do so without harming themselves or others.

So, how can we meaningfully reduce drug harm? 

The first thing we need to do is understand that drug use does not equal drug harm. This challenges the narratives that we have been fed over our lifetimes - lurid stories of instant addiction and dangerous junkies stalking our streets. 

If we focus our efforts on preventing and reducing drug harm, the path to health and well-being becomes clearer.

Drug harm is being created and increased by our drug laws. 

A person charged with drug possession can lose their job, be isolated from their family and friends, be stigmatised and shamed. In short, they lose the things needed to live a meaningful and happy life and stigma creates a barrier to seeking help. 

This creates a cycle of harm that impacts a person, their family and their community.

And if you are reading this muttering "bleeding heart leftie academics, being soft on drugs", then don't believe us, believe the police. Individual members of the police have spoken out saying they know they are wasting their time and resources, and things need to change.

In 2021, more than 3000 people were convicted of low-level drug offences and drug use across New Zealand is not decreasing. Putting aside any value judgments about drugs and the people who use them, ask yourself whether you want your tax and police time to continue being spent on an approach to drugs that simply does not work.

After the cannabis legalisation referendum narrowly failed in 2020, our politicians have told us that there is no social licence for drug law reform. 

We disagree. New Zealanders were asked a specific question about legalising cannabis and 50.7 percent of voters said "no". 

We were not asked whether we supported decriminalisation or increased funding for harm reduction, or expanding programs like Te Ara Oranga that are proven to reduce drug harm without criminalisation. All of these actions must be taken and we do not need another referendum to do so.  

Drug policy is seen as a politically scary issue, one that is polarising and contentious. So, the bold changes needed are not made, despite ongoing recommendations. 

We need the New Zealand public to support and advocate for drug law reform. This requires challenging our own assumptions and accepting that if you enjoy a coffee in the morning to wake up, or a glass of wine in the evening to relax, then you use drugs too. 

This is an issue for all of us.

The good news is, with political courage, drug law reform will not require a huge increase in funding. In fact, it will save money. The time for tinkering is past - the Misuse of Drugs Act 1975 is outdated, ineffective and causing harm.

Whether our next Government is motivated by saving money or reducing inequities or improving the health of New Zealanders, the answer remains the same. New Zealand needs drug laws that are evidence-based, consistent with Te Tiriti, reduce harm and are designed specifically for our local context. 

The 1970s may have been fun but, when it comes to drug policy, it's time to let them go. We've had enough of being 'comfortably numb' about our ineffective and harmful drug laws.

Rose Crossin is a senior lecturer in the Department of Population Health at the University of Otago, Christchurch. Joe Boden is the director of the Christchurch Health and Development Study in the Department of Psychological Medicine at the University of Otago, Christchurch.