More than 25 health and social service organisations have banded together to call on the Government to repeal the country's drug laws, to drop penalties for use and to treat the use of drugs as a health issue.
The groups, including the New Zealand Medical Association, the Mental Health Foundation, the Public Health Association, the Maori Law Society, the Drug Foundation, Hapai te Hauora, and JustSpeak, have sent an open letter to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, Health Minister Andrew Little and Justice Minister Kris Faafoi.
JustSpeak, a youth advocacy group for criminal justice reform, have spearheaded the letter and director Tania Sawicki Mead said the current law, the Misuse of Drugs Act 1975, was not fit for purpose.
"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. "
She said support for the change came from both sides of the last year's cannabis debate and referendum – in which a bid to legalise recreational cannabis was lost by 48.4 per cent in favour to 50.7 per cent against.
The clinical director of the National Hauora Coalition Dr Rawiri McKree Jansen said the current criminal justice approach to drugs caused harm and that harm inequitably impacted on Māori.
"Drug convictions and the associated stigma have lifelong consequences, particularly on access to housing, education and employment. This, in turn, can have significant impacts on hauora [wellbeing], not only for individuals but also for their whanau."
Drugs Foundation executive director Sarah Helm commended the Government for recent moves to make festival drug testing permanent, and for amendments to the Misuse of Drugs Act which set in law a police discretion to not prosecute a person for use if a therapeutic approach would be more beneficial to the public interest.
But she said the next step was a rewrite of the law that was grounded in an evidence, health-based approach and harm reduction rather than a punitive approach for users – effectively decriminalisation.
"We have been almost fooling ourselves that we have been addressing drug use in New Zealand just by banning it because we know that convictions do nothing to deter use.
"While we've been doing that, we've had the blinkers on to everything else that needs to be in place."
At present there was very little help for problem users until they became addicted and even then, treatment was limited.
"It's mad. You start using a substance and you can't get any help until you either end up needing treatment – even then there's not enough places – or you end up in a situation where you are convicted and you may or may not get treatment if you end up in some facility.
She said many groups that had been opposed to legalisation in the referendum had not opposed decriminalisation.
She said they were not talking about legalising trafficking or dealing in drugs.
"That would still be illegal in our current model."
"Our recommended approach to decriminalisation is that possession is still illegal but carries no penalties. You would get a warning like a speeding ticket," she said.
If repeated there could be a conviction, and if it involved a higher quality, it might activate a supply charge."
The groups which have signed the letter to the Government are:
- Amnesty International
- Auckland City Mission
- Child Poverty Action Group
- Drugs, Health and Development Project
- Hapai Te Hauora
- Helen Clark Foundation
- Make It Legal
- Mental Health Foundation
- Maori Law Society
- National Hauora Coalition
- NZ Medical Association
- NZ University Students' Association
- NZ Drug Foundation
- People Against Prisons Aotearoa
- Public Health Association
- Te Hauora o Turanganui a Kiwa
- Te Rau Ora
- Wellington City Mission
- Wesley Community Action
- Yes 2020
text by Audrey Young, NZ Herald