A perfect storm has led to New Zealand taking a serious look at how it deals with drugs. Laura Walters reports on last year’s great drug debate and what to look for in 2019.

In May, then-Prime Minister’s chief science advisor Peter Gluckman released a ground-breaking report on meth contamination.

The report cut through the hysteria and showed Kiwis had been booted out of state houses for no good reason. This set the ball rolling on a massive year for New Zealand’s drug debate.

NZ Drug Foundation director Ross Bell says this report was the “most impactful” development of drug reform in 2018, as it immediately affected hundreds of evicted families, as well as changing drug policy. Since May, there has been a steady stream of slow-burn issues, and specific moments, ensuring the debate doesn’t lose momentum.

Moments like the introduction of proposed medicinal cannabis legislation, the coroner’s announcement that there had been more deaths from synthetic cannabis, and Jacinda Ardern’s statement about the failed war on drugs while in New York held Kiwis’ attention.

But progress was slow and, according to Bell, “shameful” in the case of inaction on synthetics.

Then the end of 2018 saw a flurry of activity regarding drug law reform, showing the Government was finally putting its money where its mouth was. Now the building blocks are in place, interested parties will be watching carefully in 2019 to see whether the coalition Government can pull it off.

Words without action

When Ardern visited the United Nations in September, she refused to sign Donald Trump’s document calling for a global cooperation in the war on drugs. Instead she reiterated her Government’s stance to treat drugs as a health issue.

“For us, that was interesting because you had the Government saying those great words but actually not putting any of those words into action,” Bell said.

“While she was saying that, we still had people dying from synthetic drugs, so we felt for a while there was a big disconnect between the words the Government used and their actions.”

Those slow burning issues came to a head at the end of 2018, with the passing of medicinal cannabis legislation, a decision on the binding nature and timing of the cannabis recreational use referendum, the reporting back of the Mental Health and Addictions Inquiry, and a new plan to deal with synthetics, which included a landmark change to the level of police discretion and powers when dealing with drugs.

“We’re now beginning to see some flesh put onto those fine words,” Bell said, adding that the year-long build up to action indicated drug reform in New Zealand would be evolutionary, rather than revolutionary.

“The Government was saying those great words but actually not putting any of those words into action.”

Green Party MP Chlöe Swarbrick would tell you she, along with Health Minister David Clark, Police Minister Stuart Nash, and Justice Minister Andrew Little, were working hard behind the scenes throughout 2018.

Swarbrick has been at the forefront of the drug debate since picking up a Green Party private member’s bill on medicinal cannabis last January. That bill didn’t make it past the first reading, but she’s been heavily involved in other aspects of drug reform since.

“When I first came to Parliament, drug law reform wasn’t a big thing on my mind – it wasn’t something I ever actively campaigned on … but I fell down the rabbit hole of advocating for sensible drug law reform because I realised that there wasn’t really anybody else in Parliament who was working in that space, and I understand why, because it’s obviously so deeply controversial, and politicians are the most risk-averse group of people I’ve ever met.”

As she researched, Swarbrick found the war on drugs to be “grotesquely unjust and inequitable”, and the topic became a passion. With that passion came heavy critique from conservative forces, who often categorised her as “wanting everyone to light up and smoke a joint”.

Swarbrick said that wasn’t true and she had publicly said drugs were harmful, but regulation could either exacerbate or minimise harm. The war on drugs hadn’t worked for over 30 years, so it was time to try something new, she said.

Green Party policy is to completely repeal and replace current legislation, including the Psychoactive Substances Act – which recently received a damning report from the Ministry of Health as a failed piece of legislation – and the Misuse of Drugs Act.

The party also secured a referendum vote on the recreational use of cannabis as part of its confidence and supply agreement with Labour. This referendum on legalisation will be binding, and take place at next year’s general election.

Other than the odd troll who tells her she’s the devil incarnate, Swarbrick said the Green Party’s push for liberalisation of drug regulation had been embraced by the general public.

“I feel as though New Zealanders have been looking for that respect of their intelligence, and their ability to grapple with maturity of debate,” she said.

Green MP Chlöe Swarbrick has become a vocal advocate for liberal, evidence-based drug reform. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

National Party MP Shane Reti agrees with Swarbrick’s assessment that Kiwis’ attitudes had moved on from where they were a few years ago.

But unlike Swarbrick and Bell, he did not believe politics was playing catch-up to public attitudes. If anything, it might be the opposite, he said.

“We’re certainly being pulled forward rapidly – some might say too rapidly – by the Greens and the influence they have in the MMP, coalition environment.

“That’s what’s propelling us forward at a pace that I’m not sure New Zealanders are ready for.”

The National Party had also shifted its attitude towards drugs during the past couple of years, and this year made its own push for medicinal cannabis.

So while it seemed all political parties were moving in the same direction, there was a question over pace.

Reti said making medicinal cannabis more accessible to those who needed it was important, and he was personally OK with the decriminalisation of cannabis for personal recreational use. But he believed legalisation was a step too far.

New Zealand needed to take a gentler approach, he said, rather than jumping straight to a binding referendum on legalisation.

“Taking such a big step puts the whole referendum at risk. If it’s too big a step for New Zealanders, they’ll get a ‘no’, and it’ll be a binding ‘no’. And the conversation won’t rise again for at least a decade.”

Part of the problem was the current confusion around the cannabis debate. Synthetic cannabis, medicinal cannabis, decriminalisation of recreational use, and legalisation of recreational use were often conflated.

Both Swarbrick and Reti worried about that confusion, and both advocated for keeping the discussions separate, based on evidence, and covering a range of viewpoints.

The debate on recreational use needs to be had before the 2020 election, as the binding nature of the referendum means the proposed law changes, and related policies and safeguards, will need to be put in front of Kiwis before they go to the polls.

What to look for in 2019

The focus on drugs is unlikely to change this year.

The Government has to respond to the recommendations of the mental health and addictions inquiry, which advocated for wholesale decriminalisation for the possession of controlled drugs for personal use in favour of better regulation. 

There will also be work on putting in place the framework around medicinal cannabis, and separately hashing out what legalisation of recreational cannabis use would look like.

Reti says he’ll be watching the cannabis debate closely.

He wants to see Health Minister Clark bring in appropriate medicinal cannabis regulations in a timely manner, which meets Kiwis’ needs and expectations. The nature of the referendum question, and how it’s framed, will be important, as well as ensuring a balanced, rational, well-informed debate.

Bell says New Zealand is on the right track with its planned drug reform, but the proof will be in the pudding.

“The stars are in alignment now and the issue then becomes, can the Government pull all of this off?”

If the Government can transform the mental health and addiction sector – in-line with the inquiry’s recommendations – as well as implement cannabis law reform and put in place a more successful regime for dealing with drugs like meth and synthetics, then the future looks bright.

“But if we fuck all of those things up, if we fail to do proper drug law reform, if we fail to resource and transform the way we deal with addiction services, then they aren’t going to change.

“The building blocks are there, but can the Government pull off this transformation they’re so keen to talk about?”

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