Labour talked a big game on drug reform but in many areas things have got worse, according to Peter Dunne, the former minister who launched the National Drug Policy.

The Government’s approach to drug policy is a shambles. It is characterised by inertia, inconsistency, and ignorance. It is one more area where Labour encouraged voter perception before 2017 that they would be so much better, more informed and progressive than their predecessors but where subsequently they have failed to match inflated expectation with even modest performance.

Recently, the Minister of Health Andrew Little attempted to justify the government’s position on the grounds that we were now at last moving to treat drug issues as primarily health issues, rather than legal matters as previously. However, the 2015 “National Drug Policy 2015 to 2020” that I authored when Associate Minister of Health began with these words: “The Government’s approach to minimising harm from alcohol and other drug misuse needs to be compassionate, innovative and proportionate. This recognises that alcohol and other drug problems are first and foremost health issues.”

So, laudable as the current minister’s objective may be, it is hardly new. The relevant point is why has he taken so long to recognise something that has been policy for almost six years now, and which New Zealand has spoken of in international forums subsequently (most notably the United Nations General Assembly Special Session on Drugs in 2016)? Is he simply unaware of the National Drug Policy (which may explain why since its expiry in 2020 there has been no sign from the Government of an updated or even modified strategy being developed let alone released)? Or is this yet another case of anything undertaken by or commenced during the term of any previous government being dismissed out of hand as inconsequential and not worth taking note of? Either way, the minister’s ignorance is extremely regrettable, especially as there is no immediate sign of any substantive action to come.

Much has properly been made of the outdated nature of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1975. Under the National Drug Policy, work was beginning on reviewing the Act, and the intention was to bring a revised Bill to Parliament, probably around 2019, but nothing seems to have happened since 2017. Yet the Misuse of Drugs Act becomes more outmoded every day. Astoundingly, there has been no specific commitment let alone timetable from the minister for its replacement.

According to the Government’s narrative, part of the reason for its inertia is the fault of the unreasonable shackle imposed upon it by New Zealand First during the 2017-2020 coalition. But even with New Zealand First’s dumping from Parliament last year, its influence seems to remain. Labour is still just as timid as ever to do anything meaningful on the drug reform front.

The referendum on legalising cannabis for recreational purposes is now clearly revealed as no more than a cynical sop to the Greens. Labour’s apparent unwillingness, as explained by the Minister, to now consider any aspect of drug policy because of the narrow defeat of the referendum suggests very strongly that even if it had passed, Labour would have been far from keen to act upon its outcome. Given that level of caution and wariness of moving too far or fast, the chances of Labour and the current minister now becoming champions of wider reform at this point look utterly remote.

Green MP Chloe Swarbrick was one of the architects of the cannabis referendum.  Photo: Lynn Grieveson

In fact, the cynical nature of Labour’s strategy was laid bare by its approach to the National Party seeking a bipartisan focus on drug policy. Labour would have known full-well from the outset that this was never going to gain traction. National, just as unprincipled as Labour on this issue, would have been mad to have allowed itself to be trapped this way. Even they could see a mile off that Labour was simply seeking, at best, cover for any moves it might make and, at worst, to have National as the excuse for subsequent inaction, or when things went wrong. National’s rebuff of the approach disappointed ardent reformers but was hardly a surprise.

For their part, the Greens have also been left in a difficult position. Deprived by the referendum defeat of one of their strongest issues, they have made their position more awkward by effectively suggesting that because of the closeness of the referendum result the Government should just ignore it and go ahead anyway with changing the law on cannabis. For a party that has always stood so strongly on upholding democracy and human rights, this new-found contempt for the democratic process does them huge credibility damage. They just look petulant and self-centred.

Rather than appearing almost single-issue obsessed with cannabis, they would have been much better off to pause to take stock and refocus their efforts on promoting comprehensive reform of the Misuse of Drugs Act in all its aspects as a priority. As it is, they have fallen into the trap of so many drug reformers of treating drug law reform as primarily reform of the cannabis laws, which, like it or not, New Zealanders have said they do not want now. A more prudent approach would have focused on the wider issue of drug law modernisation overall, for which there is likely to be greater public support, and treated cannabis reform as a subset of that, to be addressed as part of a wider reform package, rather than an end in itself.

Early in its term the Government made much noise about increasing access to cannabis-based medicines for patients for whom they were likely to be beneficial. With a great fanfare they passed legislation that broke no new ground and merely recognised what had been the current practice for a couple of years already. Then, with a similar flourish, they started to talk of establishing a domestic cannabis-based medicines industry. The Ministry of Health was empowered to issue licences to potential local manufacturers and the Government happily let expectations (that were never likely to be met) grow that domestically sourced medicines would be developed, clinically tested and approved, and on the market by mid-2020.

Those unrealistic ambitions were finally blown out of the water by the arrival of the pandemic and the ministry’s preoccupation elsewhere, which meant that the licensing and approval process has slowed to a stop. No products have yet been submitted for clinical approval, let alone made available to the market. So, today, as in other areas of drug reform, things are not materially different from when the Government came to office.

Indeed, in many senses, they are worse. There is no coordinated national policy approach, which is causing mounting exasperation. This recently forced many of the groups prominent in the field into the extraordinary public action of publishing an open letter to the government to express their frustration. (It is a sure sign that communication levels, trust, and confidence in ministers and officials have broken down when sector groups resort to such activity to get their point across.)

On top of this inertia and ignorance, came last week’s announcement from the current Associate Minister of Health about the next steps towards making New Zealand tobacco-free by 2025. Curiously, for a government which says it now treats drug issues as health issues rather than legal ones most of the measures she proposed in her discussion paper are about legal steps to further curb tobacco consumption (like restricted purchase sites, restrictions on the nicotine content of cigarettes, or future purchase age restrictions). Health promotion measures, including more support for smoking cessation programmes, seem to rate barely a mention. This has created further confusion about the Government’s overall policy approach. Although it says it favours a health-focused approach, it is really relying on legal remedies to make the behavioural changes required.

The blunt reality is that drug issues and their resolution in our society are not one-dimensional. They are far more complicated and seldom responsive to simplistic solutions. Judging by its approach to date, the current Government seems to think it can cherry-pick its way through the issues. Experience strongly suggests that will be a recipe for failure.

The 2015 National Drug Policy summed it up this way: “There is no quick fix. Progress will take time and will require coordinated action across the social sector and other agencies to understand where to target resources and provide wrap-around support. Partnership with non-governmental organisations, businesses, communities and families will also be vital in minimising alcohol and other drug-related harm.”

An astute government would heed this advice and seek to work constructively across the sector to achieve results, rather than just stumble ever more shambolically along, thinking that it alone knows best.

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