Dunne: All angst and little action on drug policy

Despite plenty of posturing, hand-wringing and worthy words this year, little progress has been made on drug reform, as people continue to suffer and die, writes former Minister Peter Dunne.

One should not look to Parliament for sensible and informed leadership on the future direction of drug policy in New Zealand.

MPs across the spectrum and from all parties, without exception, have so far during this Parliament shown themselves to be unwilling or unable to grasp the complexities of the issues, inspiring little confidence that any real progress can be made.

From the neo-prohibitionist stance of those on the political right, who still seem to believe that bans and tougher penalties will succeed now when they never have in the past, to the allegedly more progressive parties chanting the mantra of treating drugs as a health issue, without really understanding what that means or what is happening at present, the pattern is the same. Politicians talking straight past each other, pushing their personal prejudices as evidence, will ensure nothing changes, while more people suffer and die, and criminal gangs continue to become wealthy at the expense of the vulnerable.

It is time to end the war on drugs, they say, wilfully oblivious of the fact that New Zealand abandoned the war on drugs years ago, and for about a decade now has consistently argued against the rhetoric and the substance of the war on drugs in international fora, including the United Nations General Assembly Special Session on Drugs a couple of years ago, and its own National Drug Policy released in 2015.

Yet the Prime Minister seemed to know nothing of this when she addressed the United Nations a couple of months ago and proclaimed New Zealand no longer supported the war on drugs, as if it were some bold new initiative she was announcing.

And while we are talking about the National Drug Policy, it was scheduled for a midterm review during 2018. What has happened? As far as can be told, the answer is absolutely nothing.

And it is the same with the Misuse of Drugs Act. Passed in 1975, it is generally acknowledged to be outdated, and in dire need of review.

Work that commenced under the National Drug Policy in 2015 to 2017 included ensuring that harm minimisation became a central feature of drug classification assessments, and reviewing the opportunities to offer low-level drug users alternatives to the criminal justice system. These were seen as necessary preliminary steps to a rewrite of the Misuse of Drugs Act which was to be considered in 2018.

But, despite the posturing, and all the worthy words this year, nothing practical seems to have happened in the last year towards this end.

The promised legislation to make cannabis based medicines more readily available was introduced with much fanfare as part of the Government's 100 days programme, but has been widely criticised - correctly -  as poorly drafted and generally inadequate. It  has yet to come back to Parliament.

We are now told it will be mid-2020 before the bold new plan is actually implemented, and sometime after that before new products actually become available.

The patients whose plight was so desperate before this Government's saviours came to office are presumably expected to wait a few more years in grateful silence for something to happen. And the referendum on the recreational use of cannabis is still shrouded in mystery.

Will it be binding, or just indicative? (The Prime Minister seems very vague and ambivalent on this point.)

When will it be held, and what will the actual question be? The Justice Minister says he is working on it, but time is ticking on Labour's ability to deliver anything, let alone substantive reform, if that be the public wish, before the next election.

It is the same story with psychoactive substances, with an unacceptable increase in the number of deaths attributed to synthetic cannabis in the last year.

We have to make this stuff illegal, they say, ignoring the reality that these substances have been illegal since 2013. It is very difficult to make something that it is already illegal even more illegal, yet the National Party seems to want to do just that! And Labour seems to be meekly following suit.

Others say the answer is to create a regulated market where such products can be better controlled, monitored as to content, and sold in restricted circumstances, as that would bring the industry out into the open, and stop the backyard illegal trade now underway. Well, have they not heard of the Psychoactive Substances Act passed in 2013, which did just that?

Indeed, it has been possible to apply for a manufacturing licence to develop psychoactive substances for sale in a regulated market since 2015, but no-one has done so, for one simple reason. Under the Act, substances have to be proven to be low risk before they can be put on the market, but Parliament's 2014 decision to ban animal testing of such products led to the medical specialist regulators concluding that they could not possibly satisfy the low risk requirement of the testing process without resort to animal testing, effectively leaving things in limbo.

As Minister at the time, I constantly challenged officials on this point, refusing to accept that it was not possible to develop an acceptable alternative, given the widespread and understandable international opposition to animal testing making it only a matter of time before animal testing for cosmetics and pharmaceuticals is banned worldwide. I still hold that view.

Equally, I cannot fathom why, given the synthetic cannabis crisis this year, it has not been a priority to resolve this issue so that the psychoactive substances regime, which is otherwise in place and ready to go, can work effectively.

These are tough and complex issues, which impinge upon many aspects of society, but many of the building blocks towards their resolution were deliberately and steadily put in place over the last few years, so that, if the political will and understanding was there, it would now be comparatively straightforward to quickly draw all the strands together to make effective policy.

But the combination of wide-eyed innocents who think they have just discovered these issues, like no-one before them, and a Government that still seems quite unwilling to comprehend, let alone accept, on so many issues that previous administrations did not just sit on their hands, means that the ease of cheap talk and the earnest, handwringing "golly, gosh" expressions of public angst ahead of sound policy will continue for some time yet. And vulnerable people will continue to suffer and die.

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