Government

A step change in the approach to addiction

The most significant change to drug laws in 40 years has passed despite a flurry of last-minute attempts to change the bill. Laura Walters reports.

The passing of the Misuse of Drugs Amendment marks a significant shift in how the Government deals with the possession and use of controlled substances, especially for those caught in the web of addiction.

A last-minute wording change was needed to gain New Zealand First’s support, and National made a failed attempt at removing the entire pivotal clause.

In the end, the law passed 67 votes to 53 on Wednesday evening, with the support of the three Government parties, bringing the Government one step closer to fulfilling its promise to treat drug use and addiction as a health issue.

The Misuse of Drugs Amendment Act has four core parts: the Class A reclassification of the two most prevalent chemicals found in synthetics, the ability to temporarily reclassify emerging chemicals, increased penalties for manufacturers and suppliers, and enshrining police discretion over prosecution, and prioritising therapeutic options when dealing with possession and personal use of controlled drugs.

Legislating police discretion is a remarkable move towards treating drug addiction as a health issue – something that’s been championed by the Greens and Labour, and agreed to in the parties’ confidence and supply agreement.

This is the same approach Portugal took when changing its drug laws in 2001. And it is a core recommendation of the national Mental Health and Addictions Inquiry.

Police already use discretion when dealing with cases of drug use and possession, but the new law clarifies the test police should apply, and allows for improved data gathering, which is expected to help create a fuller picture of drug use and addiction in New Zealand, including which groups are more likely to face criminal charges.

The legislation has been contentious since the plan was announced by Health Minister David Clark and Police Minister Stuart Nash in December.

“It will simply address the red herring, which has been raised by the National Party, for the sake of an attempt at wedging the Government partners.”

The National Party has spoken about the importance of addressing addiction and community harm, but has not supported clause 6 – the police discretion clause. National MPs who sat on the Health Select Committee produced a minority report, saying they would not support the bill so long as it included clause 6, which constituted “de facto decriminalisation”.

And differences of opinion between the three Government parties continued until the very end of the bill’s journey.

On Tuesday night, New Zealand First issued a statement saying it had negotiated an amendment to the bill, “ensuring clarity for police officers when dealing with offenders found in possession of a controlled substance”.

The party said the change ensured a health-centred or therapeutic approach should only be taken where such an approach would be more beneficial to the public interest than prosecution.

The change to the wording made no material change, and it is understood advice to ministers was that the police approach to enacting the new law would remain unchanged.

“Generally, I would expect in the public interest, it would be more sensible to apply a therapeutic approach. But where someone is not willing to go down a therapeutic road, and there are other people in danger, I expect the police will continue to do what they’re doing now, which is to follow a path to prosecution.”

Green MP Chlöe Swarbrick, who has been material in the creation and passing of the law, said the change would simply make crystal clear what had always been the case.

Any case would have been considered in the scope of the public interest regardless of the wording change, she said.

“It will simply address the red herring, which has been raised by the National Party, for the sake of an attempt at wedging the Government partners.”

Meanwhile, Clark was slightly more coy when it came to the reason for the change of wording, saying all Government partners agreed this was the right outcome, and it was clear they needed to make sure the test for prosecution was “absolutely crystal”.

Green Party drug reform spokesperson Chlöe Swarbrick says the new law marks the beginning of an era of compassion. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

The change clarified it was a public interest test being applied, rather than solely an individual interest test. So police would not be prosecuting those who suffered from addiction unless not doing so was at the expense of wider public safety.

“Generally, I would expect in the public interest, it would be more sensible to apply a therapeutic approach.

“But where someone is not willing to go down a therapeutic road, and there are other people in danger, I expect the police will continue to do what they’re doing now, which is to follow a path to prosecution.”

The new law solidified and supported current police practice, and made sure they got resources freed up to go after the manufacturers and suppliers of drugs.

“We’re living up to the rhetoric as a country that implements evidence-based policy, and one that prioritises compassion."

While it was a slightly messy end to the bill's journey through Parliament, the three governing parties said they celebrated the passing of the law, with Swarbrick labelling it as "the most transformative change in drug law in New Zealand in over 30 years”.

“We’re living up to the rhetoric as a country that implements evidence-based policy, and one that prioritises compassion."

It was part of a transformative shift to treat the underlying issues driving mental health and addiction, she said.

Meanwhile, New Zealand First said it welcomed the law, which would tackle the escalating issue of synthetic drug use.

Law and order spokesperson Darroch Ball said the Government was moving in the right direction on psychoactive substances.

“Instead of virtue-signalling by proposing minor tinkering to the law like the National Party, we’re taking strong action to disrupt supply and support those in the throes of addiction."

During the third reading, Paula Bennett questioned whether under-pressure mental health and addiction services had the capacity to take on more people. This is something also raised during the select committee process.

"We'll be building up those workforces, we can't train all of the people we need overnight, it's just not possible. We don't have the capacity in the system to handle everything we want to do straight away, but we make no apology for getting on with it right now."

National supported rehabilitation but said police were not social workers. "It will be up to them to help people try and find services that simply don't exist."

Following the passing of the bill into law, Clark acknowledged the current need for mental health and addiction services outstripped the supply, but it was something the Government was focused on addressing.

The Government delivered a $1.9 billion package for a range of mental health and addiction services and responses in this year's Budget, which included $459 million for primary sponsors aimed at addressing mild-to-moderate mental health and addiction needs.

"We'll be building up those workforces, we can't train all of the people we need overnight, it's just not possible. We don't have the capacity in the system to handle everything we want to do straight away, but we make no apology for getting on with it right now," Clark said.

"The important thing is we are there to support people who are wrestling with these challenges.

"We will need to build these services up over time - we've inherited a system that has been run down, that hasn't provided well for these people - it will take more than one or two Budgets to fix it, but we are already investing and we are there for those people."

For today, Clark is welcoming the significant step in using evidence to guide policy, and treating addiction with a therapeutic approach.

"It's a day for some celebration because these issues affect real people's lives," he said.

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