NZ Drug Foundation says current laws 'don't work' with Jacinda Ardern's goal of health-based drugs policy

During her appearance at a UN summit in New York, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern made promises of a health-based approach to drugs.

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he Drug Foundation’s Ross Bell spoke to Breakfast this morning about whether the PM can or will deliver on her promise. Source: Breakfast

However, after Ms Ardern’s return home from the New York trip, in which she rejected US President Donald Trump's call to restart the war on drugs, there doesn’t appear to have been much action to back up the proposed policy.

New Zealand Drug Foundation executive director Ross Bell joined TVNZ's Breakfast this morning to discuss whether the PM can deliver on the promise of health-based drugs policy.

Mr Bell said, "She has been saying the right things, and I think it’s quite important, symbolically, for her to reject Trump's call to restart the war on drugs, and so I think a lot of people are saying we need to treat drugs as a health issue".

"In fact, if you look at some of the debates that have happened in Parliament recently around increasing penalties, all political parties in those debates said, ‘Well, we want to go after big guys, but we don’t want to go after people who are using drugs’, and we're thinking, 'Well, are we beginning to reach consensus here that politicians do want to treat drugs as a health issue?' The issue then becomes, ‘What does that look like?'"

Regarding synthetics, he says the country has not "seen a whole rush of resources going out to treatment or harm reduction or to other health services".

"At the moment, on the margins, Parliament is debating tougher sentences and the Government’s considering classifying some of these synthetics as Class A drugs, so we haven’t actually seen the actions follow those very good words."

Mr Bell said while many would agree with the sentiment of reclassifying synthetics to crack down on those who are dealing the drugs, the Government is "working with a law that’s over 40 years old".

"It's such a blunt instrument, so as soon as you classify something as a Class A drug, yes, it's tougher penalties for the high end of the traffickers and the manufacturers, but also, it's tougher penalties for people who use these drugs, people who are addicted.

"Our drug law isn't sophisticated enough to split out those two issues, so if the Government does want to treat this as a health issue, we need to look at the legal framework that we put over this issue."

Mr Bell believes the Government must review the country's drug laws if they "want to go after the big guys".

"I think until the Government says, ‘Yes, we want to go after the big guys and we want to do this thing, part of that mix has to be a review of our drug laws, but I think they’re now stuck in a corner because the drug laws don't work, but I would have also expected to see a whole lot of money coming out to first responders, to people like the Auckland City Mission who are out on the street, and ultimately, to drug treatment as well.

However, he noted that the Government is currently waiting for the mental health and addictions inquiry, which is due back later this month.

"Once that's out, this Government's going to have to move really quickly and say, 'Well, in next year's Budget, this is the kind of money that you should expect to flow into the health side of this.'"

He said the current issue with how to tackle synthetics is not due to the coalition government, adding that "some consensus"could be found between the three parties.

"I actually think all parties, including the opposition parties, are saying, ‘Well, we want to go after the big guys, but let's leave the users alone and let's provide them help instead.

"I think we'll be quite surprised to see where New Zealand First sits. We’ve talked to New Zealand First. Winston Peters isn't a big fan of prisons, and the Greens as well, so I actually think we can find some consensus around this issue."

He said Health Minister David Clark's comments about reclassifying synthetics as a Class A drug were made following science-based advice from the Expert Advisory Committee.

"All that does is, 'These are really harmful drugs, therefore, they fit this definition of Class A'. I accept that from a science point of view, but what flows from that is the problem, because what flows from that is you then end up criminalising people who are using these drugs – people with addiction problems, against people who need help who aren’t currently getting that help, and people who are dying.

"Class A isn't going to be the answer to this – we need to see resources now going out to the community."