Māori to get equity in new drug law proposal

The Drug Foundation has proposed a new legal framework to reduce harm around drugs, including removing criminal penalties for the possession, use, and supply of drugs.

One issue that’s been identified by the foundation, which has been included in the proposal, is that Māori are integral to developing and integrating any drug reforms considering that 40% of people in prison for drugs are Māori.

The time has come to change the law and take a leaf out of what other countries are doing, its executive director Ross Bell said.

“We're wanting to decriminalise all drugs and swap a criminal approach with a health referral approach which Portugal has done to great success.”

The Associate Health Minister, Peter Dunne, agreed.

“The model that they've spoken about, which is similar to the Portuguese model which I've advocated, has a lot of merit, and I think is where the future debate will head.”

A legal youth advocate, Julia Whaipooti, told Te Karere reform around drug laws couldn’t come soon enough.

“These conversations have been happening for a long time in our kitchens and our own backyards.

“It's overdue to be having it at this level, but I suppose it is pleasing to see that it's been brought to the table.”

A senior law lecturer from Auckland University of Technology (AUT), Khylee Quince, said as far as harmful substance abuse went, Māori are twice as likely as non-Māori to be affected by that.

The chair of the Drug Foundation, Potiki Tuari, said he could relate to the harmful effects of hard-core drug use.

“I started to use drugs when I was 13, through to giving them up when I was 28. I think over time the drug use got worse.”

But Ms Quince said the most significant impact for Māori was around the way the police seem to target Māori compared to other ethnicities.

“The current policy doesn't work. The criminal justice response is particularly discriminatory for Māori, so we are stopped, searched, convicted, and imprisoned - 43% in prison from drugs in NZ are Māori,” she said.

Māori Party co-leader Marama Fox said young Māori who get locked up by the police need rehabilitation – not incarceration.

“Kāore mātou e whakaae kia noho ā tātou rangatahi ki roto i te whare herehere mō te kai tarutaru te take. Me haere ki tētahi ringa āwhina hei āwhina i a koe i roto i tō ao,” hei tāna.

The Drug Foundation’s chair, Tuari Potiki, said drug abuse needed to become a health issue rather than a criminal one. 

“Things need to change. From my perspective that's really what this is all about - taking a health approach rather than a criminal justice approach.”

The five aims of the drug foundation’s proposal

1) Minimise the harm caused by drug use

• Young people have special protection from harm.

• If people decide to use drugs, they start later and use less.

• Anyone can access treatment when they want it.

• The law makes it easy to take action that reduces the harms caused by drug use.

2) Respect human rights

• Penalties for drug-related behaviour are proportional to the harm caused to others.

• People who use drugs have access to an equal quality of care in the health system.

3) Safer communities with less drug-related crime

• Drug-related crime is reduced by investing in prevention, education and treatment.

• The black market is reduced, and no one profits by causing harm.

4) Equity for Māori

• Māori are integral to developing and implementing drug law.

• Māori are not disproportionately impacted by laws.

• If a regulated cannabis market is developed, the economic benefits are felt by Māori communities.

5) Policy is cost-effective and evidence-based

• Money is spent on what works to reduce harm – such as treatment rather than enforcement.

• Regulations are as simple as possible and provide value for money.

The Portugal Model

In 2001 Portugal decriminalised the use of all drugs and spent more money in prevention, treatment, and harm reduction.

Prohibition still applies to drug use but there are no criminal penalties.

Reports say that the approach is working with fewer people in prison, fewer court cases, a decrease in drug use, and a reduction in HIV infections and overdoses.

The most significant observation is drug use amongst young people between the ages of 15-19 has fallen.

This is the model that the Associate Health Minister, Peter Dunne, and Drug Foundation are leaning toward.