If intentions were deeds, or even laws, the National Drug Policy 2015-2020, launched last week, would be a game-changer. As it is, the policy is more notable for the words that accompany it than the force and clarity of its proposals.
That's not to say it's a bad thing. As woolly as it might sound, the policy's identification of "creating a people-centred intervention system" as a priority is, in principle and in context, a helpful move. Like most of the policy's intentions, it supports existing practice.
The next priority, "shifting thinking and behaviour", is essentially an educational mandate. That can be done well, or not so well. We can only trust that health officials will pay heed to evidence on what works there. We certainly do better on this than, say, Australia.
But it's the third priority, "getting the legal balance right", that is inevitably of greatest interest. Associate Health minister Peter Dunne spoke about this at some length in his launch speech:
This responds to the recommendations made by the Law Commission in their 2011 review of the Misuse of Drugs Act.
The laws we make need to be reasonable, and it is crucial that our enforcement response is proportionate. We want to make sure that drug use is deterred where possible, but also that the laws are actually working for individuals, communities and society.
We are trying to minimise harm, not create more. The Law Commission recommended that we repeal the Act and replace it with a whole new one.
We thought carefully about this recommendation. But we have now decided that a complete revision of the Act is not required at this time.
Instead we want to dig deeper.
We want to understand how the legislation is operating on the ground. Is the legislation allowing appropriate access to controlled drugs for medical reasons, while protecting communities from their misuse?
Does it allow Police to make appropriate decisions to stop drug harm?
The Act only sets the boundaries for us to work within. We can still make changes within that.
So a number of actions in the new Policy respond explicitly to the Law Commission recommendations. The Ministry of Health will work with the Expert Advisory Committee on Drugs to make sure that drug classification decisions are focused on harm.
They will also commence work to examine whether the laws and enforcement around drug possession and utensil possession are still reasonable compared to the severity of these offences.
The first sentence of this passage is fairly remarkable, given that former Justice minister Simon Power responded to the Law Commission review on receipt by simply dismissing it and declaring "as long as I'm the Minister of Justice, we will not be relaxing drug laws." Fortunately, he's no longer Minister of Justice.
But we can be fairly sure that the present Minister of Health, Jonathan Coleman, would not have said out loud what Dunne said, given that he has airily assured the public that "the policy settings at the moment are the right ones ".
Unlike his two National Party colleagues, Dunne is not looking to climb any ladders within his caucus (that would clearly be a bit redundant) and like Jim Anderton before him, he has allowed himself to be persuaded by evidence.
In its dying throes, Jenny Shipley's government responded to a media panic about an ecstasy-related death by expediting a terrible bill long championed by John Carter MP that cracked down on drug utensils. Predicated on the dubious notion that young people could be "confused" about what is right and proper if they saw a bong for sale in a shop, Carter's amendment act did not noticebly reduce drug consumption. Hell, it barely even reduced the supply of bongs in shops. More troublingly, its further criminalisation of injecting equipment was disastrous in a public heath sense
And yet, only a year or two later, Anderton hailed the positive results of a review into the needle exchange programme launched in 1987, then made needle exchanges free to use and then introduced a bill that reversed the onus of proof on anyone caught with needles. Future Health minister Tony Ryall made an execrable speech during the passage of that bill:
What I want to alert that Minister to is that this bill effectively decriminalises the use of needles for injecting illegal drugs. If this legislation is passed, effectively it will no longer be an offence to have needles for injecting illegal drugs. It will no longer be an offence, because the police will find it nigh on impossible to prosecute any intravenous drug user who possesses a needle. This bill is part of this Government's politically correct approach to drugs. I suspect that this Government has us on a path to legalised injecting rooms. That is where this decision takes us.
Legalised injecting rooms are really a response to serious street drug problems of a kind that aren't generally seen in New Zealand, but if they led to fewer people dying, and kept communities safer – and the evidence is that they do – why would that be a bad thing?
Dunne's promise to "dig deeper" and find out more stuff about how the law works on the ground – rather than amend the law as two select committee inquiries and the Law Commission have recommended – is probably the best that might be expected under the present government, which is never likely to let evidence get in the way of political expedience. But useful inititiaves – the drug court pilot, for example – have happened without recourse to legislation.
So, as the strategy document openly acknowledges, has the slow shift towards the de facto decriminalisation of marijuana at the hands of police:
The enforcement of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1975 also provides scope to offer low-level offenders alternatives to the criminal justice system. For example, a study into cannabis use offences in New Zealand between 1991 and 2008 found a substantial decline in arrests, prosecutions and convictions for cannabis use over that period. This was despite any changes to the statutory penalties for cannabis use since the enactment of the Misuse of Drugs Act in 1975 (Wilkins et al 2012).
Thus, the strategy's "by 2017/18" action points are largely to do with changing settings rather than changing law:
Work with the Expert Advisory Committee on Drugs (EACD) to ensure harm minimisation is a central feature of drug classification assessments.
Review the regulation of controlled drugs for legitimate purposes (such as medicines) alongside reviews of the Medicines Act 1981 and other therapeutics legislation
This is actually quite a big one, and more likely to have substance for the fact that the Medicines Act is politically easier to amend than the Misuse of Drugs Act.
Develop options for further minimising harm in relation to the offence and penalty regime for personal possession within the Misuse of Drugs Act 1975
The key word here being "within".
Release a discussion document seeking feedback on appropriate regulation of drug utensils.
This is a really interesting one. If there's a cannabis harm that everyone agrees on, it's the part about inhaling smoke into your lungs. Under Carter's stupid law, shops should not be stocking weed vapourisers for sale. But they are, and removing them would unequivocally cause additional harm.
I don't have the time or knowledge to cover the other action points in that section, or those in the "disrupting organised crime" section, but a couple of the points in the "improving information flow" section are worth noting:
Develop a multi-agency Early Warning System for the purposes of monitoring emerging trends and informing both enforcement and harm reduction strategies
Yes. This is already happening. The question is whether the political courage can be mustered to make that early-warning information available in some way to people who actually use drugs. Because that saves lives.
Update the New Zealand Drug Harm Index.
How about throw away the whole thing and start again? The Drug Harm Index we have isn't a useful policy aid, it's a Police PR tool.
Politics also seems to have dictated that, although the strategy specifically includes alcohol, the drug that causes the most harm in New Zealand society, there is little concrete about reducing either demand or supply for the drug.
If I appear uncharitable about this strategy, I don't mean to. It probably goes to the limit of what can politically be said, and its emphasis on compassion and proportionality is very welcome indeed. It holds the promise of beneficial change. It is also a reasonable pointer to the likely shape of this action point:
Develop a New Zealand position for the United Nations General Assembly Special Session on Drugs 2016.
But that's a whole other story, for another time ...