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The changing world of drug policy

by Ross Bell, executive director, New Zealand Drug Foundation

What in the world is happening with global drug policy? For something that usually moves slower than a glacier we’ve seen some significant forward progress in the past year.

Colorado and Washington have signed off on the legal sale of cannabis with a slew of other states set to follow. Uruguay has become the first country to legalise cannabis, a charge lead by President Muijca. The UK public is calling loudly for reform and Poland is looking for alternatives for policing drugs. Portugal remains a shining beacon for others looking for effective health-focussed drug law. In a recent interview with Matters of Substance, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan joined in the chorus of international leaders calling for an end to the War on Drugs. Exciting times.

But where does New Zealand lie in the changing drug policy landscape?

While the Alcohol Reform Bill was a mixed bag, we have made a few steps forward in the area of evidence-based drug policy. We now have a pilot drug court, the government has its boot firmly on the neck of Big Tobacco, and we’ve just launched a big push for drug-free driving. More on the drug-free driving later.

The jewel in our drug policy crown, however, is the Psychoactive Substances Act which came into force last year. We have called the bluff of the legal highs industry and told them to prove their wares are low-risk before sale, through tight regulations. The cover story in the latest Matters of Substance shows why international eyes are on New Zealand regarding New Psychoactive Substances (NPS).

Indeed those eyes will come into even sharper focus next week in Vienna when the United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) meets. The CND is the forum where diplomats meet to self-congratulate and chart a new direction for drug policy (sadly, a single direction has been locked in place for over 60 years). Senior New Zealand health and law enforcement officials will be there, accompanying our very own drug policy minister Peter Dunne. And the Drug Foundation is leading a delegation of four NGO representatives to observe and keep our diplomats on notice.

This year the CND includes a high level segment. This is United Nationsese for a really important meeting during which the eventual fate of international drug policy will be decided.

There are resolutions about things like international cooperation on identifying and sharing information on NPS, and this whacky one from Russia about cracking down on the biggest of all problems for Russia at the moment: poppy seeds used in food.

There are also a number of ‘side events’ happening around the CND. These are short presentations on topics like “Harm Reduction in Prisons” and “Protecting Youth with Drug Policy: Criminalization has Failed”. We are co-hosting a side event with the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse about meeting the challenges of drug-impaired driving. This will focus on our work over the past three years on drug free driving and our new Steer Clear campaign.

All this talk is going towards setting the groundwork for a special session of the UN General Assembly in 2016 which will hopefully enshrine the changing landscape into a more health-first approach.

Already some interesting things have emerged in the lead-up to CND with the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime Executive Director Yury Fedatov saying

A health-centred approach to addressing illicit drug use and drug dependence is still not sufficiently implemented in all countries, even though significant progress in this direction has been made in several parts of the world over the last few decades. Some national drug control systems still rely too much on sanctions and imprisonment, instead of health care. (emphasis mine)

This extra attention means extra scrutiny. While we may well have taken a novel approach to reduce the sanctions and imprisonment with new psychoactive substances, what about the old ones?

New Zealand’s Misuse of Drugs Act is celebrating (commiserating?) its 40th birthday next year. It was passed in response to international treaty obligations after the first conventions on drugs were passed through the UN. It’s patchwork of amendments do not fix the underlying problem that it is a sanctions and imprisonment focussed system. As the Law Commission pointed out in its recent review the law isn’t even consistent with the Government’s policy,

If the Law Commission isn’t cool enough for you, Obama is on board with ditching the faltering status quo. In a recent interview with the New Yorker he said about cannabis:

"Middle-class kids don’t get locked up for smoking pot, and poor kids do… and African-American kids and Latino kids are more likely to be poor and less likely to have the resources and the support to avoid unduly harsh penalties… we should not be locking up kids or individual users for long stretches of jail time when some of the folks who are writing those laws have probably done the same thing.”

New Zealand has an opportunity to make our own drug policies health-focussed and evidence-based and play a role on the world stage in doing the same. You know, lead the way on change that could positively affect hundreds of thousands of lives here in New Zealand alone. We’ve seen the glacier lurch forward, let’s keep moving it along.


The New Zealand NGO delegation will be keeping you informed of proceedings. The Drug Foundation’s Jackson Wood will be blogging for the IDPC’s CND blog for the duration of the meetings and side events. We’ll be tweeting and (if you happen to suffer from insomnia) you can follow the #CND2014 hashtag. Early Follow Friday to other drug policy people who will be tweeting from Vienna.

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