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Source: New Zealand Government

Speech to Through the Maze: On the road to health New Zealand Drug Foundation 2021 Parliamentary Drug Policy Symposium

Mōrena koutou katoa,
Tēnei te mihi ki a koutou,
Kua tae mai nei me ngā kete matauranga hauora,
E whai hononga ai tatau katoa,
Ka nui te mihi!

Thank you for the opportunity to welcome you all to Parliament and to open this two-day dialogue on this important kaupapa: a health-based approach to on-going drug reform.

I acknowledge the many guest speakers you have, from both here and overseas. Over the next couple of days you will hear from a formidable line-up – Rt Hon Helen Clark, Johann Hari, Alison Holcomb, Dr Nicole Lee, Professor Papaarangi Reid, Professor Michael Baker, Dr Fiona Hutton and Dr Huhana Hickey, to name just some.

I have been asked to talk about what a health-based approach means to the Government, and what recent actions have been taken towards achieving this, and what might be intended in the near future.

It is Labour Party policy to treat drug use and abuse as a health issue, not a criminal issue.

We have a demonstrated track record in taking this approach, and I will, shortly, outline some of the measures we have enacted to achieve it.

But there is a broader context to this, and while I don’t want to be unnecessarily backward-looking at this forward-looking conference, I believe it will be helpful for me to briefly address the elephant in the room – the result of the 2020 referendum on whether we should legalise recreational cannabis.

The commitment in the 2017 Labour-Greens confidence-and-supply agreement – supported by New Zealand First – to have a referendum on the legalisation of cannabis was remarkable because of two political judgments it involved:

  • First, that it was time to front up on the need for more progressive drug law reform, at least in respect of this one substance;
  • And second, that this was a social policy appropriate to be decided by way of referendum.

Having decided on the process, we were bound by its outcome.

As Minister of Justice at the time, and therefore responsible for the cannabis referendum, I took responsibility for ensuring it was conducted properly and fairly.

To this day, I take considerable pride in the work I did to ensure we had an easily understood referendum question built around a well-developed piece of draft legislation.

I was pleased with the work that went into basing the draft law on contemporary scholarship, and with the extent of community and cross-party consultation that informed it.

The referendum was supported by a good information campaign.

The result was a loss. A narrow loss, but nevertheless, a loss.

But that loss happened in a broader context: this progressive policy proposal was lost in an election in which people voted for progressive parties to an extent we hadn’t seen in decades.

The general election was a referendum on a progressive approach to handling the COVID-19 pandemic – putting the safety of people, families and community first; maintaining jobs and incomes; borrowing heavily to provide economic stimulus; and starting to address entrenched inequality and poverty.

Against loud and shrill voices opposed to this approach, a progressive vision was endorsed by an overwhelming majority of the electorate.

But the same did not happen when it came to the vote on legalisation of cannabis.

And this is relevant to how we continue to make progress on drug law reform.

To make reform in this area, we need good social licence. We tested society, and we didn’t get a licence for such a significant shift.

I took responsibility for the referendum because I was the Minister of Justice. Now, as the Minister of Health, I find I am responsible for the Misuse of Drugs Act, so the issue is still in my court.

In the end, I think we all agree we need a legal regime that is safe and controlled. We don’t have that at the moment. We should continue moving in that direction based on the clear social licence we have.

The case for change is obvious. Most people who choose to consume cannabis do so safely.

Some use it for therapeutic purposes. It is prevalent in our communities, but under current circumstances it is causing social harm, because of the criminal activity surrounding it. The enforcement of the law is discriminatory, and is, in itself, a social harm.

But the referendum saw people also making reasonable and legitimate objections to legalisation.

The mums and dads of teenagers who were concerned that access to cannabis would not be controlled and that the young, vulnerable brains of their children would be adversely affected – because, as we know, cannabis is capable of causing harm to some people.

School principals and teachers who were deeply concerned about the effects cannabis has on young people and who weren’t convinced this would get better.

The kuia and kaumatua who were concerned about drug use by rangatahi and taitamariki and who would want to rid our communities of it completely.

These are the people who weren’t convinced. Who weren’t reassured. Any future reform must reassure these people that there will be effective control.

The referendum result doesn’t mean the end of reform, but it tells us we should make change carefully and cautiously.

 There is more we can do – and are doing – to create a more effective drugs regime.

This includes some steps we have already taken towards what some may consider decriminalisation.

But I say this about decriminalisation: it is not a half-way house to more effective control of a substance capable of causing harm.

The opposite is more likely to be true.

Decriminalisation alleviates a problem for the person who purchases and possesses for self-use and some sharing, but it doesn’t change the criminal basis of production and distribution.

It offers no safeguards against access by younger users.

And it allows for no assurance about the safety of what is being consumed and no opportunity to communicate with consumers about their health.

Nevertheless, as part of the medicinal cannabis regime, we have, at least on an interim basis, introduced legal defences for those who, certified by doctors, use cannabis for palliative purposes and who otherwise might be charged with possession.

We have also introduced a defence for those who supply cannabis to those who use it for palliative purposes – the green-fairy defence – I will come back to these legal defences shortly.

And we have introduced a statutory steer for authorities not to prosecute where the only offence is possession, and, where possible, to provide a health response instead.

Nearly two years into this regime, the Police Minister and I have commissioned a review into whether the way the Police are exercising prosecutorial discretion is consistent with the objectives we set for that law change. I expect officials to report back to me on this by the middle of the year.

Let me come back to the defences to possession charges I mentioned earlier. There is a separate review of these under way.

A medicinal cannabis products regime recognises the fact some people get therapeutic benefits from active ingredients in cannabis plants, mainly CBD.

We decided that until the medicinal cannabis regime is properly up and running, we will allow consumption of cannabis for therapeutic purposes in defined conditions. That is what those defences relate to.

The medicinal cannabis regime is not yet operating as we expected and we have further extended the exemption on cannabis products to meet the safe manufacturing standard for those products.

I expect there will be more products on the market later this year. But it is not just about the number of products on the market. I am concerned about access to products, too. And that means keeping an eye on prices.

The review of defences reports to me in December this year.

I don’t want to pre-empt the outcome of the review, but at this stage, one of the factors I will take into account in deciding whether the defences continue is whether I consider the market for medicinal products is working effectively. And that includes questions of effective access.

Here are some of the other actions we have committed to so far to see a more health-based approach to drugs in the community:

Increased funding

We’re investing $69 million over four years to support enhancing and expanding primary, community and specialist alcohol and other drug services to make sure health treatment and support is available to those who need it.

Services supported include peer-support services, pregnancy and parenting services, a drop-in recovery café and integrated health programmes.

Alcohol and other drug treatment courts

Many of the people in this room will be aware of the long-standing Alcohol and Other Drug Treatment Courts in Auckland.  

An evaluation carried out while I was Minister of Justice found that two years after graduating the programme, participants are less likely to be back in the justice system. So I am pleased we are introducing a new Alcohol and Other Drug Treatment Court in Hamilton, which will not be a simple ‘lift and shift’ of the Auckland approach, but rather build on the work done there and adapt the approach to meet the needs of the Waikato community.

More Alcohol and Other Drug Treatment courts will be rolled out over time, and we have a commitment in our manifesto to establish one in Hawke’s Bay.

Drug checking

Last month I announced we are working on developing a permanent regulatory regime for drug-checking, following the temporary measures introduced in late 2020.

We all know drug-checking has the potential to save lives. Recent research by Associate Professor Dr Fiona Hutton at Victoria University suggests drug-checking services are instrumental in changing people’s behaviour.  

It shows that 68 per cent of surveyed festival-goers who used drug-testing services changed their behaviour as a result. Drug checking often resulted in people disposing of or reducing the amount of drugs they take, as well as increasing people’s awareness of the risks of harm.

As a result of last summer’s drug checking by KnowYourStuffNZ, High Alert were able to release warnings around synthetic cathinones being sold as MDMA.

High alert

The Ministry of Health funds the National Drug Intelligence Bureau to operate the Drug Information and Alerts New Zealand network, also known as DIANZ.

This is a successful joint operation between the Ministry of Health, the New Zealand Customs Service and New Zealand Police, and is supported by a wider network of health and social sector professionals, many of which will be here today.

DIANZ launched its website, High Alert, in June 2020.

Alerts and notifications are published on the site, and harm reduction information and advice is available. High Alert also allows people who use drugs to report unexpected or concerning effects to the DIANZ team.

Since High Alert’s launch, 10 notifications have been published on the website helping people stay safer and possibly saving lives.

Closing

It’s going to take all of us working together to transform our approach to preventing drug harm in Aotearoa. We all have a role to play in achieving this, I’m pleased to be a part of this transformation, and I hope you are too.

Progress over the past two years has been significant, but there is still much more to be done. You have my commitment that this work, and New Zealanders’ wellbeing, is a priority for us.

MIL OSI