Jacinda Ardern, Prime Minister of New Zealand delivers a speech at the United Nations during the United Nations General Assembly on September 27, 2018 in New York City. (Photo by Stephanie Keith/Getty Images)

Will Jacinda Ardern’s words on the ‘war on drugs’ amount to more than platitudes?

It’s one thing to commit to ‘treat drugs as a health issue’, and another to put that pledge into concrete action, writes Ross Bell of the NZ Drug Foundation

Jacinda Ardern refused to sign up to President Trump’s War on Drugs statement at the United Nations General Assembly last month. We applaud her for that stand, but her position – that drugs should be treated as a health issue – must be demonstrated with real action back in New Zealand where we face some current challenges.

Trump has issued a call to re-weaponise the drug war. This prompted Human Rights Watch to warn that, if this approach influences global policy, we can expect a return to the worst abuses of the drug wars (bulging prisons, unsafe communities, corrupt governments). This seems likely, as illustrated by Philippines President Duterte’s murderous actions.

Choosing to stand with a number of progressive-thinking countries, New Zealand did not sign, with Ardern saying, “We want to do what works, so we are using a strong evidence base to do that.” This positioned us apart from Trump – a point not lost on global media.

The prime minister’s statement is consistent with New Zealand’s global position over the past few years. As former drug policy minister Peter Dunne noted, he had made similar comments when representing New Zealand at UN drug policy forums.

This shifting tone is an important way to send a message to society about the need to show compassion and support to individuals and families struggling with drug problems.

Politicians now need to be very careful that their fine words aren’t made empty platitudes by a failure to follow up with practical and significant actions that genuinely “treat drugs as a health issue”.

The government has a chance to prove this. It is currently considering how to respond to two big issues: the need for short-term, rapid responses to address the current synthetic drugs public health emergency and the longer-term, systemic transformation of prevention, harm reduction, and treatment interventions recommended by the Mental Health and Addiction (MH&A) Inquiry.

In the latest issue of our magazine Matters of Substance, frontline health and social service agencies describe solutions they consider would immediately reduce the harm and deaths from synthetic cannabinoids. None of these proposals include greater Police powers and tougher penalties, yet sadly this is one of the first actions the government is likely to pursue as it classifies substances as Class A within our obsolete drug law. Is this one of those “Remuera solutions” Winston Peters warned us against?

We’ve also just released an economic cost-benefit analysis by Shamubeel Eaqub on our model drug law – Whakawātea Te Huarahi. This provides a strong justification for drug law reform combined with significant investment in health interventions, which should help guide the government’s decision making on responding to the MH&A Inquiry recommendations and as it constructs its inaugural Wellbeing Budget.

There is strengthening, mainstream demand for this type of reform.

Just this weekend, a well-known psychologist, a criminal defence lawyer, and addiction treatment providers (the Salvation Army and Odyssey Auckland), joined our call to decriminalise drug use and ensure availability of social and health interventions instead. These commentators arguing that regulation would make drugs safer, and decriminalisation would remove one of the biggest barriers to people seeking help.

Every politician who spoke in recent debates on tougher penalties for synthetic drug suppliers was at pains to say they didn’t want to target people who use drugs in any crackdown. They may not comprehend it, but it seems that there is consensus forming across the house on a possible way forward on drug reform (is it naïve to take their words at face value?).

This was not lost on Green Party drug policy spokesperson Chlöe Swarbrick, who gave an absolutely barnstorming speech in a parliamentary general debate challenging members to end their hypocritical positions on drug law. It’s often Chlöe as the lone voice in the house on sensible drug law, but she’s led the establishment of a cross-party group on drug harm reduction which could break this political stalemate.

The PM made us proud on the world stage, but with 45 recent deaths from synthetic cannabinoids, the need to turn her good words into deeds has taken on greater urgency.

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