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PoliticsOctober 30, 2018

A middle ground on drug laws: Simeon Brown responds to Chlöe Swarbrick


Last week in the Spinoff, Green MP sketched a history of NZ drug laws and issued a repudiation of National MP Simeon Brown’s Psychoactive Substances Amendment Bill. Here he argues that her position fails to face the real challenges that come with the scourge of drugs.

In her article How New Zealand got hooked on moral panic over drug laws, Green Party spokesperson for drug law Reform Chlöe Swarbrick claimed that New Zealand is at a crossroads on drug policy. Surprisingly, she and I could not agree more on this. The choices we will make as a parliament concerning drug-related offences, and whether to liberalise access, will profoundly affect our health services, our police, and our families for decades to come.

Swarbrick presents a false dichotomy by outlining two extreme positions. She advocates for New Zealand to follow the path of further decriminalisation and a total liberalisation of drug law. However, if we pursue this path we must acknowledge that it will undermine any attempt the government makes to dissuade individuals from consuming these often fatal substances. It will result in even more people profiting off the misery of others, leading to exponentially greater harm. Yet others claim we should revert back to a model where addicts are criminalised and locked away. A return to such a model would only compound the harm caused by drugs. These two oversimplified and hard-line approaches are counterproductive and divisive. We have come from a past of one extreme, but in abandoning it, the adoption of the other extreme is just as unappealing.

If we are willing to wrestle with the nuances and subtleties of this issue, we recognise addicts need help and drug addiction is a health issue. Yet we are naive and derelict in our responsibilities if we believe it is a lack of healthcare and counselling that leads someone to go into their community and sell drugs they know can cause death. Drugs are not only a health issue; they never have been.

I have been concerned about the issue of psychoactive substances for a number of years, and since entering parliament have sought to raise the profile of the crisis. During this time I have met with experts across numerous fields: experts in toxicology, in public policy, and police officers. Despite the diversity in their perspectives, all have been affected by psychoactive substances. Toxicologists have seen their A&Es filled with incapacitated patients; public policy experts have grappled with the insufficiencies in our legal framework; and our police are the ones the responsibility falls to when comforting the whanau who have lost loved ones to these substances.

These Kiwis have experienced first-hand the destructive effect psychoactive substances have in our country, and all of them agree that disrupting supply is a critical component of our response to this issue. That is precisely what my bill will do. My Bill does not target users of drugs, but those who supply these substances. Taking a clear stance against the distribution of these drugs by increasing the penalties for supply and distribution, we will be mitigating access to them. Those who supply these drugs are not the victims of the suffering caused, rather they are the perpetrators of devastating harm. We are acting negligently if, as the legislators of this country, we do not condemn through law the distribution of these drugs with harsher penalties than the current sentences.

Swarbrick frequently refers to Portugal as an exemplary model of decriminalisation. Yet she fails to note that manufacturing, distribution and supply are still criminal offences and highly penalised in Portugal. This is the exact intent of my bill, which is why it’s surprising she is so opposed to the legislation. I acknowledge, and have been at pains to convey, that we will never eliminate the harm these drugs cause by solely looking at this issue from the perspective of law and order. As a society we have to acknowledge that more needs to be done to support those suffering from addiction.

Earlier this year I lodged a petition calling for a parliamentary inquiry into addiction to synthetic substances. Our health system can be better equipped to help those trapped in the deadly cycle of addiction, and the aim of the inquiry was to look into the state of the health system and how it deals with these substances. I was disappointed that the Justice Select Committee has decided not to progress with this inquiry, and disappointed that the minister of health, David Clark, has failed to include any reference to psychoactive substances in the terms of reference of the current inquiry into mental health.

We must take a compassionate approach, but it is a failure for us as a society to let those who prey on vulnerable victims in our communities have unfettered access to these harmful substances. The so-called ‘leadership’ from the Labour and Green parties on this issue, advocated for by Swarbrick, is in reality a passive response where they abscond their responsibilities as members of the government and refuse to face the real challenges that come with the supply and distribution of synthetic substances.

The stance taken by the Green Party on this issue under the direction of Swarbrick is not leadership; it is decision making which ultimately fails those who need our leadership the most. We have the opportunity now to build a better framework for managing the scourge of drugs in our society. I hope Swarbrick will recognise the real intent behind this bill and reconsider her opposition to it.

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