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The War on Drugs is ending all over the world. Global experts arrive tomorrow to tell our politicians

Around the world the War on Drugs has failed; in New Zealand our aging drug law punishes and imprisons drug users. This week the New Zealand Drug Foundation has brought drug reformers to speak at Parliament to guide our laws into the 21st century. Simon Day asks if our politicians will finally listen.

Tuari Potiki, chair of the New Zealand Drug Foundation, addressed the UN General Assembly in te reo Māori. He spoke as an indigenous person whose life was nearly destroyed by drugs. As a survivor he told the world their War on Drugs has been an assault against the wrong people.

“Many nations have joined up to wage a war against drugs and have ended up attacking people who really need our help and support,” he told the UN’s Special Session on the World Drug Problem in 2016.

Potiki started drinking and smoking cannabis at 13. By 20 he was injecting heroin. But at 28, a judge gave him a chance when he offered him the choice of jail, or getting help for his problem. “He could see I needed a health intervention not a criminal justice one. And he sent me to treatment for my drug problem. And because treatment works I stand here today as chair of the New Zealand Drug Foundation as director of Māori development at Otago University, and as having not used drugs for 27 years,” he told the UN.

Potiki was lucky. The Misuse of Drugs Act 1975 is over 40 years old and a relic of the global fear of drugs and drug users. Its heavy-handed dedication to deterrence through criminalisation and punishment of drug users is not working to prevent the harmful effects of drugs on New Zealanders. The social cost of drug related harms and intervention in 2014/15 was estimated at NZ$1.8 billion.

In 2011 the Law Commission recommended repealing and replacing the Act with new drug laws administered by the Ministry of Health. The commission recommended “a more flexible response, to small-scale dealing and personal possession and use, particularly where these activities are linked to addiction.”

Afraid of the slow moving morals of the conservative New Zealand voting bloc, politicians have refused to reform our drug law. John Key was unequivocal in saying cannabis would not be decriminalised or legalised during his reign. Bill English quickly rejected legalisation of cannabis after taking over as prime minister. While medicinal cannabis is now easier to access, without Pharmac subsidies or a local supply, costs are still significant. Labour leader Andrew Little has endorsed medical cannabis use, but also said no to decriminalisation.

The government appears happy to shirk responsibility, passing the role on to the police who have progressively applied an informal decriminalisation of cannabis. But in doing so politicians are hiding from their duty to the New Zealand public, and the basic premise of their existence, to address legislation that isn’t working. And they’ve left the application of drug law to the problematic subjectivity of the police, which appears to disproportionately benefit middle class pākehā. While just 15% of the population, Māori are 51% of the prison population – perhaps New Zealand’s most shameful statistic – and 40% of those are for drug offences.

Kiwis continue to look into the mirror and squint to see progressive world leading social reformers. But New Zealand’s anachronistic drug laws are stagnant and failing while much of the world is moving on from the War on Drugs.

In 2001, with one of the highest and most problematic rates of drug use is Europe, Portugal decriminalised all personal use of illicit drugs, and became the beacon of what was possible through drug law reform. The government introduced new policies on prevention, treatment, and harm reduction to support and educate drug users, seeing drug addiction as a health condition not a crime. The Portuguese approach reduced drug use in young people, reduced imprisonment of drug users, reduced H.I.V. infections and overdoses, and increased new patients seeking drug treatment.

In 2016 at the same time Americans went about electing Donald Trump, eight states had voted to adopt new medical and recreational cannabis laws. Now more than half of the US has cannabis available for medical use, and around one fifth of the population live in states where adults can get high, just to get high.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised to legalise cannabis during his 2015 campaign, and in April introduced legislation to begin the process. The bill is expected to easily pass Parliament, making cannabis legal by 2018.

The Drug Foundation’s 2017 Symposium has brought leaders of global drug reform to parliament to show the power and potential of replacing the War on Drugs with laws that treat drug use as a health issue, not a criminal one. The issue is becoming urgent for New Zealand, but there’s consistently a reluctance to change, or even talk about change. The Foundation wants to show these conversations don’t need to be scary, and show there are successful models and values to build on. But it needs to happen soon.

“If you are not part of the solution then you are part of the problem,” Potiki told the UN General Assembly. “And that a major part of the world drug problem are those countries that continue to block progress towards compassionate and proportionate and health-based responses to drug use and drug users.”

Right now New Zealand’s politicians are part of the problem. It’s fear and failure to move New Zealand’s drug legislation towards outcomes that are optimistic and equitable, means people who need help, or have done no harm to others are criminalised. Our laws leave thousands of our most at risk citizens with convictions that forever impact their future.

“If there is a war to be fought it should be a war on poverty, a war on disparity, on dispossession,” said Potiki, “and on the multitude of historical and political factors that have left and continue to leave so many people vulnerable and in jeopardy.”


A fresh way to deal with drugs is needed more than ever in New Zealand. To debate new approaches to drug law that are fit for the 21st century, the NZ Drug Foundation is running the Through the Maze: Healthy Drug Law parliamentary symposium (5-6 July, Wellington).

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