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The drug war is over. Now it’s time to write the peace treaty

The evidence is overwhelming: our current drug laws aren’t working. As governments worldwide admit defeat in the war on drugs, it’s past time for New Zealand to make drug law reform a priority, writes former MP Laila Harre.

To my shame I voted for the Misuse of Drugs (Drug Paraphernalia) Amendment Bill in 1997. In my defence, after cleaning up the legislation – including ensuring that members of the public could still buy knives and teaspoons – so did everyone else. There wasn’t even a party vote; each stage was passed by Parliament on the voices. The debate recorded by Hansard shows a stunning disconnect between critique of the bill and actual votes on it. Here is Phil Goff:

“We need initiatives from the Government to address a problem that is getting worse, not better. At the moment we do not have those programmes [in schools, in communities, and in prisons to help prevent drug use and to help people who are drug abusers]. We do not even evaluate the minimal programmes that we do have, so we do not know whether the money we are putting into those drug programmes is effective. That is what the House should be debating, not an irrelevant measure like this because it will take the country nowhere.”

The thing is that Phil’s Party, like mine, went on to support the bill without so much as a party vote being called for.

This sidebar in Aotearoa’s drug control history might not rate a mention on a list of significant NZ drug laws. But it’s gained a whole lot more meaning for me as I’ve learned more about the troubling back story of this country’s drug legislation and pondered the ease with which politicians have been thoughtless accomplices to it. To summarise, New Zealand got dragged into an epic global panic that originated in the US, was imposed globally through US power, has deeply racist roots, resulted in the withdrawal of cannabis and other compounds from the medicine cabinet, transferred the supply of drugs for pleasure-seekers and addicts to organised crime, and is responsible for countless examples of official corruption and personal cruelty.

Ahead of the New Zealand Drug Foundation symposium Through the Maze, Healthy Drug Law which will convene at Parliament in July, let’s agree that this history matters. Engaging with the history defeats the moral authority of the status quo. And once we do that, we can compare the way we do things now with a limitless range of alternatives, based on actively chosen values and outcomes. Indeed, a maze – an artificially constructed set of boundaries and assumptions designed to confuse and obstruct – is an excellent metaphor for the current state of the debate. By coming to terms with the history of the drug war we take our first step outside the maze.

Personal experience is a strong source of political perspective. But MPs have a duty to embody a whole community’s experience, and that means dealing with evidence. I’m thrilled that the Māori Party is open to a conversation about decriminalising cannabis, in part because Marama Fox’s relations were offered P when they tried to buy weed. But let’s be clear. The evidence that our drug laws are racist in both origin and effect has been available for yonks.

Let’s be prepared for a patchwork solution. All public policy is imperfect. It’s more than likely that a one-size-fits-all approach, or even a single framework, is neither achievable nor desirable. For instance, cannabis law reform is now generally discussed by analogy to medical drugs or alcohol. It’s a soft, relatively harmless and popular recreational drug. In its natural form, it’s got some therapeutic benefits. What’s more, recent public opinion research on cannabis commissioned by the Drug Foundation shows overwhelming support for medical access and a clear majority for recreational use rights. We are still squeamish about sharing or selling it, but I suspect we have a pretty liberal notion of medical need and the products that could serve it.

This has been the bridge over which North America has travelled towards legalisation for recreational use. Canadian cannabis taskforce leader, former Minister of Health and Justice Anne McLellan, will speak at the July symposium about the legislation drafted to implement Trudeau’s promise to legalise weed, and the public engagement process that created it.  Over half of US states have some form of legalised access to cannabis, despite a federal ban.

At least as far as cannabis goes, it’s now simply a matter of where we draw our boundaries and how we manage production and distribution.

Harder drugs, which in Aotearoa are generally spelt ‘P’, present a harder challenge. Here we really do need to dig into our principles. I’d suggest three – evidence, ethics and empathy. Measure the status quo against alternatives based on these principles, and I think we’d make different choices. Portugal decriminalised all drugs in 2001, shifting resources from prosecuting users into treatment, rehab and reintegration. Johann Hari says it took him a long time to go to Portugal when he was researching the war on drugs for his book Chasing the Scream (required reading for all MPs and opinionmakers). He was worried he’d discover that alternatives to the calamitous war on drugs were themselves failures. He found the opposite, including a concession by the top cop who’d led opposition to decriminalisation that everything he’d said would happen, didn’t; and everything the decriminalisers said would happen, did. The Swiss voted in two referenda to legalise (and nationalise) the supply of heroin to addicts, cutting out criminals and increasing community and user safety and public cleanliness.

It’s refreshing that all 15 of the symposium speakers announced to date are women. There is something really decent about the guys we have come to know (and love) on these matters stepping back, and the disruptive impact of women’s voices. There have been few women empowered by the war on drugs, and many millions damaged. What’s more, the shift in thinking needed to accept policy change, has strong parallels to other uncomfortable issues that pitch care against control, abortion being an obvious example.

In the 20 years since I consented with silence to a bill predicated on the notion that seeing a bong in a shop window would increase the likelihood of a kid becoming a drug addict, the UN has dropped the slogan “A drug-free world, we can do it,” declaring defeat in the war on drugs. Bravo to the Drug Foundation for bringing the peacemakers to the table.

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Laila Harré was an Alliance MP from 1996-2002 and a minister in the Labour-Alliance government.

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). Registrations now open.

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