Drug debate promises high drama

David Clark
David Clark
One day there will be a sensible, substantive discussion about drug laws in the New Zealand Parliament.

But not any time soon, going by the opening salvos in the debate on the Misuse of Drugs Amendment Bill, being stewarded through the House by Health Minister and Dunedin North MP David Clark.

It took all of 10 minutes of the recent first reading debate for the battle lines of this legislation to be drawn.

So far as National is concerned, the Bill effectively decriminalises drug use and that will be its claim throughout the rest of the year.

The Government, on the other hand, argues its aim is not to permit people to use drugs, rather to help them stop.

There is some middle ground to be found here, but it will likely be skirted as each side tries to reach the moral high ground.

The Amendment Bill has three main functions.

The first, classifying two types of synthetic drugs as class A substances, is relatively uncontroversial - at least 50 deaths have been provisionally linked to those two drugs, so they clearly pose a threat of substantial harm to the user.

The second would grant the Minister of Health the power to classify almost anything as a "temporary class drug", so long as it poses a potential threat to a user and is not already classified.

That classification would last for a year and a day, while the minister sought advice about what to do about the substance in question.

It is intended to allow the authorities to stay at level pegging, or at least only a step or two behind, synthetic drug manufacturers who routinely alter the make-up of their wares so as to evade drug classification laws.

It may well do that, but it does place large discretionary powers in the hands of one person and there are questions to be answered as to how effective those powers could be to keep harmful new drugs off the streets.

However, that discussion will likely be drowned out by section 6 of the Bill, which amends section 7 (4) of the Misuse of Drugs Act in a way which has National incandescent.

It begins with the words "To avoid doubt", which is a lawmaker's way of saying "this is really, really what we mean", before affirming that police have a discretion whether to prosecute any possible offence against the section.

That one word, "discretion", has guaranteed a major row for months to come.

The Government argues it means police will not be dragging drug users before the courts when a therapeutic approach would be more useful than a punitive one; that is emphasised in the subclause below which says whether a health-centred approach would be more beneficial should be considered before any charge is laid.

There is some wiggle room there - the Bill uses "should" rather than the mandatory "must"- and another out is offered by the fact "any other relevant matters" also have to be considered.

There is also an argument that police, who know they cannot arrest their way to a win in the war on drugs, already apply plenty of discretion in their charging decisions.

Liz Craig
Liz Craig
So far as National is concerned though, proposed section 6 is drug decriminalisation in name only, a point every one of their speakers in the first reading debate hammered away on.

"I still don't know now why on Earth we're having a referendum next year on the possession and use of marijuana, because with one fell swoop the Government is decriminalising that," Dunedin-based MP Michael Woodhouse thundered.

"We're going to go through a whole charade, frankly, of trying to work out words in a referendum that is functionally obsolete once this Bill is passed."

The counter argument, that this is about health not crime, was advanced by Labour's Invercargill-based MP Liz Craig.

A doctor who has worked in accident and emergency, she deployed her first-hand experience from the frontline of the war on drugs to argue for the Bill's approach.

"I think when you listen to the stories of people talking about their experiences with getting hooked on this stuff and just the huge impact - once they're addicted - it has on their lives, and what they have to go through to fuel and fund their habits," Dr Craig said.

"This is a really, really important balanced approach to a very significant issue."

A discretion to prosecute is not a new legislative approach; the recent example of the so-called "anti smacking" legislation was quickly cited by Labour as an example where egregious cases go to court and minor matters are dealt with in other ways.

But given the temperature of the debate so far, do not expect that to soothe any of National's concerns whatsoever.

Nor will the health select committee process help much, as it has four members apiece from the Government and Opposition on it, so a dissenting opinion will almost certainly result.

Get the aspirin ready, this is going to be a raucous debate.

Mark Patterson
Mark Patterson
Missed the target?

Gun City owner David Tipple has certainly made an impact in the past couple of weeks but many - and Lawrence-based NZ First MP Mark Patterson is one of them - felt he offered more heat than light to the debate on gun law reform.

"He, of all people, had probably the most knowledge of anyone in New Zealand as to what was out there," Mr Patterson said in the second reading debate on the Arms (Prohibited Firearms, Magazines, and Parts) Amendment Bill on Tuesday.

"I felt that was a missed opportunity during the submissions."

It's where?

On Wednesday, the health select committee considered Clutha-Southland MP Hamish Walker's petition to stop the planned downgrade of services at Lumsden Maternity Centre.

While there was plenty for Lumsden locals to get their teeth into as Ministry of Health officials responded to the petition, there was one comment which really got them steaming - a reference to Winton being "just down the road".

Cue incredulity, question marks, exclamation marks and laughter emojis on the facebook live stream from people who seemingly did not consider 50km away as meeting that definition.

Hamish Walker
Hamish Walker
Conflict of Interest?

Speaking of Mr Walker, he declared an unconventional potential conflict of interest before voting in favour of the Health Practitioners Competence Assurance Amendment Bill on Tuesday.

"My three sisters are a nurse, a social worker in occupational therapy, and a parents carer and a GP, and I'm actually fortunate enough to be married to a psychologist - not for her, though."

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