Drug reform response confused

Fresh calls for drug law reform have drawn a confused response from the Government thus far.

On the one hand, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern seems open to the possibility of unleashing the debate again. However, before that she wants updated data on how well the law change giving police discretion on whether to prosecute those found with small amounts of drugs for their own use is working. Police are supposed to take a health-based approach rather than prosecute, unless it is not in the public interest.

The information she is seeking would also have a look at the ethnic data, given that one of the concerns for those seeking reform is that Maori and Pasifika people account for more than half of all cannabis possession convictions. Young people are also seen to be affected disproportionately.

She has said it would be helpful if Parliament took a bipartisan approach to the issue and she would like to see if it could reach some consensus.

At the same time, Health Minister Andrew Little has damped down any suggestion of an early comprehensive drug law overhaul and suggested that if significant law reform were eventually proposed, the public would expect another referendum.

Really? We wonder, after last year’s one in which the no vote was 50.7%, whether anyone wants to relive that experience. Nobody knows whether much of that no vote might have supported decriminalisation of cannabis but baulked at the supply proposals. (A poll of 883 people who voted in the referendum, conducted for the Helen Clark Foundation, showed 49% of participants had voted yes, but a further 20% voted no but supported decriminalisation.)

If anything, the vote highlighted the difficulty of using referendums to deal with complex questions.

The issue has hit the headlines again because of an open letter from a wide-ranging cast including the Helen Clark Foundation, the Auckland City Mission, the Mental Health Foundation, and the Medical Association, calling for drug use to be treated as a health issue and not a criminal one. Those found with illegal drugs for their own use could be offered treatment if needed.

Referring to the last referendum, the letter says: "What the extremely close result between ‘yes’ and ‘no’ voters obscures is the consensus among the vast majority of those who participated in the cannabis debate that the status quo is causing harm and we need to improve our current approach to drug law".

The current laws "prevent people accessing help when they need it, and they leave thousands every year with a conviction that impacts on livelihoods, mental health, relationships, travel, housing and education".

We will be surprised if the dive into the data sought by Ms Ardern shows good news about how the police are applying the 2019 law change requiring them to consider whether prosecution was required in the public interest or whether a health-centred approach would be more beneficial.

As Auckland University of Technology associate professor of law Khylee Quince points out, just because Parliament has passed the law, "doesn’t mean that Constable Smith on the ground knows what is required of him".

Because the term "public interest" is used, police are required to apply statutory interpretation.

We also wonder if, in all instances, there are adequate services to support this health-based approach.

It is messy. Green MP Chloe Swarbrick is trying to get cross-party support to get a Bill to decriminalise cannabis before the House, avoiding the biscuit-tin ballot.

She could do this under a new rule which would require her to get the support of 61 non-executive MPs (not ministers or under-secretaries).

Whatever happens next, this issue is not going to go away. Increasingly, New Zealand seems out of step internationally on this. Repeatedly kicking the can down the road is not the answer.

 

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