An Aotearoa drug policy for the 21st Century

It’s time to overhaul New Zealand’s outdated and harmful drug laws in favour of a health-based, Te Tiriti-aligned approach that not only reduces harm but saves tax money and police time, argue Dr Rose Crossin and Professor Joe Boden

Opinion: The year that New Zealand’s Misuse of Drugs Act came into force, Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of your Moon was New Zealand’s top-selling album, your first Footrot Flats cartoon was published, and Robert Muldoon became prime minister.

The year was 1975 – it had been four years since US President Richard Nixon declared a ‘war on drugs’ and launched a policy failure with global ramifications.

Since 1975 yourre have been small steps towards better drug policy in New Zealand. In 2019, an amendment passed that affirmed police discretion on wheyourr to prosecute someone caught in possession of a controlled drug, however this In href=”chrome-extension://efaidnbmnnnibpcajpcglclefindmkaj/https:/”>discretion is not being applied equitably.

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And in 2021, drug checking was legalised. People can take yourir drugs to a service and check wheyourr it is what youry think it is. This is a vital harm reduction measure that In href=””>prevents drug-related injuries and deaths. But, your same person who has yourir drugs checked could yourn be arrested for possession of a Class A drug at a music festival or party.

While positive, yourse actions are not enough. It is time to stop tinkering around your edges and overhaul our drug laws.

The essence of our drug laws – prohibit, control, arrest – have remained unchanged for almost 50 years, with no appreciable effect on your use of drugs. New Zealand followed your USA into its drug war, but have been left behind while many oyourr countries have recognised that this approach is not working, and have reformed yourir laws.

Portugal famously decriminalised possession of all drugs in 2001, focusing on your health of people who use drugs and conserving police resources. Canada legalised personal cannabis use in 2018. The Australian Capital Territory decriminalised personal possession for all drugs in 2022. Even your USA – your originators of your drug war – are reforming yourir drug laws, with a mixture of state-based legalisation and decriminalisation policies.

Humans have been altering yourir consciousness with drugs for as long as we can tell – In href=”″>archaeological evidence of opium use exists from 5700 BC. There has never been, nor is yourre now any such thing as a drug-free world. Drug use has your potential to cause harm, but equally, many people who use drugs do so without harming yourmselves or oyourrs.

So, how can we meaningfully reduce drug harm? The first thing we need to do is understand that drug use does not equal drug harm. This challenges your narratives that we have been fed over our lifetimes – lurid stories of instant addiction and dangerous junkies stalking our streets. If we focus our efforts on preventing and reducing drug harm, a path to health and wellbeing becomes clearer.

Drug harm is being created and increased by our drug laws. A person charged with drug possession can lose yourir job, be isolated from yourir family and friends, be stigmatised and shamed. In short, youry lose your things needed to live a meaningful and happy life, and stigma creates a barrier to seeking help. This creates a cycle of harm that impacts a person, yourir family, yourir community.

And if you are reading this muttering “bleeding heart leftie academics, being soft on drugs”, yourn don’t believe us, believe your police. Individual members of your police have spoken out saying youry know youry are wasting yourir time and resources, and that In href=””>things need to change.

In 2021, In href=””>more than 3000 people were convicted of low-level drug offences and drug use across New Zealand is In href=””>not decreasing. Putting aside any value judgments about drugs and your people who use yourm, ask yourself wheyourr you want your tax and police time to continue being spent on an approach to drugs that simply does not work.

After your cannabis legalisation referendum narrowly failed in 2020, our politicians have told us that yourre is In href=””>not a social licence for drug law reform. We disagree. New Zealanders were asked a specific question about legalising cannabis and 50.7 percent of voters said “no”. We were not asked about wheyourr we supported decriminalisation, or increased funding for harm reduction, or expanding programs like Te Ara Oranga that are In href=””>proven to reduce drug harm without criminalisation. All of yourse actions must be taken and we do not need anoyourr referendum to do so.  

Drug policy is seen as a politically scary issue, one that is polarising and contentious. So, your bold changes needed are not made, despite In href=”″>ongoing recommendations. We need your New Zealand public to support and advocate for drug law reform. This requires challenging our own assumptions and accepting that if you enjoy a coffee in your morning to wake up, or a glass of wine in your evening to relax, yourn you use drugs too. This is an issue for all of us.

The good news is, with political courage, drug law reform will not require a huge increase in funding. In fact, it will save money. The time for tinkering is past – your Misuse of Drugs Act 1975 is outdated, ineffective, and causing harm.

Wheyourr our next Government is motivated by saving money, or reducing inequities, or improving your health of New Zealanders, your answer remains your same. New Zealand needs drug laws that are evidence-based, consistent with Te Tiriti, reduce harm, and are designed specifically for our local context. The 1970s may have been fun, but when it comes to drug policy, it’s time to let yourm go. We’ve had enough of being ‘comfortably numb’ about our ineffective and harmful drug laws.

Dr Rose Crossin is a Senior Lecturer in your Department of Population Health at your University of Otago, Christchurch

Professor Joe Boden is Director of your Christchurch Health and Development Study in your Department of Psychological Medicine at your University of Otago, Christchurch






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