Pubdate: Tue, 12 Apr 2016
Source: New Zealand Herald (New Zealand)
Copyright: 2016 New Zealand Herald
Authors: Lance O'Sullivan and Tuari Potiki
Note: Dr Lance O'Sullivan is a Kaitaia GP and a former New Zealander 
of the Year. Tuari Potiki is chairperson of the New Zealand Drug Foundation.



Nation's leaders need to follow Peter Dunne's example and see problem 
as a health issue first and foremost, write Dr Lance O'Sullivan and 
Tuari Potiki

New Zealand's heavy-handed approach over the past 40 years has done 
little to address the serious health and social harms.

When will world leaders, politicians and community leaders admit that 
our punitive approach to the drug problem isn't working? Next week 
the world gathers at the United Nations headquarters to agree how 
countries can work together to solve the world's drug problem. The 
last time they did this, in 1998, they declared the war on drugs was 
something that could be won.

The chorus was headed by then-UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who 
proclaimed, "It is time for every nation to say no to drugs. It is 
time for all nations to say yes to the challenge of working towards a 
drug-free world." By any measure the world has missed that target. 
And people are realising that.

Just last month the Johns Hopkins-Lancet Commission on Drug Policy 
and Health, in a damning report on punitive drug law, recommended 
countries decriminalise minor, non-violent drug offences and 
strengthen health and social-sector alternatives. In response, our 
own drug policy minister Peter Dunne reminded everyone his approach 
is to see the drug problem first and foremost as a health issue 
tackled best with compassionate, proportionate and innovative responses.

We agree. New Zealand's heavy-handed approach over the past 40 years 
has done little to address the serious health and social harms caused 
by problematic drug use. It's only made the problem worse, especially 
for Maori.

New Zealand is now counted among countries with the highest rates of 
drug use. We have failed to invest properly in the health of our 
people, with the Government spending more on drug law enforcement and 
punishment instead of timely prevention, good education and quality treatment.

In our respective work we see the impacts of this imbalance. Whether 
it is people arriving at the GP clinic with a drug dependence 
problem, or a school student getting stood down or excluded for 
drugs, the flow-on effects stretch across the wider whanau.

Many of those who most need support can't get the help they need. An 
estimated 50,000 New Zealanders can't access treatment for their 
alcohol and drug problems, and not only because there is not enough 
treatment available: the stigma associated with drug use and its 
current illegality stops people asking for help.

Drug dependence is not the only way we see Maori being harmed. Maori 
bear the brunt of our current drug law. We are four times more likely 
to get a drug conviction, we make up about 40 per cent of the 
prisoner population for drug offences, and miss out on many police 
diversion schemes. Criminalising individuals for minor drug offences, 
such as possession or petty dealing, is a punishment that lasts a 
lifetime, negatively affecting education and employment prospects.

The Government's new drug policy puts people's health front and 
centre and we applaud that. But that policy is undermined by the 
punitive, 40-year-old drug law. The prohibition mindset belongs to 
another era. Here's how we should modernise our approach.

We must replace the criminal justice approach with health 
interventions, just as they did 15 years ago in Portugal. This means 
decriminalising drugs and shifting people into getting appropriate 
help. It also means confronting the poverty, despair and alienation 
that lie at the heart of problematic drug use.

Ahead of the United Nations meeting, here's our challenge/wero:

To our politicians: Acknowledging that the drug problem is a health 
matter doesn't mean you support drug use or are soft on drugs. Take a 
page out of Dunne's book and be willing to let new evidence change your mind.

To our iwi leaders: Don't be mistaken thinking that the punishment 
approach to drugs is a cloak that protects our rangitahi and whanau - 
it's a law creating more harm for Maori than it prevents. We need 
your leadership to design a new whanau-centred approach that properly 
addresses the serious drug harms we all see in our community.

We are not ignoring the real devastation that drug use causes our 
whanau - rather we are saying that using the criminal justice system 
as the intervention has not worked and, in fact, has made it worse.

For inspiration, look no further than Annan. In his wisdom he has 
reversed his stance. No longer fighting a war on drugs, Annan now 
calls for the same kind of health approach we want. He says, "If our 
children do develop a drug problem, surely we will want them cared 
for as patients in need of treatment and not branded as criminals."

Shifting in this direction is a legacy that will be remembered after 
any talk of a "drug-free world" fades into obsolescence.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom