Dunne Speaks: UNGASS 2016

This week I have been attending the United Nations General Assembly Special Session on Drugs (UNGASS), the first such meeting since 1998, and the first major international review of drug policy since 1998.

A great deal has changed in that time. The advent of more than 600 new psychoactive substances alone is evidence of that. So it is little surprise that more and more countries have come to recognise the failings of the “War on Drugs” which has merely seen the power of the international drug cartels increase and the suffering of innocent victims mount. The Outcome Document from UNGASS effectively buries the “War on Drugs” in favour of a greater focus on harm reduction and treating drugs as a public health issue. But, thanks to the intervention of Russia, and death penalty states like Singapore, Pakistan, Iran, Indonesia and Saudi Arabia, it does not go as far as it might have, and therefore, as I said in my statement to the General Assembly (see www.beehive.govt.nz for details) lacks a certain boldness. 

None of this should be taken to mean that international attitudes to drug misuse are softening, rather they are simply becoming more realistic. Unlike the view in 1998, no-one, not even the death penalty states, seriously believes that drug problems can be eliminated, or the international drug industry closed down. While drugs remain unacceptable and dangerous, the issue is how effectively to deal with the consequences. Simply perpetuating a system that sees the international drug syndicates become more powerful and more victims suffer unreasonable punishments for their addiction is as crazy as it is wrong. The system has to change.

In New Zealand, we are well placed by world standards. Our opioid substitution programme has been in place for almost 40 years, and our ground-breaking needle exchange programme is nearly 30 years old. Many other countries are still struggling to make progress in both these regards. Our psychoactive substances legislation, passed in 2013, and constantly panned by simply ignorant and lazy commentators incapable of understanding it, has spared us the worst of this problem. The National Drug Policy we released last year is widely hailed as forward-thinking. In particular, the steps we are taking this year to review our elderly rules regarding drug paraphernalia, and the consideration to be given over the next couple of years to the balance between minor offending and criminal sentencing is applauded. So too is the recognition that these steps are likely to lead to a full review of our 1975 Misuse of Drugs Act. And our approach to making medicinal cannabis products available to those who genuinely need them, in an environment where popular noise and sentiment far outweighs hard scientific evidence as to safety and efficacy, is seen as pragmatic and sensible. 

Many who are disappointed with the Outcome Document are already looking ahead to the next major review in 2019 to make real progress. While there is little doubt that reform is needed, bold reform is not reckless reform. We need sound reform based on steady, evidence-based, balanced progress that can be sustained. Through our commitment to compassion, proportion and innovation as the core principles of future drug policy should be founded, New Zealand is well placed to make a constructive contribution to the international debate, alongside like-minded countries, and will continue to do so.

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