The furore over drug policy

I have had one or two fractious media interviews of late on aspects of New Zealand’s drug policy. I am not especially proud of that, because my normal demeanour is much more considered and self-disciplined. My plea in mitigation is that my contrariness has been a reflection of my frustration that, for various reasons, the points I was seeking to make have been misunderstood.

I was reminded of all this again this week, when, following a Morning Report interview on the same subject, the media suddenly seemed convinced I had undergone some remarkable conversion and was now advocating a bold, new approach to drug policy, completely out of character with what many of them had long imagined erroneously and in some cases maliciously to be my views, and for which many had pilloried me for years.

Only a few journalists were astute enough to recall that my now apparently radical new calls for drug policy to be based on the principles of compassion, innovation and proportion were in fact a repetition of what I had been saying consistently for some time, most notably, but by no means exclusively, at the United Nations Conventions on Narcotic Drugs meeting in Vienna this time last year. Some even recalled accurately that these same principles underpinned the National Drug Policy I released on behalf of the government last August.

I was simply too stunned by the media volte-face to be grumpy. Indeed, I was literally gobsmacked as to why my message of steady, considered reform that they in their ignorance had sneered at and ridiculed for so long had suddenly become mainstream. It said a lot to me about how shallow so many of they are.

The reason for this turnaround is, I suggest, that drug policy has many levels to it, and it is thus inherently more complex and nuanced than many of them can or want to understand. For some, drug policy is no more than a loud and selfish focus on being able to get their drug of choice when they want it, no matter the consequences or accepted legal norms. For others, drug policy is more specific – access to products that may have a medicinal benefit, for example. Still others see drug policy as no more than cannabis policy.

However, sensible drug policy is multi-faceted, and pays no heed to the extremes. It is about controlling the manufacture and distribution of dangerous substances, and the criminals behind the trade, so it has obvious legal connections; but it is also about the innocent victims and those who suffer from the misuse of drugs, requiring an effective and strong health focus. Above all, sensible drug policy is about a prudent and balanced response. It should address the supply and distribution issues through the law, as well as ensuring good health services are available to assist those suffering from the misuse of drugs. That is the compassion prong.

But sensible drug policy is also about having an appropriate focus. The steps we take to deal with those who manufacture and distribute drugs illegally will be quite different from those we promote to deal with those affected by them. At the same time, we cannot cause more problems than we resolve. That is the proportion prong.

And because this is a dynamic and changing environment, we will also need to be flexible and open to new ways of dealing with emerging problems, like for instance our approach to the psychoactive substances issue. That is the innovation prong.

The war on drugs has been an abject failure. Its rhetoric and approach belonged to a bygone era. Focusing New Zealand’s drug policy on a health centred approach places us firmly in the international mainstream of contemporary drug policy. The recharting of our course in recent years has been as deliberate as it has been subtle. It is no accident, but a conscious recognition of both the deficiencies in previous policy and what is achievable and sustainable in the current political social and political environment. I have purposely ignored the extremists, and I make no apology for that.

Next month I will lead New Zealand’s delegation to the United Nations General Assembly Special Session on drugs in New York. I will be promoting our National Drug Policy there, and expecting to be well-received, as we work with like-minded countries to produce sensible outcomes for the future. I will be proud, not grumpy nor irascible, to see the values of compassion, innovation, and proportion at the forefront of our deliberations.

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