Review proposes drug law overhaul

By Hayden Donnell

The review advocates Government-backed clinical trials testing the medicinal benefits of cannabis. File photo / Northern Advocate
The review advocates Government-backed clinical trials testing the medicinal benefits of cannabis. File photo / Northern Advocate

A wide-ranging review of New Zealand drug laws recommends taking steps toward legalising cannabis for medicinal use, cutting criminal charges against low level drug offenders and introducing new regulations stopping production of party pills.

The Law Commission review released this afternoon proposes a complete overhaul of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1975 governing prosecution of drug offences in New Zealand.

It advocates Government-backed clinical trials testing the medicinal benefits of cannabis "as soon as practicable".

Police should not prosecute those whose cannabis use is to relieve pain or manage symptoms of debilitating illness until those trials are carried out, it says.

"Given the strong belief of those who already use cannabis for medicinal purposes that it is an effective form of pain relief with fewer harmful side effects than other legally available drugs, we think that the proper moral position is to promote clinical trials as soon as practicable.

We recommend that the Government consider doing this."

The review also proposes diverting minor drug offenders through a cautioning system instead of the courts and new laws stopping the production of drugs such as party pills until they are proven safe.

Associate health minister Peter Dunne has welcomed the report - but says Government will need time to consider its recommendations.

He agreed the Misuse of Drugs Act is outdated and deficient and needs changing.

"The existing Act fails to adequately address the rapidly expanding market for new psychoactive substances, such as party pills and smokeable products.

"We need a robust regime is in place to prevent the easy availability of uncontrolled substances.

"The Law Commission was tasked with considering options for developing such a regime and I look forward to fully examining its recommendations in weight up how to best provide a greater health focus and deal with drug addicts."

Putting low level drug offenders through the criminal courts is costly and causes "disproportionate" harm to those convicted, Law Commission President Grant Hammond says.

Better drug demand and harm reduction strategies are needed instead of more criminal prosecutions, he says.

"There are adverse social consequences from a distinctly punitive approach to lower level offending. Quite large numbers of young New Zealanders receive criminal convictions - which might subsist for life - as a result of minor drug offences. This is a disproportionate response to the harm those offences cause.

"More can be done through the criminal justice system to achieve better outcomes for those individuals and for society at large."
Changes to the regulations governing drug manufacture and classification are also needed, Mr Hammond says.

The report argues the current system, where drugs can be manufactured until they are deemed harmful, is "entirely anomalous" when compared with the prohibitionist approach to psychoactive substances advocated under the United Nations conventions.

It should be switched to a preventative model where new drugs must be proved safe before they can be produced, he says
"This regime would require manufacturers and importers of a new substance to obtain an approval for it before it could be released onto the market. This would effectively reverse what happens now in practice, where a substance can be manufactured, imported and sold until it is proven to be harmful. This is therefore a preventive regulatory regime."

Key proposals in the report:

• A mandatory cautioning scheme for all personal possession and use offences that come to the attention of the police, removing minor drug offenders from the criminal justice system and providing greater opportunities for those in need of treatment to access it.

• A full scale review of the current drug classification system which is used to determine restrictiveness of controls and severity of penalties, addressing existing inconsistencies and focusing solely on assessing a drug's risk of harm, including social harm.

• Making separate funding available for the treatment of offenders through the justice sector to support courts when they impose rehabilitative sentences to address alcohol and drug dependence problems.

• Consideration of a pilot drug court, allowing the government to evaluate the cost-effectiveness of deferring sentencing of some offenders until they had undergone court-imposed alcohol and/or drug treatment.

Reaction to the review:

Green Party leader Metiria Turei

"Current drug law is 35 years out-of-date and is hurting our families.

"Too many resources are directed into criminalising people rather than providing them with the medical help they most need.
"The Law Commission's report recognises this and seeks to redress it by adopting a harm reduction approach for dealing with personal drug use by adults.

"This new approach, if adopted, will actually save money enabling greater resources to be directed into health services for breaking the cycle of drug abuse and addiction. It will also free police to tackle more serious crime."

Family First director Bob McCoskrie

"A weak-kneed approach to drug use will simply send all the wrong messages that small amounts of drug use or dealing aren't that big a deal - the completely wrong message, especially for younger people. A cautioning scheme will simply be held in contempt by users, and fails to acknowledge the harm done by drug use which is undetected.

"The report is correct to call for better treatment facilities for addiction and mental illness, but a zero-tolerance approach to the use of drugs combined with treatment options is a far better solution,"

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