Drug laws 'hopelessly out of date'

By David Eames

New Zealand's "hopelessly out of date and irrelevant" drug laws need a shake-up to fight a changing narcotics landscape.

That's the message leading drug workers will take to two high-powered conferences in Wellington this week.

At the Beyond 2008 Regional Consultation for Australasia, delegates from community organisations meet to discuss alternative answers to the drug problem.

It is the first time New Zealand groups will have the chance to influence international policy.

The delegates will push for a move away from the predominantly United States-led "war on drugs", to a more treatment-based approach.

"While we can admire their intentions, the cold hard facts tell us that the world community has largely failed in its official drug-control efforts and questions are now being asked about whether the current structures are fit for purpose,"Drug Foundation executive director Ross Bell said.

The findings from the meeting will be taken with feedback from other regional forums to a non-governmental agencies conference in Vienna later this year.

The focus shifts to the New Zealand drug problem on Wednesday, when the delegates will meet politicians and law makers to push for changes to drug legislation amid evidence that cannabis is out of favour and synthetic drugs are far more popular.

Mr Bell said the Drug Policy Roundtable would discuss what made good drug policy and whether New Zealand's Misuse of Drugs Act was still workable despite being decades old and due for an overhaul.

"The Misuse of Drugs Act has become hopelessly out of date and irrelevant in the 32 years since it became law," he said.

"A raft of ad hoc amendments has led to inconsistencies and confusion, and its underlying philosophy no longer reflects the harm-minimisation approach of our national drug policy."

The act was plagued by two main problems: a criminal justice approach to drug use was favoured over a health-based system, and new drug and crime patterns had developed in the past three decades.

Six politicians from across the political spectrum will attend the meeting, and drug agencies plan to exploit the fact that it is an election year.

"This is the opportunity for politicians to see that the issues are complex, and there are new and better ways to deal with these issues," Mr Bell said.

"Dealing with drugs is going to require a bit of sense and a lot of understanding."

Statistics New Zealand figures show that while overall drug offending has remained relatively stable in the nine years since 1998, "new drug" offending has risen steadily since the category was introduced in 2003.

"New drugs" refer to narcotics such as methamphetamine, Ecstasy and Fantasy.

Recorded instances of possession for supply of new drugs have increased steadily since records began in 2003, and simple possession offences increased four-fold in the same period.

Recorded instances of crime involving cannabis have almost halved since 1996, while instances of possession of amphetamines for supply rose from 60 in 2003 to 179 in 2006.

National Addictions Centre director Doug Sellman said it was time a more "rational" approach was taken to drug legislation, by "thinking about all drugs in general", including the legal ones such as alcohol and tobacco.

Mr Sellman told the Weekend Herald he wanted to see two major changes in drug legislation: an expanding of the drug scale from justice system-run class A, B and C to a health-based scale that included classes D, E and F.

Such a reclassification would include all drugs, graded from "very high" public health risk, to "very low", he said.

The war on drugs had failed, and Mr Sellman said he now wanted to see law makers try to "tame" drug use.

Simply "declaring war" on drugs only made the problem "wilder".


Recorded offences involving cannabis:
1998 - 25,307
2006 - 14,576

Recorded possession:
2003 - 292
2006 - 1012

Recorded possession for supply:
2003 - 188
2006 - 498

Recorded Sale of Liquor Act breaches:
1998 - 5467
2006 - 7535

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