Nicholas Jones is a New Zealand Herald political reporter.

Peter Dunne: Value in new drug addiction approach

Associate Health Minister Peter Dunne believes a shift to treat drug and alcohol abuse as a health issues is warranted. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Associate Health Minister Peter Dunne believes a shift to treat drug and alcohol abuse as a health issues is warranted. Photo / Mark Mitchell

An "inspiring" Auckland rehabilitation centre shows why a recent shift to treat the abuse of drugs and alcohol as a health issue is warranted, Associate Health Minister Peter Dunne says.

A substantial number of patients at Higher Ground Facility in Te Atatu, which Mr Dunne visited today, are being treated for methamphetamine.

"It was extraordinarily impressive and very moving. There is a highly dedicated staff, really well motivated residents, and just a sort of a buzz that everyone was there to do a job about making life better for the people who are the residents there," Mr Dunne said.

"The people there could have been people you see walking around a shopping mall on Saturday, a real cross-section of the community, male, female, Maori, Pakeha, young through to middle age."

Mr Dunne recently launched the 2015-2020 National Drug Policy, which could significantly reform the treatment of drugs such as cannabis.

He said the policy's key values reflected what he saw today.

"We are shifting the focus very deliberately to seeing drug-related issues primarily as health issues, and I keep using three words in respect of the principles that underline the policy - compassion, innovation and proportion.

"Compassion in terms of a sympathetic response to people's issues, innovation in looking a new and different ways of tackling old problems...and proportion, making sure we get the balance right all the way through."

The new national drug policy has five priority areas, one of which is "getting the legal balance right". The Ministry of Health will work with the Expert Advisory Committee on Drugs to make sure that classification decisions on drugs were focussed on harm.

Work will also take place to examine whether the law and enforcement measures around drug possession and utensil possession are still reasonable and proportionate.

When it was released, the policy was hailed as hugely significant by the NZ Drug Foundation, who say it signalled an armistice in "The War on Drugs".

Treating the abuse of drugs and alcohol as a health issue would mean prevention, education and treatment would take priority over the criminal justice approach, the foundation said.

While police were already employing practices such as pre-charge warnings to divert low-level drug offenders away from the criminal justice system, this could be applied unevenly.

Mr Dunne told the Herald there had been a significant shift on the global level in the last two to three years.

New Zealand's position for the United Nations General Assembly Special Session on Drugs, held in New York in April and where drug policy will be debated, is being developed, but will likely reflect the compassionate tilt of the national drugs policy.

"We have been working closely with other countries that have a similar view to ours, people like the British, the Australians, some of the South Americans, just to make sure that we can work together as a group," Mr Dunne said.

"I've never used the term The War on Drugs, because I think it was always a ridiculous term, but increasingly countries that were at the forefront of the War on Drugs are saying, we've got to ditch that terminology, to think of this much more in a health context."

Mr Dunne said an important step in that approach was the Prime Minister's Methamphetamine initiative, which launched in 2009 and signalled that at the highest levels of Government there was interest in a more compassionate approach.

"It created a platform where taking a broader view has become, in many senses, from a policy perspective a much easier thing to contemplate."

However, the shift should not be viewed as a sign the Government was moving towards official or unofficial decriminalisation of some drugs, Mr Dunne said.

"The Misuse of Drugs Act is still in place...this is about standing back and taking a total view of the pervasiveness of drugs in society, and what our response should be."

"Compassion, innovation and proportion"

• In April New Zealand will attend a UN General Assembly session on drugs, and will argue for an emerging approach to treat drug abuse as a health issue, rather than primarily as a criminal matter.

• That approach was reflected in the 2015-2020 National Drugs Policy, recently launched by Associate Health Minister Peter Dunne.

• "We are shifting the focus very deliberately to seeing drug-related issues primarily as health issues, and I keep using three words in respect of the principles that underline the policy - compassion, innovation and proportion," Mr Dunne says.

- NZ Herald

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