A compelling argument can be made for treating the use of illicit drugs as a health issue rather than a criminal one.

It cannot be denied that the 'victim' of an illicit drug is immeasurably better served by treatment to rid themselves of their addiction, as is society in general.

However, those who see the current moves to transfer personal use of drugs from a criminal activity to a health issue as a Trojan horse that will inevitably open the door to general decriminalisation, despite government claims to the contrary, have a valid point too.

Prima facie the Misuse of Drugs Amendment Bill is the government's response to the synthetic cannabis scourge. If it becomes law, AMB-Fubinaca and 5F-ADB, as the Bill currently stands, will be classified as Class A substances, placing dealers in jeopardy of imprisonment for life.


Not that that means much. Those who deal in, manufacture or import methamphetamine can already be sentenced to life, but never are. Maximum penalties mean nothing. Indeed there is no longer any guarantee that those who wreak havoc and misery for their own financial gain will go to prison at all.

The issue with this proposal is that the police discretion, already available and used, not to charge someone for personal drug use or possession, regardless of which drug, will become a requirement.

Prosecution will be pursued only if it is in the public interest, having considered whether a "health-centred or therapeutic approach would be more beneficial."

The Police Association, which has not stated an official stance, sensibly says the issue should undergo wider public debate rather than being "slipped in" to a Bill. And it's right.

Without such debate, which among other things should consider not only the impacts of drug abuse but why it is so rife in the first place, any change will be open to criticism, not least on the basis that it appears to be designed simply to make an intractable problem go away, an admission that drug abuse is here to stay and there is little, if anything, that anyone can do about it.

The Law Society and the Police Association both see the Bill as effectively decriminalising all drug use and possession, because it would be easy to argue in court that every user would benefit more from a therapeutic approach than a prosecution. Police Association president Chris Cahill says the police would move from a default presumption to prosecute to one of non-prosecution for all drug users, which would lead to a "dramatic" decline in police charges.

That has actually been happening for some time. According to Ministry of Justice statistics, the number of people charged with drug use or possession as their most serious drug charge halved in the four years to 2013. And that trend has continued. Last year 4114 people were charged with possession or use as their most serious drug charge, down from 8268 in 2009, with 3188 of them convicted.

Clearly the police are already using their discretion — no one is arguing that drug abuse is decreasing — so why does that discretion need to be taken a major step further?

It also seems reasonable to argue that the potential for gaining a criminal conviction is unlikely to deter someone who is already addicted to an illicit substance. That will be the last thing they worry about. But it is impossible to say what effect the criminalising of drug use has in terms of deterring would-be users.

That really is the key.

Years ago a teacher at Kaitaia College told the writer that some students there would not touch cannabis with a barge pole, because they knew that indulging in what in those days was probably the only illicit drug available to them could have calamitous consequences.

Those students, he said, had a very clear idea of where they wanted to go. They worked hard, intending to establish careers in various fields, and planned to travel. They were well aware that even a minor cannabis conviction would scuttle those plans. Hence, for those students at least, criminalisation was a very significant deterrent.

We might have moved on from those days, but while cannabis no longer looms as large in the law-abiding consciousness as it once did, there can be no doubt that other substances that have superseded it have destroyed countless once promising lives. For some the issue now is that the removal of legal consequences will make experimenting with illicit drugs more attractive, or at least less perilous, in the future.

Telling a teenager that drug abuse will potentially have a significant deleterious effect on their health at some indeterminate point in the future is probably, in many cases, a waste of breath. Telling them that even dabbling in illicit substances could end their dreams and aspirations will surely be more effective, at least among those who actually have dreams and aspirations.

Parents, in particular, will lose an extremely valuable tool in safeguarding their children if the best they can do is tell them that in the event of their being found in possession of or using illicit drugs they will be told to trot along to their local hospital for some sort of treatment.

And while, hopefully, there is much more detail to come before the law changes, what happens to the recidivist user who comes to police attention on a regular basis? Do the police continue referring them for treatment time and again? Does this approach not assume that every user of illicit drugs is aware that they have an addiction and wishes to escape it? Many may well do, but no doubt many won't.

Without deterrents, they will continue to use until they hit rock bottom. This approach seems destined to create more addicts rather than fewer.

Nor does the Bill promise to make defining a dealer any less problematic than it has always been. For years, possession of more than 28g of cannabis entitled the police (and the courts) to assume that the offender was a dealer as opposed to simply a user, but proving that was always hugely difficult. Judges never assumed anything. Almost without exception, in the Kaitaia District Court at least, in the absence of incontrovertible evidence to the contrary, those in possession of vastly more than 28g successfully argued that they were simply consuming on a grand scale.

That won't change under this proposed amendment. It will get worse.

The government should be doing two things. It should be addressing the issues that make drug abuse attractive to some in the first instance, and it should be removing those who supply those drugs from society, permanently. To do that it needs to lower the bar in terms of defining a dealer. Those charged with dealing should be required to prove that they are not dealing, rather than requiring the police to prove that they are.

The current proposal to set the personal possession limit at 56g is ridiculous. That is a hell of a lot of any illicit substance.

And, a condition of not prosecuting a user should be that they name their supplier. If they're not prepared to do that they can suffer the consequences, but even that won't negate the fact that decriminalisation of small-scale possession and personal use will do this country a massive disservice. This Bill is playing with fire, and, if it becomes law, a lot of people are going to pay a very high price.