The Government singled out mental health in its Budget last week, boasting it was putting in an extra $224 million in funding over four years. Good on them. I'm pleased about that.
But if this sometimes infuriatingly wishy-washy Government is truly serious about improving mental health, it should listen to its very own Associate Health Minister, Peter Dunne.
He seems to understand it is impossible to have a meaningful conversation about mental health without also talking about addiction.
Dunne, not normally known for espousing radical out-there views, has acknowledged social norms about drugs are changing and we need to change our laws to focus on drugs as a public health issue rather than a criminal one.
"I think there's a public appetite for getting drugs out of control of the gangs." Right on, brother. (And I am never making fun of your spivvy bowtie again.) Dunne is suggesting we look closely at the case study of Portugal where the use of all drugs was decriminalised 16 years ago. Pot, coke, heroin, whatever - possession and use of small quantities means a small fine and referral to a treatment programme, not a jail sentence and a criminal record.
Well, guess what? The sky didn't fall in. In fact, HIV infections and drug-related deaths decreased. Crucially, if you are wanting to decouple drugs from gangsters and crime, there was a decreased street value of most illicit drugs, some significantly, and drug-related criminal justice workloads decreased.
But Dunne also talks about regulating drugs, in the same way alcohol is regulated. He says what many New Zealanders think: the resources currently devoted to policing around drugs should be switched to treating drug users. You don't have to be all loosey-goosey about drugs to take this view: taken on the facts, it is simply pragmatic.
The war on drugs is based on the idea that if you take addicts and punish them and make them suffer it will deter them; it will give them an incentive to stop.
It has taken 100 years but we can now definitively say that doesn't work. We have a better understanding of the mechanism of addiction now and we know that current policy settings can actually work against helping people to become healthier.
That's because a core part of addiction is about not being able to be present in your life. So it's no surprise that making an addict's life more unbearable - shaming them, stigmatising them - makes them need to escape from reality even more desperately.
Johann Hari, author of Chasing the Scream: the first and last days of the war on drugs explains: "Human beings have a natural and innate need to bond, and when we're happy and healthy, we'll bond and connect with each other, but if you can't do that because you're traumatised or isolated or beaten down by life, you will bond with something that will give you some sense of relief. That might be cocaine, that might be cannabis but you will bond and connect with something because that's our nature." Yet the way we treat drug-users is to shame them, give them criminal records and put barriers between them reconnecting with the rest of society. As Hari notes: "if you wanted to design a system that would make addiction worse, you would design that system."
New Zealanders ... are starting to think the current approach does not work and are ready to say we should try something else.
Princeton Professor Ethan Nadelmann, a specialist in drug policy, says people wrongly think of prohibition as the "ultimate form of regulation" when it is more a case of abdication of regulation with criminals filling the void. "Putting criminal laws and police front and centre in trying to control a dynamic global commodities market is a recipe for disaster. What we really need to do is bring the underground drug markets as much as possible above ground and regulate them as intelligently as we can to minimise the harm."
The theory of harm reduction, once deemed radical, is becoming more mainstream. I am sure there are others, besides Dunne, in this Government who are well-informed and enlightened about this. But whether in an election year the Government is brave enough to take an action which might risk talkback callers gabbing, yeah well, take a guess.
What this Government might not realise is how many non-stoner type New Zealanders - seeing the scourge of P and reading about meth lab busts - are starting to think the current approach does not work and are ready to say we should try something else. We are a pragmatic lot.
There is a scene in the TV series Narcos in which DEA agent Steve Murphy laments how a Colombian government official bent to the will of drug lord Pablo Escobar: "Just like that, an honest man blinked." Well, Peter Dunne has his eyes open. If only the rest of our Government was brave enough to do the same.