Healthy Drug Law Parliamentary Symposium, Parliament Buildings

  • Peter Dunne

It is my great pleasure to welcome you all this morning to the Healthy Drug Law Parliamentary Symposium, and to our sponsor, the New Zealand Drug Foundation.

I thank Alison for her warm introduction.

Alison has taken a strong interest on drug issues for some time now, and she and I have spoken on it relatively frequently – I cannot think of a better Chair for this event.

Today we have come from all corners of the world to work together on shifting attitudes and responses to drug issues.

It is a fantastic opportunity for us to explore some innovative ways in which we might tackle these complex issues and I want to extend my warmest greetings to those who have travelled from outside of Wellington to be here, particularly to our international guests.

There is a lot going on in New Zealand at present, we have an international rugby tour, a celebration of a significant yachting competition win, preparation for a General Election in a little under 12 weeks and of course we have this Symposium (clearly the most important)…

Following me will be Professor Alison Ritter from Australia to present us with a first-class overview of the landscape.

Then, following Professor Ritter will be the Honourable Anne McLellan from Canada, and Alison Holcomb from the United States.

I am excited to hear the first-hand accounts of implementing drug policy in their respective jurisdictions that they have to share.

We will finish the morning with a cross-party political panel for some reflection on what we have heard in the morning’s addresses.

I want to highlight some of the things that we have achieved over the last few years, and later talk about some of the challenges remaining and the innovative thinking that has been going on in the area of drug policy in New Zealand.

As many of you will know, New Zealand’s National Drug Policy focuses on early intervention and prevention; the underlying principles being compassion, innovation and proportion.

These are principles which I have emphasised strongly on numerous occasions, from United Nations meetings in Vienna, and the New York, to here at home, and which I will continue to affirm.

With this policy we set out to:

  • increase access to support and treatment services
  • provide the knowledge and tools necessary for better decision making
  • reduce the illegal supply of drugs.

The principles of the National Drug Policy demonstrate our commitment to taking a health-based approach to minimising drug and alcohol harm in New Zealand, rather than treating drugs primarily as a law and order issue.

Given that, I would like to take a moment to highlight a few examples of the great progress that has been made under the guidance of our National Drug Policy over the last year.

In Northland, the Te Ara Oranga Methamphetamine Harm Reduction pilot is a great example of a collaborative community harm reduction approach in action.

It builds on earlier initiatives such as the Auckland Regional Methamphetamine Working Group, established in 2011, and the Waikato Methamphetamine Prevention Strategy, established in 2016.

This pilot will be a joint venture between the Police and the Northland District Health Board.

It aims to reduce demand for methamphetamine use in the Northland community, thereby reducing the harm caused by its use.

It will work with the community and whānau to help addicted users and gang members get treatment for methamphetamine use, and will be launched next month.

The high visibility of the Health Promotion Agency’s ‘Go the Distance’ campaign demonstrates our approach to minimising harm by changing attitudes.

This campaign aims to instil a new norm of moderate alcohol consumption – something of a departure from the historical New Zealand culture of hazardous drinking behaviour.

New Zealand’s Police and Customs officials have made great progress in breaking the drug supply chain.

They are developing good working relationships with overseas law enforcement agencies and have increaed the number of drug interceptions the border.

And, as a prime example of our focus on early intervention and prevention, a ‘Whole School Approach’ pilot to reduce alcohol and other harm will soon be underway across a number of schools in New Zealand.

This initiative equips schools with more resources to keep students engaged in education by:

  • creating a more positive school environment
  • delivering effective education on alcohol and drug-related harm
  • providing help for problematic substance use.

Over the next 12 months, the Government will begin work on refreshing the actions outlined in the National Drug Policy to take us into 2020.

This will build on the good work that has already been achieved and is currently underway.

As we all know, medicinal cannabis-based products are a hot topic right now, and I am looking forward to hearing what the next few speakers have to say, as well as having the opportunity to discuss it afterwards on the panel.

In New Zealand, we are in the process of developing regulations for accessing Cannabidiol on a prescription basis.

This will bring us in to line with the Australian approach, which previously identified that Cannabidiol appears to have some therapeutic benefits while having very little psychoactive effect.

This easing of restrictions on something that used to be highly regulated reflects our pragmatic and compassionate approach to this issue.

We have also made significant progress around enabling access to non-pharmaceutical grade cannabis products over the last 18 months or so – moving from a system that really did not allow for it, to having a robust clinician-led process and strong engagement from the Ministry of Health.

I am also keen to see New Zealand-based clinical trials undertaken and have advocated strongly, and will continue to, for progress on this with my ministerial colleagues.

Whether anything comes to fruition from these discussions remains to be seen, but I strongly believe New Zealand must make progress on this front to avoid falling behind other jurisdictions.

Products that have been through a robust clinical trial process I believe hold the most promise in effectively addressing the conditions for which they may be indicated – as I have stated previously, trial and error is not an appropriate approach to serious illness in a first world country such as New Zealand.

While I am delighted that we have achieved some success in lessening drug harm, reducing supply and easing unnecessary legal restrictions, we must remain focussed on the challenges ahead.

For example, we need to continue to reduce hazardous alcohol consumption and nurture a moderate drinking culture. 

Reducing hazardous alcohol consumption, and changing attitudes towards it, are key objectives of the National Drug Policy.

So far, there has been encouraging progress.

The percentage of adults who drink hazardously has decreased from 18% in 2006/07 to 16 percent in 2013/14 – a small but significant improvement.

Perhaps most significantly, among 18-24 year olds, hazardous drinking has decreased from 43% in 2006/07 to just 33% in 2013/14.

That is a substantial decrease of nearly a quarter, and it is great to see young people leading by example in this area.

Yes, the binge drinking levels among 18-24 year olds are still unacceptably high, but such a significant decrease must be acknowledged for its magnitude – the message is getting through and a significant proportion are either changing their behaviour or refraining from such behaviour in the first place.

That said, our rates of hazardous drinking remain high by international standards, and alcohol continues to be a key factor in about a third of New Zealand’s fatal road crashes.

Alcohol is also a key factor in a third of family violence incidents.

But let me say this - while alcohol may be a factor, it is no excuse, because there is simply no excuse.

There is no place for family and domestic violence, not in New Zealand, and not anywhere else, and I want to commend the work of my colleague Hon Amy Adams, and many others, in this area.

Of course, we cannot address these issues properly without addressing the harmful stigma which engulfs alcohol and substance use disorders.

We must build on the good work done so far to cultivate a more moderate drinking culture, have more open conversations, and make it easier to access alcohol, drug and youth support services.

Earlier this year I read an article in the news about workplace drug testing, in which the head of a drug testing agency stated about employers, and I quote, “they certainly don’t want someone who’s got an addiction problem entering into their workplace.”

I found this a pretty disappointing and counterproductive perspective, and unfortunately indicative of the views of some, perhaps many, around addiction issues.

Drug testing plays an important role in New Zealand’s higher risk work places, particularly where machinery is involved, for the benefit of the individual, their colleagues and the company as a whole.

But let us not lose sight of the health and safety reasons for it, and not start using it as a de facto law enforcement and punitive measure.

Drug testing of course has been a popular topic this week, but from a harm prevention public health perspective.

The Drug Foundation’s revelation that drug testing facilities at music festivals had enabled intending drug takers to get their various products tested and make an informed choice about whether to proceed is significant, and frankly such an approach must be supported by Government.

The law is, in my view, grey on the matter and I plan to have further discussions on the issue.

At a minimum, the replacement Misuse of Drugs Act, planning for which I hope will commence after the election, will need to address such situations primarily from a public health perspective.

Another issue which I am eager to keep discussing is – how do we walk the fine legal line between a compassionate approach toward low-risk drug use, and an uncompromising stance on large-scale criminal activity?

Finding a solution that truly works is something that I am passionate about.

I hear on an almost daily basis from individuals who have a particular perspective, and so often the approach that they put forward ‘will solve everything and we will all live happily ever after’, either by locking all the druggies up or by throwing the market wide open and laughing all the way to the bank.

Personally, I do not believe that there is a perfect system, or a perfect policy out there.

Most of the approaches I have seen and read about have positives and negatives – the key is to develop a system that suits New Zealand and maximises the benefits while minimising the negatives.

Sounds pretty simple does it not?

Long-term, relevant and effective strategies, I believe, will be born out of progressive thinking and concrete evidence.

New Zealand has already demonstrated an ability to make a unique mark on drug reform landscape.

The Psychoactive Substances Act revolutionised our response to the ever-changing psychoactive market, and put us back in the driver’s seat.

This innovative approach places the onus on the supplier.

They must first prove the safety of a new psychoactive before selling it.

Previously, we were always one step behind, scrambling to get the safety data after a harmful substance was already on the market.

I anticipate that we will see the benefits of this Act in the near future, once alternatives to animal testing are approved.

When that occurs, it is my long-held view that we should consider shifting those low grade drugs currently scheduled under the Misuse of Drugs Act, to the Psychoactive Substances Act, where they can be tested and regulated under its provisions, if deemed to be low-risk.

That will not only establish a regulated market for such items, but will also deal to the black and criminal markets which currently control the production and distribution of such drugs.

The bottom line has to be to get the criminals out of the drug business where possible, and I am optimistic that the use of the Psychoactive Substances Act regime in this way would vastly improve the drug situation in New Zealand.

As many of you will know, I am a strong supporter of the Portuguese approach to drug regulation.

It manages to balance tolerance for low-risk use with clear legal and health-focussed boundaries.

Unfortunately, people tend to focus on the former aspect.

However, making cultivation and possession illegal, while referring all drug users for assessment and, if appropriate, treatment, is the crux of the system.

In Portugal’s case, possession of up to 10 days’ worth of low-risk drug supply would warrant referral for treatment rather than legal consequences – a proportionate response to low-level drug use.

Much of the time and money that would have gone into prosecution, can instead be invested into assessment and treatment services, all the while, freeing up Police resources.

In New Zealand, the Ministry of Health will be exploring further options this year for minimising harm in relation to the offence and penalty regime for personal possession within the Misuse of Drugs Act 1975.

This is one of the 28 actions contained in the government’s National Drug Policy 2015 – 2020, which, if I strongly encourage you to read, if you have not already done so.

Anybody who saw my interview on Q&A on the weekend will have heard me refer to the National Drug Policy repeatedly – it is in my view an excellent document and plan of action, and addresses many of the questions that the media regularly put to me on drug issues.

As it was being prepared, I had my eye not just on the here and now situation, but also on what might develop over the years, so therefore focused on a document that provided a clear pathway for the future for those who wished to see it.

My critics accuse me of dragging my feet on drug policy, of withholding, denying and clinging grimly to the status quo.

To them I say this, in the last 5 years I have overseen:

  • the development of the internationally acclaimed Psychoactive Substances Act;
  • a pathway to access non-pharmaceutical grade cannabis products (approving all applications I received);
  • direct prescribing of Sativex by doctors;
  • Cabinet agreement to reclassify Cannabidiol;
  • the launch of the outstanding Alcohol and Other Drug Court alongside Hon Judith Collins
  • a host of other initiatives such as those contained in the National Drug Policy, which I launched in 2015

And I continue to advocate for clinical trials, and drug-testing at festivals.

I have attended multiple international and national forums and spoken of New Zealand’s compassionate, innovative and proportionate response and condemned the use of the death penalty in foreign jurisdictions, particularly in regard to drug offences.

All of this has been achieved as a single member Party in a confidence and supply arrangement with a conservative government.

So to my critics I say, show me what you have achieved.

This is not to say that more cannot be done, and that is why this Symposium is so valuable.

The Drug Foundation has lined up an array of excellent speakers whom I look forward to hearing from, and whom I am sure will also endorse the three key principles that I have emphasised.

And I will be delighted to discuss the issues on the panel with an elite selection of my parliamentary colleagues.

Let me also extend my congratulations to Drug Foundation executive director, Ross Bell, for organising this event.

Ross does a great job, particularly around advocating for change where he thinks it is needed.

He drives the issues and holds the Government to account, which is not always enjoyable for me, but it is appropriate, and I enjoy the constructive and open working relationship that has developed between Ross and me.

So when Ross approached me about hosting the Symposium here at Parliament, I had no hesitation.

I am excited to be part of the conversation on the future of drug policy.

Over the next couple of days I challenge you to think boldly and consider how we can come together to solve some of the challenges that lie ahead - I will do the same.

I very much look forward to participating, as my diary permits, in the rest of the symposium.