National Statement to United Nations General Assembly Special Session on World Drug Problem, New York

  • Peter Dunne
Health

In three days’ time, as we catch our trains and board our planes home, the world will ask what was achieved here in New York at this UNGASS meeting.

The question is the most important that could be asked of delegates - what will we have to show for our efforts?

The Outcome Document to be ratified at this meeting is broad, but New Zealand notes with strong regret the failure to achieve consensus on inclusion of reference to the death penalty.

It may not be in the Outcome Document, but make no mistake, the death penalty has no place in civilised society, and blocking the inclusion of references to it not only does not change this, it does a disservice to those who seek to reduce the harm from drugs.

The Outcome Document talks of reiterating, reaffirming and intensifying our efforts, but unless they result in tangible actions, that make a difference to people’s lives, they will be just words, and critics will hold them up as further evidence of an international system that promises much but achieves little. 

It has been a welcome development in recent years to see the shift away from treating drug issues as primarily a law and order responsibility, to a health focus, but let us not rest on our laurels.

Last year at CND 58, I spoke of the importance of three fundamental pillars of drug policy - Proportion, Compassion and Innovation. 

New Zealand has woven these principles throughout its approach to addressing drug issues, including them as central tenets in its recently launched 2015 National Drug Policy.

But perhaps there is a fourth pillar that is missing - boldness.

Incremental movement, if any, has been the norm for drug policy development for as long as I can remember - and the movement has not always been forward.

As encouraging as the shift has been, the fact is that compared to the global narcotic industries, we are moving at a glacial pace, hamstrung by an outdated overly punitive approach.

I put it to those assembled here that globally, we need to be bolder in our approaches.

With boldness will come obstacles, for no great success was ever achieved without failure.

The great American Thomas Edison on his development of the light bulb famously remarked, "I have not failed, I have just found 10,000 ways that won’t work."

I suggest that globally, drug policy is approaching its own 10,000 failed attempts and it is time to flick the enlightenment switch.

Responsible regulation is the key to reducing drug-related harm and achieving long-term success in drug control approaches.

The key word here is responsible – we must not conflate boldness with recklessness – changes in policy must ensure that the likelihood of harm is minimised.

It is imperative that any move to a regulated market is an authority-led process, and that we do not find ourselves in the position of playing catch up.

Easier said than done.

Certainly in New Zealand, we allowed an unregulated, under the radar New Psychoactive Substances industry to steal a march before it was brought into a regulated system via our Psychoactive Substances Act.

This Act allows for NPS products to be brought to market if they can be proven to be low risk, essentially reversing the onus of proof back on to the industry.

For those nations with federal systems of government, in which individual states have pushed ahead with drug law reforms, the need for getting the balance right is critical.

There are a number of examples at the moment where reformist cannabis policy has simply outstripped the ability of robust regulation, a situation which ultimately damages the reform movement and increases potential for harm.

Currently, New Zealand’s position is this: if cannabis is to be used for medical purposes, it must be subject to the same testing processes as any other therapeutic pharmaceuticals.

Identifying the greatest therapeutic benefits and determining the most appropriate ratios, dosage and delivery mechanisms will only come through a robust, scientific approach.

Otherwise we are essentially flying blind and hoping for the best, an approach that flies in the face of evidence-based medicines policy.

That said, for those with a terminal or debilitating illness, New Zealand’s position is that a compassionate approach is warranted and ensuring such an approach exists is a priority.

New Zealand also calls on the pharmaceutical industry to step up and invest more in its research and development of cannabis-based products.

To close, I return to my introductory question - what will be achieved here in New York at this UNGASS meeting?

The answer to this will be the changes that we see on a state-by-state basis in the coming years.

If nations continue to muddle along, choosing the easy options and throwing the problems to their police and judiciaries, then the answer will be very little.

If the pace of change picks up, appropriate regulation is put in train and bold, innovative, compassionate and proportionate policy thrives, then the answer will be progress.