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The New Zealand 2017 Parliamentary Drug Policy Symposium

Professor Alison Ritter
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This opinion piece was first published in the August 2017 edition of Drug and Alcohol Research Connections.

There is a lot that Australian governments could learn from New Zealand. I had the pleasure of participating in the New Zealand 2017 Parliamentary Drug Policy Symposium, held on 5-6 July, 2017.  The purpose of the Symposium was to bring together community leaders, politicians, experts, practitioners and people with lived experience to discuss a new healthy approach to drug policy and drug laws.

There is strong momentum for change in NZ. In a political panel held on the first day, eight politicians from across the spectrum of conservative to progressive, all unanimously agreed that change in drug laws was required. Unsurprisingly there was less agreement on the exact details of such changes. The next step with any such policy reform is to nut out the details, and engage in a comprehensive consultative and participatory process with all stakeholders. The development of a document,  the Model Drug Law (available here: https://www.drugfoundation.org.nz/policy-and-advocacy/drug-law-reform/model-drug-law-2020/ ) written by the NZ Drug Foundation carefully steps through a proposal to reform NZ drug laws. The focus is on the decriminalisation of all drugs replacing current criminal penalties for personal use of drugs with a caution and information provision. The rationale for decriminalisation of the personal use of drugs is grounded in the evidence-base that criminal charges are ineffective, costly to the community and inconsistent with public health law. In addition the NZ Drug Foundation Model Drug Law proposes the legalisation and regulation of cannabis, after the successful decriminalisation of personal use.  This document now provides the basis for a series of discussions, consultations and participatory processes with all affected stakeholders. The details of the drug law reform proposal can be considered, and it provides a pivotal point for change to ensue. New Zealand is to be congratulated for embarking on this road to reform.

Presentations over the two days covered topics including the legalisation and regulation of recreational cannabis in Canada (Hon Anne McLellan), and Washington State (Alison Holcomb); global drug policy developments (Ann Fordham); harm reduction interventions such as supervised injecting facilities (Dr Marianne Jauncey) and pill testing (Prof Fiona Measham); treatment for methamphetamine dependence (Prof Nicole Lee) and my own presentation on decriminalisation and a public health approach to drug laws. It was a delight to be amongst an all-female keynote line-up.

There was a particular focus on Maori, and the over representation of Maori people in the criminal justice system (Professors Kylee Quince and Tracey McIntosh). The level of commitment to Maori culture and ensuring those voices were heard throughout the Symposium was noteworthy for me, given how Australia struggles to meaningfully integrate our First Nation people into  drug policy discussions.

Numerous interests were presented at the Symposium, including those with a concern for the availability of cannabis for medicinal purposes, those engaged in providing or receiving treatment (notably for methamphetamine problems) and the need to increase treatment resources, and those advocating for the legalisation of recreational cannabis.

The need for participatory processes, consistent with democratic principles, is essential for contested areas such as drugs policy. The use of Parliamentary Symposia can be the kick-start of drug policy reform. But we also need to be alert to not creating ‘talk-fests’ with the ’usual suspects’, and which are not tied explicitly to a decision-agenda.