Peter Dunne says 'Class C' drugs like cannabis should be made legal and regulated

Associate Health Minister Peter Dunne's dramatically changed his views on drug policy over the past eight years.
CAMERON BURNELL/FAIRFAX NZ

Associate Health Minister Peter Dunne's dramatically changed his views on drug policy over the past eight years.

Imagine a New Zealand where you could have any drug, without fear of running into trouble with the law.

It's not as far-fetched as it sounds, although it's hard to believe that Peter Dunne - the mild-mannered, bowtie-wearing associate health minister - could be the one pushing for it.

Our current law isn't stopping New Zealanders from using drugs.

This year's Global Drug Survey quizzed 3795 Kiwis about their drug habits. Of them, 70.8 per cent said they'd used illegal drugs in the past, with 42.7 per cent using them in the past 12 months, and 13.6 per cent in the last month.

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More than two thirds (68.8 per cent) had used cannabis in their lifetime, a quarter had used MDMA (25.3 per cent) or LSD (25 per cent), and 8.9 per cent had used methamphetamine, or P.

In the past year, 38.6 per cent of respondents used cannabis, 10.3 per cent used MDMA, 6.3 per cent used LSD, and 3.1 per cent used methamphetamine.

So why would the government make it easier to get drugs?

Drug Foundation executive director Ross Bell also supports the Portuguese system of decriminalisation.
CAMERON BURNELL/FAIRFAX NZ

Drug Foundation executive director Ross Bell also supports the Portuguese system of decriminalisation.

CHANGING THE SYSTEM

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For some time now, Dunne's been talking up the merits of Portugal's drug laws, where every drug is decriminalised - albeit with a caveat: If you're caught with less than 10 days of any drug - cannabis, heroin, methamphetamine, or anything in between - you won't be prosecuted. Instead, you'll be fined or sent to treatment.

Rather than creating a free-for-all, Portugal saw its people's drug use slump: in the 1990s, one in every 100 people in Portugal was addicted to heroin; since then, overall drug use has dropped 75 per cent.

Dunne wants to see that replicated in New Zealand.

"I think the full Portuguese solution, personally, might be the way for us to go long term. That might be where we head," he says.

"I don't think that's necessarily where it ends, because you still have the problem - particularly in New Zealand - of the production and distribution being by the gangs, which is illegal, and all that sort of conflict."

The idea is a stark contrast to New Zealand's alcohol policy, where tougher rules and reducing access are the strategy for reducing harm.

Medical anthropologist Geoff Noller explains why Portugal's model works: "I think it removes the sexy factor, because [drugs become] just another thing, and it allows people to be educated about it". 

"Because it's not illegal anymore, we can actually talk about it. It's very hard to have rational, truthful education and information about safe use [when] you can't. If you remove it from this big shadow of evilness, then you can actually start talking about it."

While a "complete rewrite" of the Misuse of Drugs Act is expected over the next three years, it's not clear whether that kind of shake-up would feature - although the Drug Foundation would hope so.

"The sky doesn't fall in when you do a Portugal-style reform," executive director Ross Bell says.

"Decriminalise all drugs, stop it from being a law enforcement issue, make it a health issue and invest in health. We should be able to do this by 2020."

However, Otago University psychiatry lecturer Dr Giles Newton-Howes is on the fence.

He says the idea of being rehabilitative instead of punitive "makes a lot of sense", but he'd want to see more evidence of the treatment outcomes before signing New Zealand up.

"I would be cautiously interested in seeing how that Portugal experiment evolves. I wouldn't want New Zealand to be running down that road yet, because there are lots of drugs which are really not very safe, especially for the developing brain. 

"I'm not convinced that that's a safe road for us to be going down just yet, but I do think it's something we should be keeping a really close eye on."

PUSH FOR CANNABIS REFORM

New Zealand's far from the only country contemplating an overhaul of drug laws. Parts of Europe and North America have already decriminalised cannabis, while eight US states and Washington DC have legalised it.

Decriminalisation takes away criminal penalties, but could introduce civil ones, while legalisation means a legal market, usually regulated in a similar way to alcohol.

In this year's Global Drug Survey, 8500 cannabis users from around the world were asked how they think the drug should be regulated. 

Most favoured legalisation, but they were divided over the rules around sales: 38 per cent said cannabis should be available only through strictly regulated shopfront markets, with advertising banned; 27 per cent liked the same model, but said ads should be allowed. A further 10.5 per cent backed sales via collectives with a membership. 

The rest said it should remain illegal, with just two per cent support for a Portugal-style system.

 

Users also overwhelmingly favoured an 18+ age limit (62.8 per cent), labelling of the THC and CBD content (80.4 and 71.7 per cent respectively). Users also supported organic products only (55.2 per cent) and clearly labelling the risks of use (51.5 per cent).

The bulk of international respondents (37.3 per cent) also said legal cannabis should cost a similar amount to what they currently pay, while 25.3 per cent said it should be a bit less, and 21.5 per cent said it should be a bit more.

WHAT WILL HAPPEN IN NZ?

The Misuse of Drugs Act, which dates back to 1975, is due for review - and it might just be that cannabis is decriminalised, if not legalised in the near future.

"What we perhaps ought to do is start to think about putting some, if not all, of the Class C drugs under the Psychoactive Substances Act," Dunne says, adding that the change could happen within the next three years.

That would mean cannabis could be regulated and sold in stores - the way party pills and synthetic cannabis used to be - after tests prove products safe.

"I think there's still a fair few bits of the jigsaw to put together, but I think that does give us a logical way forward," Dunne says.

He also wants clinical trials of cannabis to get underway in New Zealand, though there's been muted enthusiasm from researchers.

Unlike synthetic cannabis, which is caught in limbo due to a ban on animal testing, cannabis is "the sort of thing that would be more likely to be able to be tried on patients in a clinical trial than on animals", Dunne says.

Cannabis lobby group Norml welcomes the idea of putting the drug under Psychoactive Substances Act: in fact, it came up with it.

"When we were making our views known when the law was being drafted, that was always our objective, to have it so natural cannabis and other low-risk drugs can go through there too," Norml president Chris Fowlie says.

While he says "any form of law reform" would be better than the current law, Norml would prefer legalisation to decriminalisation.

"[Decriminalisation] starts from the same starting point as prohibition - that cannabis is inherently bad and we must stamp it out and it's all harmful and we deter people from using it by giving them fines. We don't agree with that as a starting point. Decriminalisation also doesn't take care of the black market."

Fowlie suggests a system of licensing trusts - similar to those which oversee liquor regulation around New Zealand - and private cannabis social clubs, where members both run the business, and buy the products, as the best options for a regulated market.

Bell agrees Dunne's plan for cannabis "has a whole lot of merit".

"The classification of low-risk drugs like cannabis, with a real strong public health focus, I think, is an inevitability."

 - Stuff

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