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New Coalition Calls for Drug Legalisation in New Zealand

A newly formed Harm Reduction Coalition Aotearoa (HRCA) from New Zealand launched with an initial action of sending an open letter to the Prime Minister Christopher Luxon, signed by national and international organisations as well as drug policy specialists calling for the legal regulation of all drugs.

Launching on International Harm Reduction Day (7 May), HRCA was established to end harmful prohibitionist drug policies that are maintained through the nation’s Misuse of Drugs Act 1975, and replace it with “fit-for-purpose” drug laws that are grounded in evidence, harm reduction and human rights.

 

New Zealand’s staggered drug policy progress

New Zealand has made some impressive progress in controlling drug-related harms in the past decade and a half. Throughout much of the 20th Century, New Zealand complied with the three international drug control treaties, favouring a prohibitionist approach to drug control. The Misuse of Drugs Act (MDA) 1975 remains as the nation’s guiding drug legislation, which prohibits the consumption, production and distribution of controlled substances.

However, by the turn of the millennium, drug use had increased substantially: by 2010, the Ministry of Health estimated that almost half (49%) of New Zealand adults had used an illegal drug in their lifetime. This brought increasing health concerns around problematic use, particularly with new psychoactive substances (NPS) in the early 2000s, including synthetic cannabis and benzylpiperazine (BZP). Consumption of NPS seemed to peak around 2008, with surveys at the time reporting 40% of 18–29 year olds, and 44% of first year university students using these substances. In turn, this raised public discussions around novel ways to control drug-related harms.

In 2011, the Law Commission of New Zealand published a five-year in-depth review of the MDA 1975. It highlighted how the law overly focused on supply restriction, preventing many resources from being used in non-enforcement activities like harm reduction. They concluded that a new legislative regime was needed: the proposed system would create a regulatory system operating under the Ministry of Health which would have the power to review existing drug scheduling, and establish an independent authority to oversee the approval, control and prohibition of old and new drugs.

While this document seemed to herald a new era for reforming New Zealand’s approach to drug control, many of its progressive suggestions seemed to have been left behind, with a focus on curtailing the harms of new psychoactive substances. The Psychoactive Substances Act was enacted in 2013, placing the onus on drug producers to prove their substances were safe for human consumption before being placed on market, while simultaneously limiting human and animal testing.

Unfortunately, the ship had sailed by that point: many of the well-known substances – like BZP – had already been scheduled under the MDA in 2008. As is common with laws seeking to control NPS, legislation simply couldn’t keep up with the pace of drug design: just between 2014 and 2018, 134 different NPS were detected in seized mail in New Zealand. At its core, the drug control system was failing to keep people safe.

Progress with other drugs remained elusive: despite almost two-thirds (65%) of voters endorsing cannabis legalisation in 2017, it lost a referendum on the issue in 2020 by just 1% after a sustained fear campaign against the drug. However, more positively, the Drug and Substance Checking Legislation Act passed in 2021, enabling organisations to conduct drug checking in festivals and other permanent venues. While drug possession was never made legal, it provided people with legal protections from criminal proceedings when attending drug checking services. These services are instrumental in detecting potentially dangerous substances, and provide a clearer picture of drug markets than many other countries.

While progressive when compared with many other nations worldwide, New Zealand seems supportive of incremental change. And while it has been successful in driving down some drug harms, it remains a deadly country for people who use drugs, especially those Māori and other minority communities. New Zealand’s overdose deaths increased five-fold from 2022 to 2023, making it deadlier than other accidental causes of death.

 

Charting a new path forward

Bringing together several organisations from New Zealand, including academics, frontline workers, student movements and health associations, HRCA intends to lead a coordinated effort to regulate the legal supply of drugs.

“HRCA encourages membership from all sections of society who support our values. While we have a range of PWUPD, HRCA isn’t a Lived Experience group, it seeks and welcomes NZ experts and organisations – they bring knowledge, expertise, credibility and gravitas,” Dr. Julian Buchanan, HRCA’s Secretary.

“The diversity in our membership is important because at HRCA we want to appreciate the inter-sectional nature of drug law enforcement as it targets youth, woman, Māori, people self medicating, poor communities, people struggling with addiction…” he added.

Through new legislation, they hope to establish product safety measures, generate tax revenue and remove criminal sanctions and stigmatisation of those seeking help with drugs.

“In the first year we want to establish ourselves as having a reputation as an authoritative, carefully considered advocacy group that relies on evidence, science and research to present rational arguments for drug policies that protect Human Rights and promote harm reduction,” Buchanan told TalkingDrugs.

Other organisations are positive about HRCA’s potential impact. “It’s great to have a range of voices pushing for drug law reform from all angles and experiences. We welcome the launch of HRCA,” Sarah Helm, the Executive Director of New Zealand Drug Foundation, said to TalkingDrugs.

A growing coalition of organisations vying for evidence-based change is a positive development for any nation. New Zealand can only benefit from another organisation that is willing to advocate for life-saving policies, and willing to work with other existing partners to promote change.

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