NZ second on new global index for health-based drug policy; but Helen Clark says not much of a badge of honour

Credit: Original article can be found here

Chairwoman of the Global Commission on Drug Policy Helen Clark says a new global drug policy index – which NZ ranks second in – paints a ‘bleak picture’. Photo / Paul Taylor

New Zealand has ranked second in a new index comparing countries’ drug laws based on health and human rights, but Helen Clark says it mainly shows us as among the best of a bad bunch.

The former Prime Minister and chairwoman of the Global Commission on Drug Policy launched the new Global Drug Policy Index today, which includes 30 countries and is topped by Norway.

The index is the first of its kind, described by Clark as a “radical innovation, which looks at drug policies through the lens of human rights, health and development, instead of the usual measures such as the number of arrests and imprisonments, hectares of drug crops destroyed, or quantities of drugs seized.

Instead a country’s policies are judged on five measures: the absences of extreme sentencing and responses, proportionality of the criminal justice response, health and harm reduction, access to controlled medicines, and alternative policies to the cultivation of crops used for illegal drug production.

Countries included in the index were the UK, Australia and Canada, but not the US or any of the countries in the EU except Portugal.

The median score was 48 out of 100, showing that most countries are failing miserably in terms of health-based policies. Norway topped the list on 74, while New Zealand was second on 71, and Portugal third on 70.

Indonesia, Uganda and Brazil bottomed out the list.

“None of the countries assessed should feel good about their score on drug policy,” said Ann Fordham, executive director of the International Drug Policy Consortium which led on the development of the index with the partners in the Harm Reduction Consortium.

“48 out of 100 is a drug policy fail in anyone’s book. This Index highlights the huge room for improvement across the board.”

New Zealand ranks second in a new global drug policy index behind Norway, but the index does not include most EU countries.
New Zealand ranks second in a new global drug policy index behind Norway, but the index does not include most EU countries.

The scores in each measure of the index show New Zealand doing well simply because drug suppliers aren’t killed or caned via the death penalty or judicial corporal punishment.

It scored 100 on measures of the death penalty, extrajudicial killings and militarised police, but poorly on equity of criminal justice response (25) and equity of access to harm reduction services (41).

Helen Clark said New Zealand had a lot of work to do in the drug law reform space, and its ranking showed how poorly countries in the index were doing rather than how well New Zealand was doing.

“The index rightly paints a bleak picture. No one country deserves to feel good about itself when it comes to drug policy.

“The destructive power of punitive and stigmatising drug laws continues to impoverish communities, continues to prevent people who use drugs from accessing life-saving services, and drives countless acts of police brutality and state violence in general.”

The war on drugs had cost “millions of lives”, she said, and the prohibition and criminalisation of most drugs was “fundamentally misguided, with devastating consequences”.

“The report urges governments to end violence, arbitrary detention, forced eradication, extreme sentencing and disproportionate penalties, and instead promote access to health, medicines and harm reduction services, as well as a long-term development approach for marginalised communities worldwide,” she said.

“Drug policies disproportionally affect people marginalised, whether that be on the basis of gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status or other factors.

Māori are disproportionally represented in drug use offences, regardless of whether it is measured by charges when drug use is the most serious offence, or by all such offences including when there are more serious ones at the same time.

The NZ Drug Foundation says these inequitable outcomes are the inherent result of relying on police discretion when it comes to policing drug use, but police say neither ethnicity nor gender – but rather prior criminal offending – play a major role in the police response to drug use.

New Zealand's rankings in the new global drug policy index.
New Zealand’s rankings in the new global drug policy index.

Executive director Sarah Helm said the drug-checking law passing through Parliament was one reason for New Zealand’s high ranking in the new global index.

“As it stands, we are essentially among the best of a bad bunch. For example, we don’t have the death penalty or mandatory minimum sentencing.

“We also have a less militarised police force and lower rates of extra-judicial killing than the likes of Canada and Portugal, who we look to as more progressive when it comes to drug policy.”

Helm noted that New Zealand’s poor showing in terms of equity.

“Māori face hugely disproportionate impacts from our drug laws; 46 per cent of people convicted for low-level drug offences are Māori.

“If we take meaningful steps on decriminalisation and harm reduction interventions, we would go a long way to addressing our disgracefully inequitable outcomes.”

Andrew Little considering review of 2019 law change

Health Minister Andrew Little has ruled out decriminalisation due to the lack of social licence following the referendum result on cannabis for personal use.

He is currently considering a review into the 2019 law change,
which codified police discretion into the law and clarified that police shouldn’t prosecute for drug use if a therapeutic approach would be “more beneficial to the public interest”.

He has previously flagged the police referral to health services as not operating as intended. The Herald has previously reported that about one in 10 people caught with drugs are provided a health referral – or 66 people a month – and only about one in 10 of those people actually engage with the service.

That means only about 1 per cent of the people facing drug possession charges as their most serious offence engage with health services.

Little has also previously noted that the medicinal cannabis regime was yet to achieve the goal of making medicine available and accessible to those who need it.

He recently declined to extend an interim period which would have allowed 13 CBD substances to continue to be used legally.

Many in the industry said this would leave thousands of patients in the lurch, but Little said local companies had had enough time and needed to “get with the programme“.

Since then, and three years on from a law change aimed at improving access, two CBD medicines from Helius Therapeutics have become available on prescription.

Little also recently announced $800,000 for training and educational material for drug-checking services, which are hoped to become available nationwide rather than simply a summer festivals.

The money is “unlikely” to be for hardware, Little told the Herald recently, such as the spectrometers that would be needed to offer the service in communities where drug harm was most prevalent.

“We are at the beginning period.”

The drug-checking legislation is also being touted as helping those who say they are still forced to buy products off the black market, the contents of which they cannot be sure of and has been shown, in an ESR study, to often be different to what was purported.

Little said the legislation was not intended to be for helping medicinal cannabis users, but that didn’t mean it couldn’t be used in that way.

“It may well be, as services expand, service providers will look into other areas.”