Too many people are dying

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The status quo approach to drug policy is broken. I refuse to accept that we’re helplessly and cluelessly bound to continue repeating past mistakes. It’s past time to end the war on drugs, and the pain and suffering associated with it, in favour of an evidence-based approach.

Politicians have it within their power to do so, and the people they represent have every right to be calling for urgent, cross-party action.

This week, New Zealand’s chief coroner released the information that in the past twelve months, up to 45 people in this country have died as a result of synthetic cannabis.

There’s a number of ways to respond to that fact, but I hope the starting point for many is a human response: a sense of loss. These are unnecessary deaths.

We do not know the details yet – there is a substantive coroner’s report on the way – but if the previous reports of deaths of the same nature are anything to go by, these people will be among the most vulnerable in our society.

There will be an important spate of commentary following this news, most of which will call on politicians to do “something”, and I think it’s time we talked frankly about what that something should be.

New Zealand’s Misuse of Drugs Act 1975 is over 40 years old. It sets out the penalties and punishments for production, supply, and possession of drugs and drug paraphernalia.

Yet, despite the deemed intention, the approach laid out in the Act has done little to decrease the misuse of drugs. In fact, the New Zealand Law Commission’s thorough 2010 report on controlling and regulating drugs demonstrated drug use stats have remained largely unmoved.

So what is it we, as a society, want politicians to do?

There will be many who’ve experienced loss and heartache as a result of drug consumption. There will be many who are angry. Many will be asking for us to just get rid of the damn things.

But how do we get rid of something that’s plagued society, arguable since its modern conception?

Without a shadow of a doubt, I can foresee the beating of the drum for harsher penalties. But when we’ve had 40 years of penalties and punishment, how could we at all follow the logic that more of the same will produce a different result?

Despite all of our best efforts, and even in the toughest jurisdictions in the world, drugs have not gone away. They’re not going to. No amount of punishment is going to make that happen.

So how do we deal with the fact that we live in a world where drugs exist? Do we genuinely want to reduce harm, or do we want to continue to beating the problem with a blunt and broken instrument?

There has to be a point at which we say enough is enough. There are absolutely no excuses, beyond comfort or cowardice, for resorting to tired tropes and rhetoric and giving into the irrationality of the “war on drugs” when it is literally costing people’s lives.

This “war” has done the opposite of eradicate drugs. It’s pushed the problem into the shadows, where it has become more complicated, more harmful, and more difficult to deal with. Who’s going to stick their hand up and ask for help when they risk going away in handcuffs?

More than fifteen years ago Portugal decriminalised all personal possession and consumption of all illicit substances. People were no longer locked up for drugs, but referred to health and addiction services. Overdose deaths, drug-related crime, problematic drug use, and of course incarceration rates have all decreased.

The evidence is there. It’s not only strong, but has a 17-year track record. Portugal is the only country in the world so far to have abandoned the archaic punitive approach, meanwhile increasing support for abuse and addiction and has seen massive, substantive, and sustainable drug harm reduction.

It’s time for New Zealand to have the necessary, bold conversation focused on genuinely ending drug harm in our country. Let’s ground that conversation in evidence. Let’s look at what works.

Moral crusades are costing lives. Knee-jerk penalisation not only costs silly amounts of money, it multiplies the problem.

So what are we waiting for? If we want to do “something”, it’s past time we did the something that works.

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