The New Zealand Law Commission Monday urged a broad overhaul of the island nation's drug laws to bring them into the 21st Century. The call came as the commission unveiled its review of the country's drug laws in a report, Controlling and Regulating Drugs: A Review of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1975.
The commission called for steps toward legalizing medical marijuana, decriminalizing drug possession and small-time drug dealing, and doing away with drug paraphernalia laws. In response to the arrival of new synthetic drugs, it called for the reversal of current policy, which allows them until they are proven dangerous, and its replacement with a policy that bans them until they are proven safe.
The review calls for clinical trials on medical marijuana "as soon as practicable" and said medical marijuana patients should not be arrested in the meantime. "Given the strong belief of those who already use cannabis for medicinal purposes that it is an effective form of pain relief with fewer harmful side effects than other legally available drugs, we think that the proper moral position is to promote clinical trials as soon as practicable. We recommend that the government consider doing this."
People caught with drugs for personal use should be "cautioned" instead of arrested, the report said. "We recommend that a presumption against imprisonment should apply whenever the circumstances indicate that a drug offense was committed in a personal use context," the review said.
There should also be a statutory presumption against imprisonment for small-time drug dealing, the review said. ''We consider that the supply by drug users of small amounts of drugs with no significant element of commerciality ("social dealing") is entirely different from commercial dealing.''
Get rid of drug paraphernalia laws, the review said. ''We are not aware of any evidence that existence of the offense itself deters drug use."
The report highlights four key recommendations:
- A mandatory cautioning scheme for all personal possession and use offences that come to the attention of the police, removing minor drug offenders from the criminal justice system and providing greater opportunities for those in need of treatment to access it.
- A full scale review of the current drug classification system which is used to determine restrictiveness of controls and severity of penalties, addressing existing inconsistencies and focusing solely on assessing a drug's risk of harm, including social harm.
- Making separate funding available for the treatment of offenders through the justice sector to support courts when they impose rehabilitative sentences to address alcohol and drug dependence problems.
- Consideration of a pilot drug court, allowing the government to evaluate the cost-effectiveness of deferring sentencing of some offenders until they had undergone court-imposed alcohol and/or drug treatment.
"There are adverse social consequences from a distinctly punitive approach to lower level offending," Law Commission head Grant Hammond told the New Zealand Herald. "Quite large numbers of young New Zealanders receive criminal convictions -- which might subsist for life -- as a result of minor drug offenses. This is a disproportionate response to the harm those offenses cause. More can be done through the criminal justice system to achieve better outcomes for those individuals and for society at large."
The review won plaudits from Green Party leader Metiria Turei. "Current drug law is 35 years out-of-date and is hurting our families," she said. "Too many resources are directed into criminalizing people rather than providing them with the medical help they most need. The Law Commission's report recognizes this and seeks to redress it by adopting a harm reduction approach for dealing with personal drug use by adults. This new approach, if adopted, will actually save money enabling greater resources to be directed into health services for breaking the cycle of drug abuse and addiction. It will also free police to tackle more serious crime."
But Bob McCoskrie, director of the tough-on-drugs group Family First found little to like in the review. "A weak-kneed approach to drug use will simply send all the wrong messages that small amounts of drug use or dealing aren't that big a deal -- the completely wrong message, especially for younger people," he warned. "A cautioning scheme will simply be held in contempt by users, and fails to acknowledge the harm done by drug use which is undetected. The report is correct to call for better treatment facilities for addiction and mental illness, but a zero-tolerance approach to the use of drugs combined with treatment options is a far better solution."
A spokesman for the governing center-right National Party said the government welcomed the report, but needed time to study it.