Much ado in New Zealand about drug policy in the media during July

There was much ado about drugs in New Zealand media in the first week of July. Russell Brown provides an overview of the media coverage that surrounded the New Zealand Drug Law Symposium.

On the Sunday, the national current affairs show Q+A ran a story about festival drug-checking, in which a young professional found unexpected contents in his MDMA powder. The following day, the Dominion Post, the capital’s newspaper began What if it was legal?, a strong week-long series on cannabis reform. Visiting experts were interviewed on radio and TV.

Much of the coverage had been strategically fostered by the New Zealand Drug Foundation, around its election-year Parliamentary Drug Law Symposium. And it seemed to be working well. The symposium’s hashtag led local Twitter for two days. When Prime Minister Bill English settled in for a soft chat with a conservative radio host Leighton Smith, the latter was moved not only to quiz him about law reform, but to bring up the problematic legal status of drug-checking.

Success! The conversation was being had! Well, sort of. The days that followed seemed to show that it’s one thing to attract media attention to drug policy issues – quite another to have the media actually approach them in an informed and accurate way.

The country’s biggest newspaper, the New Zealand Herald, ventured forth with an editorial: NZ should wait and see on cannabis legalisation. Its opening paragraph was:

When journalists asked Bill English last week if he had any plans to legalise cannabis, the answer would have surprised no one. The Prime Minister replied: “In New Zealand we have always taken the view that some of these drugs cause so much harm that they should be illegal.”

Unfortunately, that’s not what English said. The Herald’s corporate sibling Newstalk ZB actually quoted him saying this, which is rather different:

“The fact that these drugs are still regarded as illegal tells you that as a society we have considered the harm to be great enough to make them illegal.”

So, drugs should be illegal because they’re illegal. And who are lawmakers to run around changing law?

The editorial went on, quoting Associate Health minister Peter Dunne, a cautious reformer whose party-of-one, United Future, supports the governing National Party – and who recently announced he would be taking a bold policy into this year’s general election.

… Dunne has been emboldened by this worldwide trend to suggest decriminalising cannabis here. Dunne would follow the Portuguese model and allow cannabis sellers, along with other drug manufacturers, to submit their products for testing before sale.

That is not, of course, the Portuguese model, which doesn’t allow legalised sale at all, let alone operate a licensing system.

Dunne was shut down instantly by English but has also failed to win much wider political support, presumably because party leaders know a minefield when they see one. New Zealand has already flirted with legalising synthetic cannabis in 2013, with disastrous results. Sellers took advantage of interim approval under the Psychoactive Substances Act to sell dangerous drugs such as Kronic to teenagers at corner dairies. The public outcry put an end to this country’s short-lived plans for a legal market in soft drugs.

Peter Dunne, Associate Minister of Health. Image by NZTEU (CC BY-SA 2.0).

This is in fact the opposite of what the Psychoactive Substances Act 2013 did, which was take synthetic cannabis products out of dairies (local stores), where they had sold, unregulated, for years. Indeed, in 2013, the Herald itself ran at least nine news stories saying so. Moreover, a Herald editorial in advance of the bill’s passage declared it “couldn’t come soon enough” – because it would get these drugs out of dairies.

Ironically, Dunne himself had banned Kronic well before the Act, in 2011, amid the period of whack-a-mole scheduling that preceded an attempt at regulation with the PSA. This, too, had been reported by the Herald at the time.

The editorial went on:

The experience should make us wary about overseas claims for legalisation. For instance teen cannabis use in Colorado may have fallen but that flies in the face of our legal highs debacle and human nature in general. If an illegal substance is made legal, usually more people will want to try it, as they no longer fear the social stigma or a criminal conviction.

Because commonsense reckons are always more important than actual data, apparently.

As to the premise of the editorial – well, yes, it’s clear already that we’re going to be looking closely at the Canadian process. Former Canadian Deputy Prime Minister Anne McLellan, who chairs the country’s cannabis legalisation task force, readily acknowledged at the symposium that the eyes of other liberal democracies would be on her work. But the Herald’s eagerness to postpone the conversation seemed almost as odd as its failure to recall its own reporting.

The country’s long-running newsweekly, The New Zealand Listener, weighed in too, with Cultivating voters on relaxing NZ’s drug laws:

The New Zealand police tacitly acknowledge this with an unofficial policy of not prosecuting for possession of modest amounts of cannabis. This is sensible: first, in not penalising people who do no harm and, second, in avoiding criminalising the young whose futures are blighted by a drug conviction. Thus we have de facto decriminalisation, and it’s heartening to see political consensus building towards making this official.

There is, in some respects, a de facto decriminalisation going on, and has been for about a decade – largely because of a much broader use by police of avenues like pre-charge warnings, so people are arrested, but not eventually charged. Sometimes.

Image by Victor Casale (CC BY 2.0)

But more than a thousand people were prosecuted for simple cannabis possession in 2015 (and about 1600 for mostly small-scale growing). In recent months, medical users, including a quadriplegic, a multiple sclerosis patient and at least two terminally people, have been raided by police.

And under police discretion, the burden does not fall evenly: those prosecuted are disproportionately young and brown. The greater use of discretion is welcome, but it is not a balm for a lack of political courage. How long are we supposed to go on using the rationalisation that we don’t need to revisit the law because the police probably won’t enforce it? The Listener offered nothing on that.

Moreover, this kind of discretion rarely leads to any kind of social or medical intervention – the very thing the editorial writer wanted to see. The editorial went on to attack parties with reform policies:

What’s starkly absent from reform platforms here is robust planning for how to protect the young after decriminalisation. It’s beyond scientific dispute that cannabis can retard brain development, and it remains a risk up to the age of 25 or 26, when most people’s prefrontal cortex reaches maturity.

 

Pro-reform parties intone worthily about information and education, but unless liberalisation is coupled with effective deterrents to and penalties for the supply of cannabis to anyone under 25, decriminalisation will be guaranteed to increase harm.

Except, of course, the research from every one of the legalising states is that youth use has not increased. And as McLellan points out, if you continue to make it illegal for people who are in every other respect adults, and who are most likely to be cannabis users in the black market, your policy won’t fly.

The editorial went on to slate new political entity The Opportunities Party, which proposes a tightly-regulated cannabis market.

TOP’s decriminalisation pledge came after it researched issues that might engage young voters. By implication, it appears happy to give the young better access to a drug that does them provable harm just for their votes.

Decriminalisation does not, of course provide “better access”. It simply keeps end-users out of the courts and improves access to health support. The Listener struggled to explain why it was so terrible for a political party to seek younger voters with a policy that concerned them.

Also, of course, decriminalisation is not TOP’s policy.

Cannabis. Image by Diego Charlón Sánchez (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

Yes, the human brain isn’t fully developed until the age of about 25, and heavy use may interfere with brain development until then (although the risk does not approach that of heavy use under 18 years). But the same thing is true of alcohol – on which topic the Listener’s argument turned spectacularly in on itself.

[TOP] has now topped even this level of cynicism by vowing to raise the drinking age to 20. Thus alcohol – which, if used moderately, does not cause harm – would be further restricted under Top, whereas cannabis, which if used even moderately by the young does cause harm, will be made more available to them.

Clearly, someone likes a glass of wine.

The editorial continued:

Peter Dunne now advocates we follow Portugal’s state-controlled, medically supervised system with respect to the less-harmful drugs. This is wise counsel, but as the minister who presided over our disastrous experiment with so-called legal highs – the oft-dangerous and increasingly potent synthetic drugs of ever-morphing formulation – he is a poor opinion leader. Under the regime he designed – since heavily modified – more young people used drugs than before, reassured that as synthetics were now legal, they were safer.

Synthetic cannabinoid products were sold legally for years before the PSA, and their “ever-morphing formulation” is a consequence of the fact that we kept banning them, so new ones appeared. There is no evidence at all that “more young people used drugs than before” – that’s just a made-up fact.

‘Spice,’ a synthetic cannabinoid product.

A key provision of the PSA was that it was an offence to sell such products to people under 18, and for those people to possess them. That was not the case before. The PSA had its issues, but it made it harder, not easier, for teenagers to get these drugs.

Even the factually rigorous Drug Foundation can skew debate, when it labours the harm-minimisation message at the expense of highlighting the ineradicable harm of drug use. It tested a variety of black-market drugs and found about a third contained extraneous or risky substances or were not what suppliers had claimed. Although useful for users, this exercise risked conveying the message that drugs not “cut” or mislabelled are safe. For young people, they are not.

The Drug Foundation did not test any drugs. It did, along with NZ Needle Exchange, help a harm-reduction group called Know Your Stuff do so more accurately by buying a portable spectrometer.

The number of people who buy drugs because there will be a harm-reduction tent at the party they’re going to is approximately zero. But using such a service, as Know Your Stuff’s Wendy Allison has observed, makes young people less likely to take the drugs they’ve bought.

I’ve seen the Know Your Stuff work in action. It does not tell anyone that drugs are safe. It tells people that drugs carry a risk, and if the holder is determined to take the drugs, advises cautious dosing and to watch for any danger signs. It is, in other words, straight out of the harm reduction textbook.

To which imperative should we pay more attention? The one that says it’s worthwhile to prevent people taking things that might kill them? Or the belief that the only permissible intervention is the one that says all drugs are bad and you must not take them ever at all? I know some emergency doctors who could answer that one.

And the conclusion:

There’s growing evidence that the only way to ensure the safety of recreational drugs is to nationalise their manufacture and supply. It’s unlikely that either the public or Parliament is ready for this, even though it would give the state the framework with which to keep far more young people safe from the impairment of drugs until they’re old enough to make smart choices.

There’s not really “growing evidence” for that at all. The only country going down that route is Uruguay, and only with cannabis. Uruguay also has a national monopoly on the production of alcohol, so it had a head start, but it’s not looking like a model that many countries will adopt.

For the parties advocating the halfway house of decriminalisation, their continued use of drug liberalisation as a vote-lure for the young remains irresponsible and cynical.

The three parties the editorial slates – TOP, the Greens and United Future – don’t propose “the halfway house of decriminalisation” for cannabis. They propose legal, state-regulated sale. Much as half of the Listener’s deeply confused editorial did itself.

There’s a lot to like about New Zealand’s drug debate. Thanks to Dunne (who is, paradoxically, a hate figure for some cannabis activists), this month’s symposium took place at Parliament itself. And while the two largest parties would like the issue to go away, it’s now plainly possible for smaller parties to campaign on real reform. The relatively conservative Māori Party has moved to embrace cannabis decriminalisation and declared itself “open to a conversation” about legalisation. The Dominion Post’s thoughtful, well-researched series ran prominently in the paper.

But the two editorials suggest that an evidence-based argument is as likely to drive some media voices into odd logical contortions as it is to convince. And they demonstrate that there is no policy area in which editors feel more able to be simply slapdash then drugs.

There was another whoopsie that week, in a pre-election “report card” for Dunne by Newshub’s political correspondent Lloyd Burr.

Peter Dunne’s most well-known policies are about drug reform. He talks about it all the time, but his ideas haven’t always been successful. Remember his botched policy around legal highs? He refused to ban them, instead opting for what he called a ‘game-changer’ – the half-baked Psychoactive Substances Act. It changed the game alright, making the problem worse, and a public backlash forced the Government to intervene and repeal it and implement a ban. It was embarrassing for Dunne, to say the least.

The Psychoactive Substances Act 2013.

Dunne spent years banning legal highs, one after the other. And the PSA didn’t “make the problem worse” – at least, according to hospital admissions and other data. It radically reduced the number of outlets where these products could be sold. But it did help make the problem more visible, at a time when years of unregulated sale were beginning to take their toll.

The Act certainly had itself issues – I’ve written about them in detail here. But was not “repealed” as Burr remembered. An amendment foreclosed an interim approvals period that went on much longer than ever intended, while the Ministry of Health fumbled with its execution. (The amendment also added an animal-testing ban that makes the Act almost impossible to operate.)

Success has many fathers, failure is an orphan. There’s a significant lesson here in the way a bold law – one which originally passed with but a single dissenting vote – can, if it does not go well, become an obstacle to reform in general.

If it doesn’t work right out of the box, not only will they never let you forget it – they’ll never remember what they said about it in the first place.

Russell Brown is a New Zealand journalist, broadcast and media commentator. He runs the group blog site Public Address.

This article was originally published on Public Address. Read the original article.

For more of Russell’s coverage of the NZ Law Reform Symposium, see: One big day at the drug symposium and Drug symposium day 2: Maori women in the room.

Featured image: Bill English, Prime Minister of New Zealand. Image by New Zealand Teritary Education Union (CC BY-SA 2.0)

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