The Mental Health and Addictions Inquiry report puts weak-kneed alcohol reform down to a “lack of political will” and its “bolder” approach is being given a thumbs-up by addiction experts.

The Inquiry report was released on December 4 and amongst the 40 recommendations for improving mental health and addiction services and national wellbeing are calls for stronger action on alcohol and other drugs.  In particular taking a stricter regulatory approach to the sale and supply of alcohol and decriminalising the personal use of controlled drugs with the support of increased addiction treatment and detox services. (See details below)

Drug Foundation executive director Ross Bell welcomed the Inquiry joining a “chorus of other voices” urging the Government to treat drugs as a health and social issue.

“The Inquiry has said that punitive approaches to drugs are ineffective in reducing drug use and create a barrier for people seeking help, and that criminal justice responses fail to acknowledge the root causes of drug addiction.

He said the Inquiry report also highlighted how health-based approaches to drug use, such as the Portugal model, showed great promise for transforming how we do things now. “They’ve proposed a new approach that includes removing criminal sanctions for personal possession, introducing health referrals and early intervention, increasing funding for addiction treatment, and expanding the range of health interventions available to people, especially community and peer-support services.”

Bell added that public expectations on the Government to act on the report are high with the Foundation one of a number of a health and social agencies calling for a doubling of drug treatment and harm reduction funding in the 2019 Budget.

Professor Doug Sellman, an addictions researcher and medical spokesperson for Alcohol Action NZ, said the Inquiry’s key recommendation for the Government to take a ‘bolder approach’ to the sale and supply of alcohol was welcomed.

“This is arguably the easiest and most effective intervention the government could enact in order to improve the well-being of New Zealanders, said the Professor of Psychiatry and Addiction. He said the report pointed out that the last three governments had been provided with numerous reports and advice – including the New Zealand Law Commission report of 2010 – documenting a comprehensive range of scientifically based actions to reduce alcohol-related harm, but no substantial action has been taken. The Commission report – which the Inquiry recommended should help inform Government action – recommended dismantling advertising and sponsorship of alcohol, increasing the price, reducing accessibility, and raising the purchase age back up to age 20 years.

“This would have a very beneficial effect of reducing the amount of alcohol-related injury, violence, suicide, abuse, depression, chaos, mayhem, and array of associated mental health conditions that easily accessible, normalized alcohol use is inflicting on New Zealand families and communities,” said Sellman.

Fellow addiction researcher Professor Sally Casswell congratulated the Inquiry for highlighting the urgent need for a strong Government response to the role of alcohol and pointing to the need to respond to alcohol in similar ways the country had responded to tobacco.

“The Inquiry heard submissions which spoke of the harm linked to the number of liquor outlets, their proximity to schools and location in poorer communities, and the need for restriction on advertising and sponsorship.”

Casswell said in the issue of other drugs the Inquiry highlighted the enormous problem created by the use of methamphetamine and recommended decriminalisation of personal use of drugs – referring to the Portugal approach.

“Unfortunately Portugal is not New Zealand and we need a more sophisticated discussion of the appropriate response to our extensive problems with drugs like methamphetamine,” said Casswell. “Of course, it is important to provide better treatment options than currently exist and the Inquiry calls for this. However, it is silent, as are so many advocates in this field, about the supply side of illicit drugs. Supply, as we have seen from alcohol, is a crucially important part of the problem and we need to ensure that supply of all drugs is tightly controlled.”

Professor Max Abbott, a professor of psychology and public health, welcomed the report and said he supported all of the many recommendations.  But he did express disappointment that while drug addiction was highlighted behavioural addictions, such as gambling, weren’t included.

“Recent New Zealand research shows the health and social harms associated with gambling disorder alone exceed those of drug abuse and come close to those of major depression.”

He added the Inquiry had identified numerous gaps and probably further increased already high expectations for reform.

“The major challenge is translating all this into reality at ground level,” said Abbott. “This cannot happen overnight and will require careful prioritising and management. It will require ongoing commitment from future governments. It will need to avoid capture by vested interests including professional and governmental entities that could thwart innovation and significant reform.”

Alcohol and Drug main findings:

  • Addiction should be viewed as a health and social issue that requires care and support (including more addiction treatment services) for effective management.
  • Around 60% of community-based offenders have an identified alcohol or other drug need and 87% of prisoners have experienced an alcohol or other drug problem over their lifetime
  • The promotion, socialisation and ease of access to alcohol in New Zealand is a major problem.
  • In the panel’s view the main impediment to stronger alcohol reform is a lack of political will.
  • The criminalisation of illicit drugs poses a barrier to seeking help, and convictions for personal drug use have far-reaching consequences on people’s lives.
  • Notes that New Zealand’s current official National Drug Policy is based on harm minimisation, but policy is still underpinned by the criminalization of drug use.
  • Notes that Portugal decriminalised purchase, possession and consumption of all drugs for personal use in 2001.

Alcohol and drug recommendations:

  • Take a stricter regulatory approach to the sale and supply of alcohol, informed by the recommendations from the 2010 Law Commission review, the 2014 Ministerial Forum on Alcohol Advertising and Sponsorship and the 2014 Ministry of Justice report on alcohol pricing
  • Replace criminal sanctions for the possession for personal use of controlled drugs with civil responses (for example, a fine, a referral to a drug awareness session run by a public health body or a referral to a drug treatment programme).
  • Support the replacement of criminal sanctions for the possession for personal use of controlled drugs with a full range of treatment and detox services.
  • Establish clear cross-sector leadership and coordination within central government for policy in relation to alcohol and other drugs.

See full inquiry report here.

Where to get help:

If you are worried about your or someone else’s mental health, the best place to get help is your GP or local mental health provider. However, if you or someone else is in danger or endangering others, call police immediately on 111.

Need to talk? Free call or text 1737 any time for support from a trained counsellor.

Or if you need to talk to someone else:

Asian Helpline – 0800 862 342
Lifeline – 0800 543 354
Suicide Crisis Helpline – 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO)
Youthline – 0800 376 633 or free text 234
Kidsline – 0800 54 37 54 (for under 18s)
What’s Up – 0800 942 8787 (for 5–18-year-olds 1pm–10pm weekdays and 3pm–10pm weekends)
Depression Helpline – 0800 111 757 or free text 4202
Samaritans – 0800 726 666
OUTLine NZ – 0800 688 5463
Healthline – 0800 611 116

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