A petition calling on the Prime Minister to treat drug abuse as a health issue, not a crime, was launched this week by a coalition of public health and justice advocates.
The Health not Handcuffs coalition is urging the Government to double the investment (ie. allocate an extra $150 million) for drug-related treatment and harm-reduction initiatives in Budget 2019. It said treating drug use as a health issue was especially important at present with at least 50 deaths from synthetic drugs over the past 18 months.
The petition is also calling for people using synthetic cannabis and other dangerous drugs to get a referral to health and related services rather than a criminal conviction.
“Unfortunately, by the time the Government makes their budget decisions there’s also a good chance more people will have tragically died from the use of synthetic cannabinoids,” says the petition. “We have a plan to turn things around. If the government makes the right funding decisions now, and follows this up by legislating for a health-based approach to drug use, we can save lives.”
Janell Dymus-Kurei, General Manager Māori Public Health for coalition member Hāpai Te Hauora said supporting the campaign was a “no-brainer’ for the public health organisation.
“As a country we’ve tried criminalising drug use, resulting in a war on drugs where nobody is winning – our communities certainly aren’t winning. This has caused irreparable harm, which has fallen disproportionately upon whānau Māori and we’ve seen generations suffer the consequences. We need to be radical in our efforts – we need to view this as a health issue, and invest our resources accordingly”
The petition has been drafted by a coalition of public health and justice advocates and experts including Action Station, JustSpeak, The New Zealand Drug Foundation and Te Rau Matatini.
The coalition says investing in health and treatment also makes economic sense with an economic report released last month, Estimating the Impact of Drug Policy Options, that argues investing $150 millio extra in drug-related harm reduction and treatment programmes would return a social benefit of at least $225 million.
Selah Hart, Chief Operations Manager of Hāpai, said Hapai had been a longtime advocate for harm reduction in areas from tobacco use to gambling, as well as drugs, so had been at “the front line of this failing war for decades”. “We’re joining in this collective action to plead with the Prime Minister to take the compassionate and logical option now, to turn the future around for those who are vulnerable to the harms of inappropriate drug use.”
“We know that some people have refused to accept the evidence presented by experts, including the Law Commission in 2011, about the pointless and harmful criminalisation of people who use drugs, and it’s incumbent upon those of us who know better to stand up and be counted,” said Hart.