The MoDA has to go part 4: The changes Aotearoa deserves

So far in this series we’ve established that the Misuse of Drugs Act (MoDA) 1975

  • Is built on a foundation of racism and ignorance,
  • doesn’t actually work to reduce drug use or drug harm, and
  • is in fact causing extra harm that would not happen if it didn’t exist.

So the question now is, what should we do about it?

In this, the last post of the 4-part series, we’ll look at some of the options, their pros and cons, and suggest what we think is a good way forward.

Read part 1: How it started
Read part 2: The War on “Drugs”
Read part 3: How it’s going

Option 1: Keep everything exactly the same and hope it starts working

No doubt there are some people who think that if we just hope hard enough, or punish hard enough, or throw more money, or drug test everyone in kindergarten or something, the MoDA will eventually start to work. There are probably also people who are making money off the current situation (see our last post about this) who’d like to continue to do so, and will push very hard for the status quo.

However, it’s plainly obvious that nothing’s going to change if we don’t change something, and we don’t know about you but we reckon nearly 50 years of this is a long enough experiment with our lives. Most sensible people probably would have given up about 5 years in. So we’re going to treat this option with the disdain it deserves and kick it to the curb.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but there’s a word for when people that do the same thing over and over again and expect different results…

decorative image only

Option 2: Review the drug classification system

This is like the minimum wage of drug law reform. The absolute bare minimum of what could potentially affect positive change without actually committing to the bit and legislators looking like they’re going ‘soft on crime’ *eyeroll*.

So d’you remember in The MoDA has to go part 1: How it started where we talked about the UN’s drug schedule and what their decision-making process was? And how absolutely ass-backwards it was? Our drug classifications are based on that.

  • Class A has the potential for the most dependency and harm potential.
  • Class B, slightly less than Class A.
  • Class C, still considered harmful, but not earth-shatteringly so.

You can go and check out Part 1: How it Started to see which drugs are in which category. Then go have a look at the classification of drugs in Aotearoa.

Compare, say, LSD or cocaine (Class A), with MDMA or most of the synthetic cannabinoids (Class B) or most of the benzodiazepines (Class C). Then have a look at the rankings of harm in the most up-to-date study of drug harm in Aotearoa, and marvel at the inconsistencies given what we now know about the actual harms associated with these drugs.

Graph of harms to self and harms to others by substance. Taken from The New Zealand drug harms ranking study: A multi-criteria decision analysis by Doctor Rose Crossin et al, Sage Publications, 2023

We would love to see a classification system that’s based on actual potential for harm. Not based on an outdated prohibitionist definition of ‘abuse’ that includes ‘might use to have fun’ and ‘might use while being an indigenous person.’

However, any classification system used would still exist in a prohibitionist paradigm, which means that all the harms associated with drugs being illegal would still exist. So really we need to move beyond deciding which drugs should carry which punishments if we want to fix anything. The next options look at this.

Option 3: Implement harm reduction properly

Harm reduction is quite a buzzword these days, but what does it really mean? It’s basically a term for a set of principles that can be applied to drug interventions, that holds minimising harm to the user, their whānau, and society as a central aim.

The main principles of drug-related harm reduction can be summarised in five bullet points:

  1. We accept that drugs are part of our world and people will use drugs regardless of punishments or moralising.
  2. We acknowledge that drug use is a spectrum and there are many ways that people use them.
  3. We aim for wellbeing and health as the criteria for successful interventions, not necessarily cessation of all drug use.
  4. We recognise that people who use drugs are people, with their own history, experiences, and agency, and are the experts on their own situation
  5. We don’t judge, coerce, or make our help conditional, We respect people’s right to make decisions for themselves.

Basically, you’re a bunch of grown-ass adults that know what you need and/or want from life, so we’re going to treat you like grown-ass adults. You all have the ability to make wise decisions that affect your life when given true, accurate information in a transparent and caring way, so that’s what we’ll give you. It’s not rocket surgery. There are more principles that get more specific about context etc, which you can read at Harm Reduction International.

Drug checking is a harm reduction practice based on these principles. The New Zealand Needle Exchange is another very successful example from Aotearoa.

Things we don’t yet have include:

These are just a few proven examples of ways in which drug harm can be reduced by doing things that we are not currently doing. Given that our National Drug Policy 2015-2020 had “support and strengthen harm reduction approaches such as the needle exchange programme” as one of its aims, you’d think we’d have more than two of them implemented by now. (You may very well think that, but we couldn’t possibly comment)

So there are things we could do to improve the outcomes for people who use drugs right now, without changing the law. Of course the problem with doing those is that as we’ve seen, it’s the law that’s causing most of the problems so while harm reduction is great, it’s a bit like sticking a bandaid on a decapitation.

We would like nothing better than to be put out of business by better drug law. So what might that look like?

decorative image only

So there’s a bunch of reasons that criminalising drug users is absolutely cooked. We’ve outlined them in the last 3 blogs, so we won’t go into them here, but suffice it to say making something illegal hasn’t actually stopped anyone from being hurt. So we suggest…

Option 4: Decriminalise possession of all drugs for personal use

This would go a long way towards undoing some of the harm created by criminalising users. If we were to take on something like what’s currently done in Canada, Portugal, some states in the US, and even in Australia we’d be able to do so much good. Decriminalising possession would

  • Free up funding.
    Someone imprisoned for minor drug charges cost approximately $21,630 for their keep for a sentence of up to 3 months. According to the NZ Police website, a 3 month sentence and a fine is what you’d expect for someone busted for possession of a Class B or Class C substance. Stats NZ puts the 2022 prison population for people with drug convictions at 1,065 remanded and 312 people actually sentenced. If we make a conservative estimate of 25% of those inmates were sentenced for minor offenses, that’s 78 people, so a total of $1,687,140 that could be put into health or education or something that’s actually useful. And that’s not counting all the money spent arresting, charging, and convicting the person, or what it costs to support them after they get out of prison with a conviction on their record.

  • Destigmatise drug use and make it easier for people to talk about their experiences openly.
    The knock on from this is that people will be able to tell between what a low-risk relationship with drugs is and what a high-risk relationship with drugs is. This means earlier intervention, fewer people in situations that are hard to get out of, and Healthcare and social workers would get to spend more time being the fence at the top of the cliff rather than the ambulance at the bottom, like they should.

  • Replace pre-screening and ‘random’ workplace drug testing with testing for impairment at work. We have medicinal cannabis and ketamine legally on prescription now. And people in dangerous jobs can be impaired for many different reasons, not just drugs. Get with the times, y’all.

    Read our (spicy) thoughts about workplace drug testing in Aotearoa vs. prescription cannabis on our blog

This won’t make Aotearoa a utopia with flowers and kittens and double rainbows all day every day. As long as supply of drugs is illegal, there will still be a dangerous market controlled by organised crime and with no quality guarantees. But it’s a start.

Read more about regulating cannabis and decriminalising possession and social supply of all drugs

Option 5: Legal regulation

So legal regulation would work like the legal regulation of alcohol. You’d need proper facilities to manufacture your substanc, make sure the substance you’re manufacturing meets a certain standard, a licence to sell and strict laws about who you could sell to. Individuals could potentially grow or manufacture small amounts for their own use. It would do KnowYourStuffNZ out of a job as drug checkers, but we absolutely wouldn’t complain.

Provided the costs of the substances were reasonable, the benefits of this would be

  • Sales and manufacture are taken away from organised crime. Which means
    • People are no longer pressed into service as growers/cooks/distributors
    • A major source of organised crime revenue is removed, making it harder for it to flourish.
    • Social problems and crime associated with the illicit market are reduced
  • Requirements for quality control at manufacture would create safer products
  • Fewer novel substances cropping up on the market without going through proper trials and proving themselves suitable for human consumption
  • Easier access to substances for medical use, instead of having to fork out thousands for a prescription that might get you fired from your place of work.
  • Consumers receive factual information to help keep themselves safe when purchasing

There are almost as many potential models for legal regulation out there as there are people who want it to happen, and they range from a “club” model where distribution of substances is local and only through membership of a group, to a fully-regulated industry with sales outlets.

Read more about the Cannabis Club model
Read more about Transform’s Blueprint for Legal Regulation

Or you could read the report “Controlling and Regulating Drugs” from our very own Law Commission, which explores a variety of different models and ultimately recommends scrapping the Misuse of Drugs Act and regulating drugs properly. This report is now over a decade old and successive governments have stuck their fingers in their ears and gone “Lalalalala we can’t hear you hey look a flag referendum” about it.

Of course legal regulation would only work if the prices were affordable for everyone, otherwise it’s just setting itself up to fail. There’s no point in legalising something and then pricing it out of the market. See also: the growing trade in illicit tobacco.

Option 6: Government gives away free drugs

Nah jokes.

But seriously, the government gives away free drugs all the time. It’s just that they call them medicines. Except now the new Government wants to do away with free prescriptions, so that might not last long.

And now we know how the Misuse of Drugs Act came to be, we know that a lot of the political misdirection, double-talk, and straight out racism and lies that ended up with us calling one drug a medicine, another a food, and yet another a “scourge on society” is absolute bollocks. And we think it’s time that something was done about that.

To recap:

Our wish list to drag Aotearoa’s drug policy kicking and screaming into the 21st Century is as follows:

  • Drug laws based in evidence
  • Drug laws administered by the Ministry of Health not the Ministry of Justice
  • Drug laws that centre the wellbeing of the user
  • Ability to grow/manufacture and possess any drug for personal use
  • Equal footing for all psychoactive drugs rather than current “this drug is ok but that one will get you jail time” situation
  • Access to healthcare for anyone who needs it but no coercion for those who don’t
  • Access to factual information at point of sale.

We hope you’ve enjoyed this series – and more, we hope that soon we’ll get a government with the political will and social licence to actually do something about repairing the travesty created back before we knew better.

Further reading

The UN gets spicy about the utter failure of the drug legislation it put out between 1960 and 1980

UN World Drugs Report 2023

Getting cannabis off schedule 4

Leave a Reply