Thursday, April 26, 2007

Jim Anderton’s Great Leap Backwards

National Drug Policy 2007 – 2012: Jim Anderton’s Great Leap Backwards

Associate Minister of Health and Chairman of the Ministerial Committee on Drug Policy, Jim Anderton, recently launched the National Drug Policy 2007 – 2012. The document represents a sea change, from a previous credo of harm minimisation to a new but familiar mantra of Prohibit and Be Damned.

The latest National Drug Policy (NDP) is the second such policy initiative. The first NDP 1998 – 2003 was presented by then Associate Minister for Health, National MP Roger Sowry. It was intended to provide a holistic and coherent policy framework for government and non-government organisations (NGOs) on the pharmacological spectrum of legal and not-so-legal drugs. It was presented in two parts. Part One dealt with the two most harmful drugs, alcohol and tobacco. Part Two focused on illicit and other drugs. Both parts were threaded with a common theme; harm minimisation. “The National Drug Policy’s overall goal, as far as possible within available resources, is to minimise harm caused by tobacco, alcohol, illicit and other drug use to both individuals and the community.”

Both parts were governed by a set of five principles:
  • efficiency
  • equity
  • use of both harm prevention and harm reduction strategies
  • upholding of individual rights where these do not unreasonably impinge on the rights of others
  • ensuring the needs of Maori are addressed by enabling development of specific strategies acceptable to Maori.
The NDP set out three priorities or prongs. The first and most important prong covered both parts:
  • To enable New Zealanders to increase control over and improve their health by limiting the harms and hazards of tobacco, alcohol, illicit and other drug use.”
Two other prongs were relevant only to Part Two:
  • To reduce the prevalence of cannabis use and use of other illicit drugs
  • To reduce the health risks, crime and social disruption associated with the use of illicit drugs and other drugs which are used inappropriately.
These three prongs can be summarised, in order of priority, as: harm minimisation, demand reduction and supply control. They were counter-balanced with the five principles of conduct, rules of engagement if you will. Implicit in the overall goal was a cost-benefit analysis of these prongs and principles. A plot was outlined. Again, in order of priority: Research and evaluation; health promotion; assessment, advice and treatment services; law enforcement; policy and legislative development; implementation, monitoring and review.

The NDP was received with warm responses from a wide range of groups. The New Zealand Drug Foundation called it “a good first step based on sound research rather than prejudice.” The Salvation Army hailed it as “a significantly new and clear direction, that of harm minimisation, which has not always been acceptable to a large sector of society.” Commissioner for Children Roger McClay called it “an exciting advance towards a healthier future.” Mental Health Services said that the NDP “supports better treatment services, especially for those who suffer both drug use problems and mental illness.”

Allen & Clarke Policy and Regulatory Specialists provided a qualitative review of the NDP in 2004. It questioned forty stakeholders, including NORML as well as a range of government and NGOs, on the effectiveness of the inaugural policy. They also conducted a literature review on what was happening in other countries, in order to contrast and compare differing approaches elsewhere.

The stakeholder review found that the NDP lacked leadership, which needed to be stronger and more coherent. Presumably, this was the fault of the Ministry of Health, who were supposed to oversee the NDP. The National Drug Policy lacked visibility, especially in non-government sectors. And, perhaps most importantly, the implementation of the policy needed to be specifically resourced. Without a budget of its own, the NDP was reliant on a hodgepodge of inter-governmental donations.

The literature review concluded that there were two main approaches to drugs. The European model favoured a harm minimisation approach, which was also used in Australia and Canada. This policy appreciated that drug use cannot always be eliminated and that sometimes compassion is the better part of valour. Then there was the US model of prohibition, favoured by the Scandinavian countries as well as Singapore and Thailand. This policy focused on demand reduction (usually through abstinence programs) and supply control (backed by the brute force of police and customs).

The 65-page closely-worded review concluded that the National Drug Policy was a living document and needed to continue. Harm minimisation should be retained as the key underlying philosophy, although debate should ensue on what harm minimisation meant and whether the three prongs were in the right order.

The original NDP defined harm minimisation as “an approach that aims to minimise the adverse health, social and economic consequences of drug use, without necessarily ending such use ... The primary goal of this approach is a net reduction in drug-related harm rather than becoming drug-free overnight... Another well-established example of harm minimisation is the needle and syringe exchange programme for injecting drug users, which attempts to prevent the use of ‘dirty’ needles and needle-sharing, which can pose a risk of the transmission of blood-borne viruses such as HIV and hepatitis.” The high tide mark of this definition was reached in 2005, when the Misuse of Drugs Act 1975 was amended for the eighteenth time to reverse the burden of proof on those found by the police in possession of syringes.

Jim Anderton’s 2007 – 2012 NDP stands in stark contrast to all that has gone before. The overarching goal is no longer empowerment of individuals over their circumstances, but “to prevent and reduce the health, social and economic harms that are linked to tobacco, alcohol, illegal and other drug use.” There is no admission of limited resources. It presumes that prevention, a codeword for prohibition, is achievable.

Cannabis is mentioned directly in the report in only 13 lines, where it quotes an unpublished survey conducted in 2003 saying that one in seven New Zealanders had tried cannabis in the previous year. The only figures in the public domain at present are from 2001. Research and evaluation of drug trends, at least into the country’s third most popular recreational substance, is clearly not the priority it once was.

The prongs have been rearranged, prioritising them as supply control, demand reduction and problem limitation, which is the new name for the old harm minimisation. The term ‘harm minimisation’ has been hijacked to now mean an “improve[ment in] social, economic and health outcomes for the individual, the community and the population at large.” The priority has changed from health to socio-economic outcomes.

The principles guiding the NDP have been gutted. The observance of individual rights has disappeared completely. Efficiency is likewise omitted. The checks and balances that once gave the NDP credibility have gone. What was once a living document based on the European harm minimisation model has been reduced to an unimaginative retreat to the US prohibition one. There have been no glowing comments from the Sallies, NZDF or health workers on this NDP.

The 2007 – 2012 NDP has not corrected the errors of the first one that Allen & Clarke’s review pointed out. The failure of leadership from the Ministry of Health has led to them losing the turf war to police and customs, who have very clear ideas on how they can improve their arrest rates and revenue. The continued lack of independent funding leaves the NDP fiscally and developmentally castrated. For example, the National Drug Policy Discretionary Grant Fund is dished out by a panel consisting of two super-quangos; the Inter-Agency Committee on Drugs and the Ministerial Committee on Drug Policy. This year, invitations for funding have been offered in very specific areas. “Research can be conducted with the rationale that prevalence of (unclassified psychoactive plants such as salvia divinorum, Kratom, morning glory seeds etc.) may be increasing and if a classification of BZP and related substances goes ahead, these products could become the main business of party pill shops. Research should focus on any of the following; toxicity, prevalence of use and associated harms.”

So be warned. This drug policy is not interested in minimising harm or asking questions. It is determined to justify its answers, and that answer is increasing prohibition. Jim Anderton is not concerned that the harms of prohibition, such as black marketeering, loan sharks and violence, can outweigh any harms that the prohibited drug itself could possibly cause. Jim Anderton is oblivious that his inter-sectorial approach to supply control will prevent the needy from turning up at drug treatment centres, for fear of prosecution and persecution.

In spite of the 1972-3 Blake-Palmer Report that recommended prohibition be continued “only so long as it was seen to be largely effective,” the 1998 Health Select Committee Inquiry that unanimously recommended “the Government review the appropriateness of existing policy on cannabis and its use and reconsider the legal status of cannabis,” and the 2003 Health Select Committee Inquiry that concluded that “the current prohibition regime is not effective in limiting cannabis use,” Jim Anderton stands resolute as King Canute.

If there is one silver lining on this very dark cloud of NDP 2007 – 2012, it is that it will provide the seed for a suitable public backlash to promote what should have been done long ago; completely re-write the Misuse of Drugs Act.

- Writers' Cut of article originally published in NORML News Autumn 2007. Out now at all good head shops!