Saturday, February 20, 2010

Law Commission on Drugs - Introduction

For the first time in over 35 years, New Zealand's Misuse of Drugs Act 1975 has been subjected to serious official review. Sure, every parliamentary Health select committee between here and Muldoon that has looked at the subject has concluded that cannabis shouldn't be dealt with as it is. Each Health select committee has dutifully passed the buck to the Justice & Electoral select committee to look at, and every over-worked J&E committee has diligently ignored the matter.

The Law Commission's Controlling and Regulating Drugs discussion paper breaks this drought. Justice Minister Simon Power thinks he can dismiss the 408 page report out of hand, stating that the government's policy demands no loosening of the laws:
"There's not a single, solitary chance that as long as I'm Minister of Justice, we'll be relaxing drug laws in New Zealand. The Prime Minister has made the war against P and drugs a key part of his leadership and as long as I'm the Minister of Justice, we will not be relaxing drug laws."
But if John Key can perform backward somersaults over GST rises, he can damned well change his mind on drug reform too. Facts change, eh. And the Law Commission paper is full of facts.

F'instance, did you know that the first drug law in NZ one hundred years ago was very thinly-disguised racism? Or that although current laws allow cultivation and research licences of these restricted drugs, there are only 21 research licences in NZ at present, and no cultivation licence has ever been issued? Or that the law allows a Minister of Health to withdraw a person's prescribed medication without their doctor's agreement or even directly contradicting the doctor's advice?

In fact, there may be too many facts in this dense report. The size and scope of the CRD report makes it difficult for laypeople to crack into, and would be about as interesting and dry to most people as reading the Auckland City White Pages phone directory. Hell, even I'm daunted by it. I'm no lawyer.

NORML has posted up a short list of easy things the public can do to support a review of the Misuse of Drugs Act, including a sample submission which people are encouraged to mash up to fit their perspective. I'm going to take a leaf out of Bryce@Liberation's book and post up bite-sized annotated analysis of the report over the next month leading up to Drug Awareness Week in March. Anyway, enough blab. Let's get down to it.

What is the point of the CRD report? The Terms of Reference are pretty concise, so here's a cut and paste straight from page 5:
The Commission will review the Misuse of Drugs Act 1975 and make proposals for a new legislative regime consistent with New Zealand’s international obligations concerning illegal and other drugs.

The issues to be considered by the Commission will include:

(a)     whether the legislative regime should reflect the principle of harm minimisation underpinning the National Drug Policy;

(b)     the most suitable model or models for the control of drugs;

(c)     which substances the statutory regime should cover;

(d)     how new psychoactive substances should be treated;

(e)     whether drugs should continue to be subject to the current classification system or should be categorised by some alternative process or mechanism;

(f)     if a classification system for categorising drugs is retained, whether the current placement of substances is appropriate;

(g)     the appropriate offence and penalty structure;

(h)     whether the existing statutory dealing presumption should continue to apply in light of the Supreme Court’s decision in the Hansen case;

(i)     whether the enforcement powers proposed by the Commission in its report on Search and Surveillance Powers are adequate to investigate drug offences;

(j)     what legislative framework provides the most suitable structure to reflect the linkages between drugs and other similar substances;

(k)     which agency or agencies should be responsible for the administration of the legislative regime.

It is not intended that the Commission will make recommendations with respect to the regulation of alcohol or tobacco in undertaking this review.

The Preface on Page 7 goes into the details. In 2007, Associate Minister of Health Jim Anderton asked the Law Commission to review the Misuse of Drugs Act. I remember the moment well. I was in the Minister's office with the MSMers when he announced it. It was the same day that the minister announced that BZP was to be banned.

Whichever way you cut it, the man who called the review was not some soft on drugs hippie. BZP is a fairly low-level drug. It is non-addictive and even the screwed scrum of the Expert Advisory Committee on Drugs were hard pressed to find anything more dangerous in the side effects department other than nausea and anxiety. Nothing worse than what you'd get from watching Dancing with the Stars or attending an Act conference. However, BZP was a new thing to New Zealand, and the Misuse of Drugs Act had no mechanism to handle new things.

The Preface points to another broken prong:
Most significantly, the Act’s policy framework appears to be out of step with current drug policy. Although it has been amended numerous times to reflect new developments in drug use, there is concern that the Act is now outdated and does not reflect current knowledge and understanding about drug use and related health, social and economic harms. The Act pre-dates and does not seem to be well aligned to the National Drug Policy and its overarching goal of minimising drug-related harm.
As the name suggests, the first National Drug Policy (NDP) was formed by the last National government. I looked at the issue here, when covering Jim Anderton's new version of the NDP. The last National government also formed the Expert Advisory Committee on Drugs (EACD), a supposedly independent board of experts who were charged with providing objective advice on the classification of recreational substances.

Which is why it's so weird that John Key's National government wishes to ignore the Law Commission's report. The loud slamming of the reform door shows an ideological ignorance out of step with John Key's alleged centrism. He can ignore that hypocrisy at his peril.

Up next: The Current Approach