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Degrading our public health capability?

Monday 12 June 2006

Degrading our public health capability?

Is Jim preparing to throw our babies out with the bathwater?

Only nine days before submissions closed (Friday 9 June) on our draft National Drug Policy, Minister Jim Anderton publicly signalled a change in the crucial definition of the harm reduction aspects of harm miminisation in a formal Government speech to the public on 31 May. This was a significant change from the consultation material.

It is unlikely that the Minister might have inadvertently expressed his private wishes in a lapse of self-discipline. His new version of the National Drug Policy is now overly negative and seems to be based on a puritanical ideology. It now ignores the intention of the 1986 UN Ottawa Charter - of which NZ is a signatory - that was designed to successfully empower people to understand and manage their health and wellbeing from a holistic environmental perspective.

Moving the goalposts at the last minute like this indicates there will be a shift toward disempowering and re-stigmatising a group of very vulnerable young people. These changes from previous policy statements, if adopted, mean New Zealand is heading down the path toward 'coercive' treatment, while also substantially weakening the basis from which health workers can most effectively treat people with substance abuse issues.

It is generally recognised that treatment for drug problems is not effective unless the person who uses drugs wishes to be treated. Many drug users do not have any health problems with their drug use, which is often sporadic and recreational. Therefore it is totally counterproductive to stigmatise such people as 'needing treatment' because if anything - particularly in the case of young people - such an approach would seem to encourage more dangerous drug use, on the basis that you may as well try everything if you are going to be medicalised and criminalised for a little fun that harms nobody else.

These newly signalled changes are not matters of gradual development, since a reversal of previous policy can only be described as an abrupt change. The claims in the Consultation document and in the speech by Minister Anderton are completely misleading in this aspect. Given the irregularities in the Consultation process, such claims seem likely to be deliberately misleading, since they are contradicted by the evidence. Such a situation makes a mockery of both the law and the credibility of the Policy, inviting public and drug consumer distrust.

Our National Drug Policy should be primarily health-focused, primarily evidence-based (not just evidence-informed) and primarily aimed at maintaining and improving public trust in the health sector. It is important that health professionals in general maintain public trust that they exist to help, not to harm..

Crime control is only workable when there is large-scale public consent, which by definition is already lost when large numbers - not necessarily a majority - are using illicit drugs. In such circumstances a public health approach is easily justified, especially to Treasury, whereas a criminological approach would lead to repressing and politicising a significant sector of our democratic and electorally-vocal society.

This is particularly important in New Zealand as there is increasing public understanding that the reason for criminalisation of recreational drugs is largely due to the medicalisation of drugs over the twentieth century and the attendant powerful political lobby of vested-interest groups.

It is interesting that submitters who have requested extensions in order to address The Hon. Jim Anderton's carpet-pulling tactics have been ignored or refused. Those people should not be pressured into unnecessary haste on a submission because of an unnecessary and mischevious late change in the policy being consulted over.

This media release, based on an NDP submission - a public document intended to be used to improve drug policy - is used with kind permission from the author of that submission.


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