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Q+A: Associate Health Minister Peter Dunne

Q+A: Associate Health Minister Peter Dunne interviewed by Corin Dann


Law change to allow drug testing kits ‘inevitable’ – Peter Dunne

Currently, the New Zealand Drug Foundation is choosing to deliberately break the law to enable drug users to test their pills or powder in a move to keep them safe from harm.

Associate Health Minister Peter Dunne told TVNZ 1’s Q+A programme, ‘my own view personally is I am in favour of it’ and he believes a law change is ‘inevitable’ when the Misuse of Drugs Act is reviewed in the next couple of years.

‘I think it is a preventative measure. I think it's important that people have the public safety message. I think it’s a funny legal anomaly at the moment that means that we can't do this, but I think that’s about to change.

‘The law, I think, is a little bit ambiguous. What the law talks about is knowledgeably permitting the consumption of drugs on premises. That’s a slightly grey area, and I think there is a little bit of wiggle room. I’m not saying it’s satisfactory, but I am saying that I think the law is not as black and white as some who would say—

CORIN So police can just shrug their shoulders, turn a blind eye here?

PETER I think there’s a strong case for the exercise of discretion and good sense.’

When asked whether he would have awarded citizenship to Peter Thiel as Minister of Internal Affairs, Peter Dunne told Q+A, ‘I wasn’t the minister at the time, as you know. On the basis of the information that I’ve seen, the answer is probably no.’

Please find the full transcript attached.

Q+A, 9-10am Sundays on TVNZ 1 and one hour later on TVNZ 1 + 1. Repeated Sunday evening at 11:35pm. Streamed live atwww.tvnz.co.nz

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Q + A
Episode 17
PETER DUNNE
Interviewed by Corin Dann

CORIN Joining me now is Peter Dunne, associate health minister. Good morning to you, Minister.

PETER Good morning, Corin.

CORIN Are you going to change the law to allow these testing kits to be used?

PETER I think it’s inevitable, when the Misuse of Drugs Act is reviewed in the next couple of years, that this change will be considered. My own view personally is I am in favour of it – for all of the reasons stated in the clip. I think it is a preventative measure. I think it's important that people have the public safety message. I think it’s a funny legal anomaly at the moment that means that we can't do this, but I think that’s about to change.

CORIN Have you talked to your government colleagues, National, about bringing this forward a bit? Why wait two years?

PETER This is a pretty conservative government when it comes to drug policy matters. I’ve talked to a number of MPs who are supportive of a change, and there could well be some pressure for an early move. But at this stage, it is more likely to occur in the ambit of a complete rewrite of the Misuse of Drugs Act, because you don’t want to get unintentional consequences occurring by making a specific change when you’ve got a piece of legislation that’s so old and antiquated. In the meantime, I think we need to move with prudence on both sides, and I’m thinking in terms of the police. I think that these products do provide a good public service, and it would be a shame to see them close down.

CORIN But they’re put in a very difficult situation by this, because they have a law to uphold, and there will be some people who will feel, no, they should be cracking down on that.

PETER Absolutely, but the law, I think, is a little bit ambiguous. What the law talks about is knowledgeably permitting the consumption of drugs on premises. That’s a slightly grey area, and I think there is a little bit of wiggle room. I’m not saying it’s satisfactory, but I am saying that I think the law is not as black and white as some who would say—

CORIN So police can just shrug their shoulders, turn a blind eye here?

PETER I think there’s a strong case for the exercise of discretion and good sense. The fundamental point is it’s not a law enforcement issue here. This is a public health issue. And you’ve seen from the track the risks that are posed to people. If someone—

CORIN But here’s the thing, Minister—

PETER Sorry, can I just make this point? This is not mandatory. If someone voluntarily chooses to have their products tested, I think that puts a slightly different perspective on it.

CORIN But you’ve got a pretty odd contradiction here. You’ve got a government which presumably is spending a lot of money at the border stopping ecstasy and other tablets coming into the country, policing gangs and drug distribution, and then on the other hand, you’re saying, ‘If you turn up to a festival, all good, you can get it tested.’ They’re contradictory.

PETER No, it’s not. The National Drug Policy makes it very clear that fundamentally, drug policy issues are health issues. There are law enforcement issues associated with those, but the fundamental perspective of our National Drug Policy is around health protection, ensuring public safety. I think that, in the context of this, this is an anomaly. It does need to be tidied up. I’m not arguing against that at all; I fully support it. All I’m saying is that in terms of the ranking of priority, at this stage, the protection of the public health and health of the individuals I think is a more important one.

CORIN Why spend money trying to prohibit something and then at the same time send a message that if you have got it, it’s okay?

PETER Well, you’re not sending that message. This is an issue about public safety, and I think we do need to be ensuring that we are doing all we can to crack down on the supply of illicit drugs coming across the border – absolutely, not suggesting any change there. But this is about people turning up to a music festival with a few items in their possession that they are uncertain about the safety of. I think it’s perfectly proper that they should have the opportunity to have some check as to whether they are safe to use or not, given the fact that the research shows that a significant number decided after the test – when they discovered what they had wasn’t what they thought it was – not to use it.

CORIN Is this a little bit of a liberal, middle-class drug issue?

PETER No, I don’t think so. I think Paul Quigley made the point very strongly about the people who present at the emergency room after such incidents. This is a protection of the public health. Now, people mightn’t like the fact that young people use drugs. That’s a different issue. But the reality is they do, and this is about one step that can be taken to ensuring some reassurance that what they’re doing is not unsafe.

CORIN But there might be some in lower socio-economic groups – Maori, Pacific Islanders – who are getting pinged for cannabis offences who might feel there is an actual justice issue here when they are having to have that sort of thing on their record. That’s been a long-standing complaint.

PETER Well, I think, firstly, under the National Drug Policy at the moment, we are having a review of the relevance of some of the penalties that are applied, and that work will be completed later this year. So that is being looked at.

CORIN So you agree there is an issue there?

PETER We put it out in the National Drug Policy in 2015 that it would be one of the priority areas for action, and we are working our way through that. In terms of this particular issue, I think you could argue that because of the rather specific category of people that go to music festivals, you might be discriminating in their favour. On the other hand, I would say, look, anything that gives the public more information has got to be beneficial. If people do decide that they don’t want to do certain things based on the information they get, that’s good.

CORIN Well, the fact is MDMA and ecstasy costs, I don’t know, $80 a pill or something. It’s a cost thing, isn’t it?

PETER Well, it’s also a public health thing. If people are going to take substances that are going to cause them significant risk, then they have the opportunity and the right, I think, to know what they’re doing. If they decide after the process, ‘I don’t care. I’m going to carry on as I intended,’ so be it. But there are some, and the research over the summer shows that a significant number who change their behaviour as a consequence.

CORIN Do you think, though, that the laws around cannabis do need to be changed, in terms of classification? Perhaps some sort of decriminalisation to remove that potential for criminal offences and that sort?

PETER Well, I’ve long stated my personal view that what we need to be looking to do in the longer term is to bring the Class C drugs like cannabis under the psychoactive substances regime, not the Misuse of Drugs Act, so that they can be regulated on the basis of the level of public risk the pose. That’s my position. It’s been my position for several years, frequently stated. It is not the government’s position, but we keep working.

CORIN So, tell me, where is this review of Misuse of Drugs Act at, then?

PETER As part of the National Drugs Policy, we face to issues at the commencement of that. One was whether we reviewed the Misuse of Drugs Acts first and then rewrite the policy, or whether we did it the other way around, get the policy settings right, and then see how the legislation fitted alongside that. That’s the course we’ve chosen, and the intention is that probably in the next 18 months to two years will be time to review the Misuse of Drugs Act, to rewrite it to fit with contemporary reality in these sorts of situations, and also to reflect the tenets of the National Drug Policy.

CORIN No secret that the Prime Minister is fairly conservative on social issues. What chances, do you think, of convincing him to allow for example cannabis to be decriminalised?

PETER Let’s just take this one step at a time. And that’s what I’ve been attempting to do in the time I’ve been the minister responsible. We get the policy setting right, then we look at how the legal framework reflects that policy setting. Our National Drug Policy talks about compassion, innovation and proportion as the key principles that underline the policy. The focus is fundamentally around drug misuse as a health issue. And if you look at the series of actions, they are around that. We are working our way through those. There will be a review of the act. And where that leads to will be for the next parliament to determine.

CORIN Minister, can I just ask you, in terms of Minister of Internal Affairs, your thoughts on the Peter Thiel episode this week – the billionaire who was given citizenship this week after just 12 days? Would you have awarded citizenship?

PETER Well, I wasn’t the minister at the time, as you know. On the basis of the information that I’ve seen, the answer is probably no.

CORIN And do you expect to see more applications along those lines coming?

PETER Look, they come from time to time. I’ve dealt with a few, in different circumstances, and you’re taking each one on its merits. But generally speaking, to apply for citizenship – and I think this point has been lost in the Thiel case – he didn’t just rock up and apply for citizenship. He had to have permanent residence first, which he did have. And to be an applicant for citizenship, you have to have been a permanent resident for a minimum of five years. So I believe all those criteria were met. The particular case was considered by the minister at the time on its merits. All I’m saying on the basis of the public information that I’ve seen, I probably would’ve taken a different decision. But you do look at each one on its merits at the time.



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