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The Nation: Helen Clark and Ruth Dreifuss on Drug Policy

On Newshub Nation: Emma Jolliff interviews Helen Clark and Ruth Dreifuss from the Global Commission on Drug Policy,

• Former President of Switzerland Ruth Dreifuss and Former Prime Minister of NZ Helen Clark say the war on drugs has failed and there needs to be a move away from prohibition to decriminalisation and effective state regulation.

• The Global Commission on Drug Policy advocates for a harm reduction response, which could include safe spaces with health and social services available.

• Clark says New Zealand was innovative in its HIV response, when needle exchange was introduced, but has not progressed much since then. "It’s a time of opportunity here in New Zealand, because there will be a referendum on cannabis, which I sincerely hope passes."

• Asked why she didn't do take further steps towards decriminalisation when she was Prime Minister she said the confidence and supply agreements of 2002 and 2005 with United Future prevented her from doing so.

• She says if cannabis is legalised, a regulated regime needs to be put in place that prevents it being commercialised.

• She says legalising cannabis is an important first step in reducing synthetic drug problems because it creates a legal alternative. "If you think, for example, of the most marginalised buying this ghastly, very dangerous so-called synthetic cannabis product — what if they had access to the store as in Switzerland? They could buy a low-dose cannabis."

Simon Shepherd: Welcome back. The Global Commission on Drug Policy says governments around the world need to radically rethink the way they tackle drug problems. The commission’s latest report looks at how careful regulation could be more effective than prohibition with an overall goal of reducing the harm caused by drug use.


Emma Jolliff: It’s an approach Switzerland has taken since the 1990s. Heroin users are provided with safe doses of the drug and supervised injecting rooms. The approach has halved drug-related deaths there. But is it an approach that could work here with the growing problems of synthetic cannabis and methamphetamine? I sat down with Commissioners Ruth Dreifuss, the former President of Switzerland, and our former Prime Minister Helen Clark and started asking why they thought the war on drugs has failed.


Ruth Dreifuss: It has failed because the aim of the war on drugs was to reduce the supply, to reduce the demand and to get rid of it from criminal organisations. And what we have to see after 60 years of this policy is an increase in the supply, an increase in the demand and an empowerment of the criminal organisations. So, I mean, along the aims of this policy, it has failed.

Jolliff: So you’re advocating a total change in the way we approach drugs. What does that change look like?

Dreifuss: On the one side, we have to really reduce the harm caused by drugs consumed under prohibition, in hidden places, in unsafe environments and so on. The second is, really, to offer people treatment they can really comply with, they can really continue to be in a balanced life and recover a balanced life, which means that abstinence is a good aim for many people. It is an aim. But for others, it is another aim that should be realised — and that this is balanced life with consumption of drugs, but not so harmful as it is now. The third element is, really, to decriminalise the consumption of drugs, because criminalising the people is also building obstacles to public health, to social integration. It is fueling also prejudice and discrimination. And fourthly, what is really necessary is to go from a global prohibition of the substances, which is not working, to a regulated market where the state puts rules — more or less, strong rules — to make the access and the use and the production of these substances.

Helen, how would you characterise New Zealand’s drug problem?

Helen Clark: Well, firstly, I think we’re well behind. We were an innovator, going back to the HIV response, when the needle exchange scheme was introduced. And remember, we didn’t decriminalise heroin at that point, but we simply made a safe space for people to come and exchange the needles, so they could use the drugs safely without contracting not only HIV, but Hepatitis C and other conditions. But we haven’t substantially innovated since then. It’s a time of opportunity here in New Zealand, because there will be a referendum on cannabis, which I sincerely hope passes. The medicinal cannabis issue is also in front of Parliament currently. But at the same time, because we have this series of very tragic deaths from the so-called ‘synthetic cannabis’, we need some massive harm-reduction programmes put in place. And that’s where I think we can really learn from what Ruth Dreifuss has done in Switzerland, what’s happening in Sydney, what’s happening in Canada — so many places now where there’s safe consumption spaces where people can come, consume their drug, have it tested and not die. And for me, that’s the bottom line — people should not be dying.

We’ve had around 45 deaths in the last year from synthetic cannabis. They’ve been around — synthetics — for around 20 years. You were Prime Minister for nine of those years. Why didn’t you do more then?

Clark: Well, if you go back to the confidence and supply agreements of 2002 and 2005 with United Future, United Future and Peter Dunne had a very hard line on drugs; they specifically had as a red line that we would not make any moves towards decriminalisation. And it kind of put the item off the agenda. But I also think the drug issues evolve. So now you have the synthetic cannabis crisis. Now back in my time, my understanding is synthetic cannabis was not illegal. We didn’t have deaths until this drug moved into an illegal category, and then, of course, as Ruth Dreifuss has just said, there are very dangerous products being sold on the streets. So to get a grip on that, we need not to throw heavier sentences on people or classify it as Class A, which would criminalise the users. No, we need a massive harm-reduction response, where people can come in to some kind of drop-by, safe space centre and get something that is not going to kill them.

Ruth, as President of Switzerland, you oversaw the introduction of a health-based drug policy there. What were the main changes that were introduced in Switzerland?

Dreifuss: For some people, the risk of addiction is bigger. And if they are dependent on the substance, we have to offer the possibility of treatment. For some, it will be the treatment for abstinence. For others, it will be substitution therapy. And for instance, since we introduced heroin prescription — medical heroin, controlled by the state, under medical supervision with a prescription in a day clinic. So, I mean, yes, this allowed for— I mean, in our country, it’s a large number — 1300 people or something like this — being treated for a year, because they are chronically ill, receiving this prescription, this treatment. But not only that, but a treatment where they are consolidated and empowered in their daily life. And we introduced many harm-reduction measures. But I must really say, our challenge was mainly heroin— injecting heroin consumption. So for all the different substances, we have to find exactly the real response, but the principle of harm reduction will be the same for all the substances — that is, to help the people be responsible for themselves, to protect themselves, to protect their fellows and their colleagues, to feel that they are not criminalised.

So, Helen, our problems are with synthetic cannabis, with methamphetamine. As Ruth said, it’s not heroin. So are we able to apply that northern European model to our own experience?

Clark: Oh yes. I think, as Ruth said, that the harm-reduction principle is the right principle to start with. And then with the best public health advice you have, and inviting people into the safe spaces, to come to some kind of arrangement that is meeting their needs and opening up a conversation also about the range of services that they might require, which may not only be health services. I understand with synthetic cannabis, some of the most marginalised people in our country are affected by this — the people that are sleeping on the street, the homeless, the hungry. So we have quite a lot of issues to deal with. And I think synthetic cannabis, in a way, is the sort of tip of the pyramid, but underneath that are other social issues too.

How do our laws compare internationally around the personal consumption thresholds, for example?

Clark: What does concern me here is that the level deemed to be for personal possession is so low that it may not be realistic for what people are actually consuming. So if they have more than that amount in their possession, they’re automatically deemed to be suppliers. And that can carry quite a heavy sentence. So there’s so many things that need to be looked at in our drug law. But the commission’s position is one should move to decriminalisation and effective state regulation, just as we regulate tobacco, alcohol, road safety, guns — you name it, we regulate. But because of the UN’s conventions pointing to prohibition, there’s been an attempt just to eliminate. That is not going to work. It didn’t work with alcohol; it won’t work with these.

But we still seem harm from alcohol and tobacco, despite them being regulated. We still see commercialisation and the financial incentives of opiates. How do you ensure that doesn’t happen here?

Clark: Well, we do seem harm. But we do, of course, regulate to reduce the harm. And we’ve made incredible progress on tobacco. So fewer and fewer young people are ever smoking a cigarette now. We do have the prospect of a pretty much smoke-free generation. So with the move to the legalisation of cannabis, it will be important to be a regime in place where it can’t be advertised, it can’t be sold to children — you know, there’s a whole lot of rules you can put around it. I should say, New Zealand has quite a small bureaucracy and capacity. I think we should really be scouring the world for the best ideas here. We don’t have to reinvent the wheel. A lot of countries are doing things in this space which we could emulate. But we seem to take a lot of time trying to reinvent things, and I think that’s a waste of time and effort and is holding up much-needed reform.

So, we do have cannabis law reform in the pipeline, but you say what is being proposed is flawed. Why do you say that?

Clark: Well, what I say is that the government bill on therapeutic cannabis was really rather limited. But the good thing is that across the Parliament now, there’s clearly a very large majority for giving access to therapeutic cannabis, and that should not be only for the terminally ill who would like to access it, but also for those who are living with chronic pain or other conditions. So what I would really urge is the parties need to get together and hammer this out. Otherwise, we’re going to go round in circles for quite some time.

What do you say to critics that regulation will condone the use of these substances, dangerous substances?

Dreifuss: Well, we don’t have evidence on that. For the countries who made some steps towards regulation, there is not really an increase in consumption if it is well done.

What does regulation do to the organised crime that we currently see behind drug networks?

Clark: Hopefully puts it out of business. You see, at the moment, the drugs are there in the legal market and totally unregulated.

You’ve called drug use, individual drug use, a victimless crime, haven’t you?

Clark: If it’s considered a crime, it is indeed victimless. What is the point of locking up someone who has a drug habit?

Is decriminalising cannabis a prerequisite to then moving on to regulate those other drugs, like synthetics, like methamphetamine?

Clark: I think it would be a very important step to legalise cannabis, because that then provides a legal option. If you think, for example, of the most marginalised buying this ghastly, very dangerous so-called synthetic cannabis product — what if they had access to the store as in Switzerland? They could buy a low-dose cannabis. You create an alternative with the legalisation of cannabis. So I think it’s a very important first step while this society debates where it wants to go. But I think right now, massive harm reduction, also in safe consumption spaces, would be very important for getting on top of the synthetic cannabis deaths.

It does sound expensive, but where could we see cost savings from this?

Clark: We could see huge cost savings on the prison system. We have had a blowout of prison numbers — again, over the recent nine years of the previous government, where bail law was amended unhelpfully. And of course, we haven’t yet seen the full potential of ‘three strikes and you’re out’; people are still building up towards that. When that hits, if it’s not changed, we will see another blowout in prison numbers. So the savings on imprisonment would be huge from moving to a decriminalisation approach.

One last question for you, Helen. You went to Arohata and met some women there, didn’t you? What was their experience around accessing health services as drug users?

Clark: I think the sad thing to us, visiting and listening to the women in the drug treatment programme at Arohata, was that, for them, it was the first time they’d ever been able to access a service. You shouldn’t have to end up in jail to access a service.

Ruth Dreifuss and Helen Clark, we’ll leave it there. Thank you both very much.

Clark: Thank you.

Dreifuss: Thank you.


Transcript provided by Able. www.able.co.nz


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