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Police discretion for drug offences needs greater funding

An amendment to the Misuse of Drugs Act which will improve the way Police use discretion for drug offences is a further step towards treating drugs as a health issue. But greater funding for health and social services is urgently needed for the scheme to be successful, Executive Director, NZ Drug Foundation Ross Bell said today.

An amendment to the Misuse of Drugs Act which will improve the way Police use discretion for drug offences is a further step towards treating drugs as a health issue. But greater funding for health and social services is urgently needed for the scheme to be successful, Executive Director, NZ Drug Foundation Ross Bell said.

“This amendment is the most significant, positive change to our drug law in over four decades,” said Mr Bell. “It will clarify in law what is becoming common Police practice. It will ensure the increasing use of alternative resolutions is applied equally across the country and to Māori.

“Police often say, ‘we can’t arrest our way out of New Zealand’s drug problem’ and many Districts have been experimenting with different diversion and health referral schemes. But they also say these efforts are frustrated by a lack of health and social support in many communities.

“For this law change to be meaningful, the government urgently needs to invest resources into drug harm reduction, prevention and treatment services. Currently drug law enforcement receives over three times the funding that health services do, and it’s time the government switched the scales.

“There are already proven services where Police and health agencies work closely to divert people away from the criminal justice system into health and social support. Northland’s Te Ara Oranga Methamphetamine Harm Reduction Programme is a gold standard service which the government should expand to other Police Districts.

This law change follows reports linking dangerous synthetic drugs with over 50 deaths and hundreds of emergency callouts since July 2017. Families report they face barriers getting access to help for a loved one experiencing hazardous use of synthetics.

“We have previously asked the government to double the amount of funding for drug treatment in order to meet the existing high demand for services. This remains an urgent need. The government must ensure it delivers on its commitments to better fund drug services in the upcoming ‘wellbeing budget’.

“The amendment announced today is a fantastic development but doesn’t go far enough. Our drug law is no longer fit-for-purpose; the recent Mental Health and Addictions Inquiry recommended much bigger reforms are needed. A total overhaul of the Misuse of Drugs Act is a priority.

In the Mental Health and Addiction Inquiry report, it is recommended that criminal sanctions for the possession for personal use of controlled drugs be replaced with civil responses, and to support the law change a full range of treatment and detox services is made available. The Government response to recommendations is due this month.

“The government also needs to monitor how the amendment is implemented in all Police Districts to ensure the changes are applied consistently throughout the country. This is especially important for Māori, who currently miss out on many diversion and alternative resolution schemes.”

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