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‘Public Interest’ Amendment To Drug Law Needed To Hasten Future Harm Reduction Initiatives

The New Zealand Drug Foundation is calling for a ‘public interest’ exemption to be added to the country’s drug laws to enable quicker and easier establishment of future harm reduction initiatives that could save lives. 

The Foundation’s Executive Director, Sarah Helm, made the call today during a submission in support of the Drug and Substance Checking Bill - new legislation that will permanently legalise drug checking.

“The Drug Foundation supports this world-first legislation,” says Helm. “While drug checking has been happening in other parts of the world, no other country has created dedicated legislation and regulations to enable it. We can be proud.”

In Canada, harm reduction programmes such as drug checking and supervised injecting sites were able to be introduced under a ‘public interest’ clause in the country’s existing laws. The clause allows the government to make an exemption to the country’s drug law if they deem it in the ‘public interest’.

“Our drug laws are broken and don't allow for harm reduction measures. Our two proudest and most effective drug interventions, Needle Exchange and drug checking, have both required special legislative exceptions to be made and both operated in a legal grey area beforehand,” says Helm.

“A ‘public interest’ clause in the Misuse of Drugs Act would be a simple way that we can ensure future harm reduction and potentially life-saving initiatives are able to be rolled out quickly and easily.”

“Rather than going through a lengthy legislative process each time we want to establish a new initiative, a ‘public interest’ clause would enable the Director General of Health to make the call following a scientific approval process. This would mean future initiatives, such as overdose prevention centres or the provision of safer using equipment as alternatives to injecting like pipes, would be much easier to implement.”

In their submission to the Health Select Committee, the Foundation voiced its strong support for the Drug and Substance Checking Bill and congratulated the Government for introducing legislation to clarify the legal status of drug checking - an essential harm reduction service that saves lives.

Helm says the Foundation would like to see drug checking services greatly expanded to ensure equitable access for anyone across Aotearoa who would benefit, run by a range of service providers. 

“Legalising drug checking means services can be expanded to reach more people, which is crucial,” says Helm. “Current services aren’t reaching enough New Zealanders. The main drug checking services are only able to be in a maximum of three places at a time currently because we only have access to three spectrometers, the machines used to test substances.”

Helm says that currently people who are using methamphetamine, who inject drugs or who use synthetic cannabinoids are not able to access drug checking.

“More funding and proactive provision of drug checking is needed to ensure that people who are most at-risk are able to access this vital service. We want to see drug checking made available at Needle Exchanges, in community centres and in many other places.”

Helm says one of the vital components of drug-checking is the harm reduction advice given while drugs are being checked. This kind of advice isn’t generally available anywhere else, and the Foundation is calling for that to be a mandatory requirement of selected providers.

“Funding must be made available to buy more spectrometers, improve access and ensure harm reduction advice can be provided wherever drug checking takes place.”

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