‘A lack of political courage’: New Zealand’s drug reform efforts flounder

From the outside, the country seems like a likely candidate for progressive drug laws but internally, change is proving hard to bring

After New Zealand’s referendum to legalise cannabis failed, social service agencies across the country are seeking a new path to decriminalisation of drug use, but obstacles are plenty.

On Monday, a broad coalition of social service, advocacy and health organisations released an open letter calling on prime minister Jacinda Ardern to repeal and replace the Misuse of Drugs Act 1975 “to ensure drug use is treated as a health and social issue”. Signatories include the New Zealand Medical Association, Public Health Association, Auckland and Wellington City Missions, Mental Health Foundation, and the Māori Law Society, along with 20 others.

“Our laws prevent people accessing help when they need it, and they leave thousands every year with a conviction that impacts livelihoods, mental health, relationships, travel, housing and education,” the letter says.

From the outside, New Zealand seems like a likely candidate for progressive drug laws. But internally, legislative reform efforts are foundering. Reform of New Zealand’s drug laws – at least when it comes to cannabis – has broad public support. About 80% of New Zealanders have tried cannabis at some point in their life, and a recent poll found 69% supported either full legalisation or decriminalisation.

Looking at drug use more broadly, New Zealand’s Labour government itself commissioned two different reports, both of which recommended a decriminalisation or legalisation approach. Ardern has previously advocated a “public health” approach to drug use, including in comments to the United Nations rejecting a Donald Trump drug war proposal.

Despite all that, New Zealand has not followed other nations – including numerous American states, Canada, and Australia – in legalising cannabis or decriminalising other drug use. Many hopes for that hinged on a referendum at the last election, which asked New Zealanders whether they would support a specific act to legalise cannabis in New Zealand. Ardern said in a pre-election debate that she herself had used cannabis, but stopped short of declaring her support for legalisation. The referendum failed by a margin of about 34,000 votes. Without that mandate Labour is unlikely to pursue new drugs legislation.

“Their gesture today is 12 months too late,” health minister Andrew Little told RNZ when questioned about the letter. He said the government remained constrained by the results of the referendum, and the public would expect a vote on future drug reform.

There is only a narrow pathway forward for new legislation. In March, Justice Minister Kris Faafoi said Labour would allow MPs to vote freely on the issue if it came up as a members’ bill. Members’ Bills are drawn on a ballot in New Zealand, but can skip the ballot process with the support of 61 MPs. Stuff political editor Henry Cooke wrote in March that it was “unlikely that a Labour member would put up a members’ bill on the issue given the party’s position on ‘respecting the referendum.”

Yet the opposition National party health spokesperson Shane Reti expressed interest in decriminalisation this year. “The classical model is the Portugal model. I think we need to have a lot of dialogue on that … and actually see some proposals,” he told Waatea in March. But the National party opted to vote en masse against decriminalisation last year, making them an unlikely source of reform. That leaves the option of a smaller political party drafting a bill. Of them, the Greens are the most obvious candidate.

“There is a lack of political courage on this issue,” says Green MP Chloe Swarbrick, one of the most prominent voices for drug law reform in New Zealand’s parliament. “The views of many politicians privately are not the ones they produce publicly.”

Green Party Drug Law Reform spokesperson Chlöe Swarbrick
Green Party Drug Law Reform spokesperson Chlöe Swarbrick Photograph: Hannah Peters/Getty Images

But at this stage, Swarbrick says she is unwilling to put forward a members’ bill without some level of cross-party support. “The gameplan is to build cross-party consensus – it’s the best way to ensure we have sustainable outcomes,” she says. Swarbrick is reluctant to say that legislative efforts have stalled, as “conversations are still going on behind the scenes”. But she says there is a lack of political willpower from the larger parties.

The current government has tinkered around the edges: in 2019, an amendment to the Misuse of Drugs Act directed police to use exercise discretion in the prosecution of drug-related crimes. The move was heralded at the time as “de-facto decriminalisation” – but it has so far failed to significantly dent police enforcement, and the overall number of drug-related offences processed by police actually increased, according to a study of police statistics compiled by the Drug Foundation. Of the 3,067 people convicted of low-level drug offences from 2019 to 2020, about 38% were Māori, though the Māori population makes up just under 17% of the country’s total.

Signatories to the open letter are hoping to again raise pressure on politicians across parliament for more dramatic action. Their call is for legislative action to remove “all criminal penalties for low-level drug offences”.

“We know that the current criminal justice approach to drugs causes harm, and we know that this harm inequitably impacts Māori,” said Dr Rawiri McKree Jansen, Clinical Director of Māori health provider the National Hauora Coalition, in a statement. Jansen said re-working the legislation was necessary for Māori, who suffer disproportionately from the criminalisation of drug use and addiction.

“Drug convictions and the associated stigma have lifelong consequences, particularly on access to housing, education, and employment. This in turn can have significant impacts on hauora [holistic health], not only for individuals, but also for their whānau [families].”

The letter notes that Māori and Pasifika account for more than half of all cannabis convictions in Aotearoa, despite making up 16% and 8% of the population respectively.

Swarbrick says New Zealand previously took progressive stances on drug regulation – including as the first country in the world to legalise needle exchange services in the 1980s. “We once fancied ourselves as leaders, from a pretty pragmatic and practical perspective,” she said. But today, “we definitely don’t hold the level of progressivity or commitment to evidence-based policy … that we’re often held up as having internationally.”


Tess McClure in Auckland

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