Drug Law Reform: Lessons from the New Zealand Experience

15 Agosto 2010
Informe sobre políticas

In 2007, the Government of New Zealand entrusted an independent agency, the National Law Commission, to review the country’s drug law. New Zealand’s approach to drug law reform may provide lessons for other countries.

In 2007, the Government of New Zealand entrusted an independent agency, the National Law Commission, to review the country’s drug law. The Commission will  present a final report which is likely to feature a new approach to personal pos­session and use of drugs placing less emphasis on conviction and punish­ment and more on the delivery of effective treat­­ment. New Zealand’s approach to drug law reform may provide les­sons for other countries.

Key Points

  • The independent National Law Commis­sion has reviewed New Zealand's existing drug laws against the official drug policy and has formulated a series of recommen­dations for the Government to consider.
  • The Commission believes there is signifi­cant scope for a more effective regulatory approach for personal drug use within the framework of the UN drug conventions. This will allow to direct drug users away from the criminal justice system and into education, assessment and treatment.
  • The Commission's final report is likely to serve as a blueprint for drug law reform. Many of the recommendations will be applicable to other countries attempting to steer a balance between enacting pro­gressive drug law reform while complying with their international treaty obligations.
  • Politicians should devise legislation on the basis of evidence rather than populist sentiment. Civil society and the media can help to ensure that the drug law reform debate remains grounded on the evidence and does not become polarised.

Conclusion

Over a hundred years ago, New Zealand be­came the first country in the world to give women the right to vote. In the mid 1980s, it enacted bold anti-nuclear legislation, de­crimi­nalised homosexuality and established needle exchange and opioid substitution programmes for intravenous drug users. Yet sadly, its drug laws have remained frozen in a 1970s paradigm. It is time for these to be dragged into the 21st century to better sup­port and enhance drug policy.

As a small and geographically isolated coun­try on the periphery of the world, New Zea­land’s review of its drug laws represents an opportunity for it to once again join the ranks of progressive countries in terms of innova­tive, fair and effective social legislation.

Drug law reform is a socially divisive issue but the approach that New Zealand is taking may offer some useful lessons for other coun­tries. Tasking an independent and well re­spected entity to research the issues and for­mulate a series of recommendations for the Government to consider may partially depo­liticise the issue.

While it is still premature to ascertain the extent to which actual drug law change will occur, the Law Commission’s comprehensive issues paper and final report is likely to serve as a blueprint for drug law reform in New Zea­land for the next few years. Many of its recommendations will also be applicable to other countries attempting to steer a balance between enacting progressive drug law re­form while complying with their interna­tio­nal treaty obligations.

Even within the framework provided by the existing UN conventions, the Law Commis­sion concludes that there is significant scope to put in place a more effective regulatory approach for personal drug use. A key aspect of this is to provide greater opportunity to direct people who use drugs away from the criminal justice system and into education, assessment and treatment.

Despite the excellent work done by the Law Commission, there is no guarantee that any of its final recommendations will be adopted by the Government. If New Zealand is to achieve progressive drug law reform, it will require its politicians to be guided by the best available evidence, not by populist sentiment. In this regard, civil society, NGOs and the media have an integral role to play in ensur­ing that debate relating to drug law reform remains balanced and grounded firmly on the evidence.

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