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Social service and health organisations call for outdated drug laws to be overhauled

Dozens of social service and health organisations are calling on the government for a major overhaul of current drug laws.

The organisations including the Medical Association, Public Health Association and Māori health providers want to see drug use treated as a health issue and barriers surrounding medicinal cannabis treatment removed.

Many patients in New Zealand and Australia have been unable to explore and experience medical cannabis treatment due to two main barriers: access and affordability.

This leads many patients in need to the black market and into the justice system.

Will Douglas, Chief Operating Officer of NUBU Pharmaceuticals, says "Misuse of Drugs (Medicinal Cannabis) Regulations 2019 was a great first step to improving access to medicinal cannabis treatment, but a lot more work needs to be done so that the promise of the legislation lives up to reality."

A recent poll revealed that most New Zealanders support decriminalising cannabis despite the referendum results last year which saw 50.7 percent of voters oppose the proposed Cannabis Legalisation and Control Bill.

A survey by UMR for the Helen Clark Foundation, which campaigned for drug law reform in the cannabis referendum, found 69 percent supported legalisation or decriminalisation.

In the referendum last year, only 48.4 percent voted to legalise cannabis.

Now more than 25 health, addiction and social justice organisations have rallied together under the shared belief that the current drug laws are not fit for purpose and need to be overhauled.

The New Zealand Medical Association, Public Health Association, Hāpai te Hauora, the Māori Law Society, JustSpeak and city missioners have signed an open letter to the government calling for an urgent drug reform.

The letter echoes the findings from the government-initiated Mental Health and Addiction Inquiry, expert Justice Advisory Group and the Law Commission.

Māori health organisation National Hauora Coalition clinical director Dr Rawiri McKree Jansen spoke to RNZ about the disastrous impact of the current drug laws and why decriminalisation or legalisation is needed.

"It affects employment, education, income, access to housing - and it's practically unnecessary, many other jurisdictions around the world are taking a harm reduction approach."

Dr McKree Jansen said Māori suffered the most.

"Māori [are] more likely to be stopped and talked to by police, more likely to be charged, more likely to be found guilty, and more likely to receive a harsher sentence - that's our justice system. We need to decouple that from what is a basic health need."

RNZ spoke to addiction specialist Professor Doug Sellman of the University of Otago who said there was clearly a public appetite for change and the government should make it happen.

"It's just a no brainer for the government to have a cross-party agreement about bringing in decriminalisation along the lines of Portugal, who did this in 2001 with some very positive results for their society."

Sarah Helm, the executive director of the New Zealand Drug Foundation said the Misuse of Drugs Act is an outdated mess despite multiple reforms.

"However we still fundamentally have a piece of legislation that at its core, criminalises thousands of New Zealanders every year.”

According to Helm, there are 1.2 million New Zealanders who are at risk of using drugs problematically, while about 100,000 are in a position where they need some treatment or support.

Helm said the Foundation wants to support a drug law which would better support users to get help.

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