The New Zealand Drug Foundation has been in the forefront of drug policy debates in New Zealand for more than 25 years. We interviewed its director, Ross Bell, about the chances of reforming drug laws in his country.
Drugreporter: What is your personal background, how did you get involved in drug policy reform?
Ross Bell: My story is a bit boring: I didn’t have a burning desire to do drug policy, but was involved in advocacy and social justice stuff when my job was advertised. So I had the policy skills and thought I could just read a book about the drugs. But as we all know, drug policy is a damn compelling area of advocacy, so I quickly fell in love with the work.
New Zealand is one of the countries with the highest rates of marijuana smokers in the world. Why do Kiwies smoke so much?
It enhances the experience of our great outdoors and our wonderful musicians! That’s the million dollar question to which I don’t have an easy answer: we actually have pretty similar rates to other Western countries (Canada, Australia and the UK) – there’s only a couple of percent in it. Maybe we’re more honest when we answer those surveys, maybe we like ‘risk taking’. Plus we’re a fun-loving bunch.
New Zealand has a repressive drug law that criminalises drug use. What is the public opinion about the regulation of cannabis? What do the polls say?
The public mood for change is now pretty high – our latest poll (August 2017) shows 65% support either decriminalization or legalization, and that’s pretty consistent regardless of where people sit on the political spectrum. I think that’s because New Zealand voters are smart: they see our current approach doesn’t work, and is especially harmful to younger people and Maori (first nations); they see reforms happening around the world and know the sky doesn’t fall in; they have an inherent commitment to fairness. Our politicians haven’t yet caught up with that mood – but I reckon that might change really soon.
A few years ago we filmed about an innovative law that would regulate the market of new psychoactive substances in New Zealand (watch it here!). But the law has never been implemented. Why not, and what is the situation now?
It’s complicated. The law is still on the books, so I’m hopeful we can get it working again soon. There are a couple of barriers, including difficulties around animal testing (don’t ask!) and an absence of an industry willing to invest to getting a product to market. The law was in place for a short time with products being sold from stores, but a public backlash very close to an election resulted in Parliament stuffing things up. We warned against that saying a black market will flourish. And it has. And it’s a very dangerous one now – New Zealand recently experienced 10 deaths (yes, you read that correctly) from synthetic cannabinoids (it seems to be very high concentration of AMB-Fubinaca).
Recently you came up with a model drug law that proposed a Portugal-style decriminalisation model and a pathway to a regulated cannabis market. What was the public reception of this?
We were overwhelmed with the positive media attention this received – which is what gives me hope that the public is ready for change. A lot of ground work has paid off: mainstream media are very aware of our positions, different political parties know where we stand, the wider health sector have been engaged – the timing is right. And I think we’ve approach this from a really pragmatic position and have moved the conversation from “should we reform” to “what should the reform look like”. This has given the public something really concrete to sink their teeth into – we can now debate specifics, such as should the purchase age be 18 or 21, how many plans can you grow yourself?, etc.
Would legalizing natural cannabis fix the problem of synthetic cannabinoids?
I would have said yes to this a few years ago: the risk profile of natural cannabis is really well known, but we made the synthetic stuff, which has gotten more and more dangerous, too freely available. When that first happened people were asking “why are we legalizing this fake shit and not the natural stuff.” That in itself was good for the law reform debate. But now, I think the cohort of people who choose to use the synthetic stuff are after the type of high that that gives them. Generally we’re talking about very disenfranchised young people or people living rough, who just want to forgot about shit – and the current synthetic cannabinoid products give them that (a few years ago they would have been sniffing petrol, or drinking cheap spirits). I would still like to see a regulated market for cannabis.
Associate Health Minister Peter Dunne, a strong supporter of drug policy reform in New Zealand has just resigned from parliament. How will this affect your efforts to reform drug laws?
He deserves a break, he was a politician for 33 years. So we wish him well – he was a very strong ally and helped shift the public debate as the lone voice of reason in Parliament. I worry what politician might pick up this work, but Peter needs to be acknowledged for shifting the reform ground a long way. We have an election this September which might bring in some new blood to take the debate to the next stage.
You are a veteran of the Commission on Narcotic Drugs, you come to Vienna every year to attend the annual UN drug meeting. How do you see progress in the international level?
The first thing I would say is that the NGO community has got good game now on the global stage – we are professional, we know our stuff and member states listen to us. I think NGOs should take credit for shifting the global debate. Looking back I think we can see great progress has been made. Certainly in the language of the debates at CND and the type of resolutions that are being passed. There’s even a maturity in how the resolutions are negotiated. I think our biggest frustration should be that while the debate is shifting at CND, at UNGASS etc, there is still a tonne of bad and horrible stuff happening in different countries. And the fine discussions at CND don’t seem to be shifting that. So I think NGOs need to figure out how to improve their bilateral strategy to influence at that really practical level.
Interview by Peter Sarosi