New Zealand Drug Policy: How did a country poised for world leading reform deliver a raft of prohibitionist drug policies?

Julian Buchanan DipSW, MA, PhD
12 min readDec 1, 2020
The TSS Earnslaw Steamship on Lake Wakatipu, Queenstown (Photo by Julian Buchanan)

At the beginning of the decade the New Zealand Law Commission delivered a comprehensive and authoritative 350 page report reviewing New Zealand drug policy. Most significantly the Law Commission recommended that the Misuse of Drug Act be rescinded and replaced with a new law that would be managed by Health not the Criminal Justice System. The report recommended that all personal drug possession be dealt with by way of a caution and social dealing should not result in imprisonment. How has so much ground has been lost over the past decade.

2011: A Mandate for World Leading Drug Reform

In January 2011 New Zealand was on the cusp of transformational drug reform. Coinciding with my arrival to the country, the comprehensive and bold reform recommendations by the 2011 Law Commission Review of the Misuse of Drugs Act (MDA) had just been published. It was a major and carefully considered study carried out by a well respected team. The three year independent inquiry carried gravitas and authority.

The document set the scene for re-imagining and refocusing New Zealand drug policy away from abstinence; away from a brain disease model of addiction; and away from ‘drug free’ propaganda, towards an evidence based approach of living with drugs through legal regulation, harm reduction and human rights. The report called for a major overhaul of drug law and concluded there was a ‘strong argument for adopting a consistent, evidence-based and holistic approach to the regulation of all psychoactive drugs.’ (p.42)

The Law Commission recommended a mandatory cautioning scheme for all personal drug possession, legalisation of all drug related utensils, greater leniency for social dealing, avoiding the use of prison, and rescinding the Misuse of Drugs Act and replacing it with a new Act administered by Health Department not the Justice Department.

The comprehensive Law Commission Report published in 2011, should have kick started a sweeping movement of public debate, education and awareness about the desperate need for drug policy change. It should have been the launch of a decade of drug policy reform informed by a mature drug policy conversations and an ever evolving evidence base.

A key player in shaping and coordinating drug policy is the New Zealand Drug Foundation, the lead drug policy NGO, heavily funded by the government. Their mission statement is “We take the lead in Aotearoa New Zealand educating, advising and standing up for healthy approaches to alcohol and other drugs”.

During this period the Drug Foundation led by the high profile Executive Director Ross Bell, worked closely with the Associate Minister for Health Peter Dunne and steered drug agencies (some might argue manipulated) thinking around drug policy on behalf of the then, National government. The National Party have always remained firmly prohibitionist and anti ‘drugs’. Even at the recent cannabis referendum National MPs were mandated to vote ‘No’ — the 2020 Cannabis Legalisation Referendum was narrowly rejected.

Arguably, despite their heavy dependence on government funding, as the lead NGO, the New Zealand Drug Foundation should have seized the opportunities to rally support for the authoritative Law Commission Review to push, advocate and seek to implement key reform recommendations, to raise public consciousness and awareness about the hypocrisy surrounding drugs, and expose the propaganda, futility and harm from prohibitionist drug policies. The scene had been set for a evidence based, mature and adult conversations about ‘drugs’.

However, a combination of fear, ignorance, ambivalence and vested interest appears to have deterred many key individuals and drug agencies from engaging in an open and honest evidence based discussion around New Zealand drug laws and policies. Maybe this was no surprise given a pervasive culture of dirty politics operating in New Zealand politics at the time. As a result of my activism to challenge prohibitionist driven drug policies (such as the roll out of Drug Abstinence Courts and a creation of new compulsory assessment and treatment of addiction law) and my promotion of harm reduction and human rights based policies (such as naloxone take-home and drug consumption rooms), I discovered I had been frequently slandered and excluded from a number of drug policy events and forums.

In 2012 I was blocked by the New Zealand Drug Foundation from seeing or commenting on their Twitter* and Facebook account, in addition the video of my presentation at the 2011 NZ Drug Policy Symposium was removed from their YouTube website.

The Unspoken U Turn

Instead of evidence based harm reduction policies, by 2012 the Drug Foundation were heralding the roll out in New Zealand of the USA styled Drug Abstinence Courts that involved coercive measures including; frequent random drug testing, alcohol ankle tags and punishments to ‘help’ people they called ‘addicts’ to fight the ‘disease’ and become ‘drug’ free. Following the initial pilot, Drug Abstinence Courts have been extended and expanded to other areas of New Zealand.

By August 2013 the Drug Foundation set up a carefully selected, invite only, multi agency gathering in Wellington to consider and formulate new directions in NZ drug policy. This two day gathering produced a document that seemed to have given up hope or interest in the carefully considered comprehensive recommendations set out in the Law Commission Report. Instead, the Drug Foundation delivered a forty page consensus dossier entitled The Wellington Declaration. A document that sought the compromise of ‘a broad church’ while side stepping: the key reform recommendation and work of the Law Commission; overlooking much needed harm reduction measures such as naloxone take home and drug checking; and ignoring the very dubious policies of meth-house testing, drug testing beneficiaries and drug presence testing of drivers.

In November that year the Drug Foundation hosted their 2nd Cannabis Conference on Health Risks in which they invited anti-drug propagandist Kevin Sabet from SAM USA for a second time. This time he was invited to speak about preventing and treating cannabis use. This was a wasted opportunity at best. It should have been a conference to enlighten agencies, the media and the public on alternative thinking beyond cannabis prohibition, and begin the much needed public debate on cannabis legalisation.

In 2013 New Zealand introduced the Psychoactive Substances Act 2013 (PSA2013) that the Associate Health Minister Peter Dunne claimed would be the ‘knock out blow to drugs’. The PSA2013 would end once and for all, the cat and mouse game that required government to outlaw each new drug separately under the MDA1975. Under the PSA EVERY new psychoactive substance (NPS) is illegal to possess before the substance is even created. It introduced new possession and supply offences and allowed warrantless entry for suspected production. So now under the PSA instead of having to prove a substance was dangerous in order to ban it, the new Act automatically banned every future psychoactive substance unless it can be proven to be safe, thus reversing the onus of proof.

With unmerited positivity, the PSA2013 was sold to reformers by the Executive Director of the New Zealand Drug Foundation as as world leading reform, because theoretically, if a psychoactive substance could be proved safe, it could in theory, be legally regulated.

The legislation was unanimously backed by the National Party because it widened the net and the powers of prohibition — and not surprisingly since the inception of the PSA2013 not a single NPS has ever been deemed safe enough to be regulated, due to the impossible hoops and hurdles demanded. After the loosely managed legal high industry was prohibited and legal highs removed from sale by the PSA, New Zealand’s ‘world leading’ legislation resulted in dramatic increases in the now underground synthetic drug fatalities, with around 70 deaths over a two year period.

During this period drug testing beneficiaries, drug testing employees and drug testing houses (primarily for traces of methamphetamine) became rampant, resulting in redundancies, suspension of benefits and evictions. It spawned intolerance, hostility and many new drug testing businesses. There was little protest, virtually no user voice and little or no significant outcry against these injustices from key stakeholders.

In 2017 the tough abstinence and intolerance approach, at the heart of New Zealand drug policy, was bolstered further by a new law Substance Addiction (Compulsory Assessment and Treatment) Act 2017 to force people to get assessment and treatment for addiction, despite the lack of evidence based to support compulsory treatment, and despite the human rights concerns. The Act crept in quietly and little was said.

In 2018 to draw attention to the dominant misguided focus on the risks posed by drugs when the greater harms are caused by prohibitionist drug policies, I published an opinion piece in New Zealand’s award winning independent magazine ‘Spinoff’, entitled Stop blaming banned drugs for the devastation caused by prohibition’. By chance, I discovered the article I saw published had some days after publication been subsequently edited following an undisclosed approach by the New Zealand Drug Foundation. This is the paragraph that had been removed from my opinion piece:

“Drug policy development and debate was carefully managed and controlled by a partnership between the Associate Minister and the lead NGO drug agency, which meant harm reduction drug policies and drug reform rarely went beyond ideas for discussion”

These hidden and behind the scenes actions are illustrative of the management and control of drug policy debates throughout this decade.

Green Party Referendum to Legalise Cannabis

So this was the context within which in 2018 the Labour/Green/NZFirst Coalition announced New Zealand would consider legalising recreational cannabis via a Referendum. This move was not instigated by key drug policy stakeholders, but by a pledge in the Green Party manifesto. The public was hardly best prepared. To the contrary the public had been spoon fed prohibitionist propaganda for most of the past of a decade — with none of the main agencies or NGOs seriously supporting or arguing for the robust drug reforms recommended in the 2011 Law Commission Review or indeed for cannabis legalisation.

It is also disappointing that the campaign to legally regulate cannabis failed to expose and address the real issue at stake — prohibition! Instead, the YES campaign colluded with a prohibitionist propaganda, focused on cannabis and confused association with causation by presenting cannabis as dangerous.

The leading YES campaigner Chloe Swarbrick MP said: I’ve seen the harm illegal cannabis can cause. In my extended family, in flatmates, in my community and in my volunteering with homeless youth”

A prohibitionist discourse then dominated the YES campaign approach, leading with slogans such as: “Regulate cannabis to reduce the harms it can causeLet’s get cannabis under control by regulating it, and ‘Protect our young people.

These soundbites from the YES campaign misleadingly implied cannabis was out of control and dangerous, when the real problem is that prohibition is out of control. It is prohibition that is dangerous not cannabis. It is prohibition that is ruining lives not cannabis. That is not to say cannabis doesn’t pose risks, but those risks should have been accurately portrayed and based on research evidence not anecdotes that perpetuate prohibitionist propaganda. Regardless of whatever risks cannabis poses, it is already here in Aotearoa and legal regulation is unlikely to have any significant impact on current levels of use. Legal regulation would however; improve quality control, allow users to know THC levels, and more easily seek help and advice if needed. Not acquiring a criminal record would help enormously with life opportunities too!

Hardly surprising then, so many public and media discussions centred on the risks, effects and harms of ‘introducing’ cannabis rather than the risks, effects and harms of prohibition. The public were duped, the referendum was never going to introduce cannabis — cannabis is already here in New Zealand and widely used. However, the focus upon the risks of cannabis rather than the harms and futility of prohibition, perpetuated the myth that prohibition is successfully controls cannabis supply and demand. It does nothing of the sort.

The Damage Caused by Prohibition

Cannabis like all drugs, including alcohol and caffeine, carries risks, but let us be clear about the significant additional harms created by prohibition. It means the person has:

1. No idea of the strength of the drug.

2. No guarantee about the purity or indeed content of the drug purchased — it could be contaminated or even mixed with toxic ingredients that could cause serious harm, even death.

3. Has to buy the drug ‘underground’ — exposing the person to the vagaries of a potentially dangerous criminal underworld with no legal recourse for consumer protection.

4. Is placed at risk of acquiring a criminal record for drug possession — which would have lifelong damaging consequences upon employment prospects, education, insurance, travel and housing.

5. Buying, using and/or sharing drugs puts the person at risk of serious criminal sentences such as a Drug Court order with a residential rehabilitation requirement, random drug testing — even imprisonment.

6. The drug has to be used in secret. For some people this may mean using in an isolated location which could be potentially dangerous — such as a condemned building, under a railway bridge, by a river etc.

7. Has to hide their use of the drug making it more difficult to manage and harder to seek help, support or advice if problems arise.

8. If the person has a life-limiting medical condition that’s untreatable and can’t afford and/or can’t access expensive legal medical cannabis — trying to acquire a regular reliable supply underground places further strain and pressure upon the sick person.

9. Enforcement drug laws unfairly target poor people, young people and indigenous people — and once a young person who is already disadvantaged gets a criminal record for drugs — opportunities become severely limited.

10. Using valuable police time to scour the countryside to dig up plants, stop and search people, carry out dawn raids, — time that could be better spent catching criminals and protecting victims from physical/sexual violence, trespass, theft and burglary.

11. Prohibition enforcement fuels an extremely lucrative underground illegal market where disputes and turf wars can’t get resolved by arbitration, consumer rights or the courts — disputes get resolved by violence, knives, baseball bats and guns.

12. Drugs such as cannabis are used widely, but the entire market from seeds, growing, the equipment, the preparation, marketing, packaging and profit is entirely unregulated, unaccountable, underground and undeclared — this existing lucrative underground business is losing the country millions of dollars in tax revenue and employment opportunities.

Courting the USA drug policy ‘experts’

Asking an ill informed public who have over the past decade been drip fed a raft of prohibitionist anti ‘drug’ policies to vote on Cannabis legalisation was always going to be risky. The NZ public have been duped by relentless prohibitionist propaganda for decades, and it has gone largely unchallenged. Since the Misuse of Drugs Act in 1975 — and apart from some knee jerk reactions to the HIV/AIDS threat in the 1980s that resulted in accommodating needle exchanges and substitute prescribing, US styled anti-drugs propaganda has dominated NZ drug policies, leaving the public ill-prepared and ill-informed to understand the cannabis referendum issues.

Since 2011 numerous influential speakers have been invited over from the USA to reinforce abstinence and prohibitionist approaches, including Dr Kevin Sabet President of SAM USA (Smart Approaches to Marijuana), Dr Tom McLellan ex USA Deputy Drug Tsar, the late Christopher Kennedy Lawford the USA in-recovery champion and the USA Superior Judge Peggy Hora and her team who run drug abstinence courts based on the brain disease model of addiction. The strong connections and support from the USA prohibitionists are firmly established here in New Zealand and continue to shape our drug policies. USA propaganda was fundamental to supporting the cannabis ‘No’ vote.

On the back of a major Law Commission review that recommended in 2011 rescinding the existing drug law, the past decade in New Zealand should have been so different. The groundwork for major reform should have been done but it wasn’t. The Cannabis Referendum should have been a done deal. Instead, in the 2010s we witnessed a tidal wave of unchallenged prohibitionist policies that made mature and informed rational discussion on legal regulation of cannabis, let alone all drugs, extremely difficult. Thanks to the Green Party New Zealand became the first country in the world to ask voters to legalise cannabis, unfortunately however, we were ill prepared. New Zealand became the first country in the world to reject cannabis legalisation.

On the Wrong Side of History

Prohibition is such a unpleasant devious beast. We had an opportunity here in New Zealand a decade ago with the Law Commission Review, to begin to end the tyranny of prohibition. We failed abysmally to take it, largely because the National government in power at the time, refused to consider an evidence based approach to drug policy, but also because the NGO’s and agencies in the health and drugs field so quickly dropped the ‘reform ball’, preferring instead to play safe and sit on the fence, to accommodate the prohibitionist agendas, energy was diverted into developing international links with USA drug policy advisors, and into securing funding to attend international drug policy agendas via the UNODC (CND), which enabled a delegation from New Zealand to take a trip to Vienna.

A decade later we had another opportunity to be on the right side of history (as New Zealand so often has been in the past on important issues), but this opportunity was squandered; partly by a YES campaign that adopted a prohibitionist discourse and placed cannabis in the dock - when prohibition should have been in the dock. However, in the main, the Referendum was lost because of the lack of commitment, education and dialogue about drug reform in the preceding decade.

Instead, ministers, NGO’s and key stakeholder courted prohibitionists, abstentionists and recovery gurus, and rolled out a raft of prohibitionist drug policies. We have lost ground internationally on drug policy when so much more could and should, have been achieved.

*The new Executive Director of the New Zealand Drug Foundation, Sarah Helm discovered a whole series of people who had been blocked on the Foundation twitter account without explanation. My twitter account and many others was unblocked by the Foundation in May 2021



Julian Buchanan DipSW, MA, PhD

Retired Professor, international expert in drug policy, researcher, public speaker, writer and ex UN advisor.