Rational approach long overdue

New Zealand’s drug laws are “stuck in a time warp”, says Associate Professor of Criminology Dr Julian Buchanan.

“The way drugs are classified bears little resemblance to the risk posed. Indeed, alcohol and nicotine are more dangerous than many controlled drugs,” he says.

New Zealand’s drug laws, like other nations, are based on the 1961 UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs. Julian says the convention reflects widely-held beliefs of that era, but while society has moved on, drug law and the classification system haven’t.

Julian spent more than a decade working as a probation officer in the UK, before joining academia. He arrived at Victoria in 2011 to join the Criminology programme in the School of Social and Cultural Studies.

Working in courts, prisons and the probation system, Julian says he saw first-hand the damaging consequences of a drug policy centred on law enforcement, and he questions this approach.

"Using the criminal justice system to prevent drug use makes as much sense as expecting the police to tackle obesity. Alcohol and other drug use are health and social issues, not crime issues.”

He cites Portugal, Switzerland and Holland as three countries that have taken “a rational approach” to drugs policy and have seen considerable benefits. Their respective initiatives include decriminalising personal possession of illicit drugs; providing addicted opiate injectors with clean drugs; and allowing cannabis to be bought in coffee shops.

Julian says society needs to recognise that current drug laws are woefully outdated, not evidenced-based and are doing more harm than good.

“We need a rational, pragmatic and informed 21st century drug policy that is fit-for-purpose and concentrates attention upon problematic drug use rather than recreational use. The recommendations in the 2011 Law Commission Review would be a good starting place.”