The myth buster

Dr Fiona Hutton wasn’t at Victoria University of Wellington long before people were emailing the Vice-Chancellor, demanding he sack her. She had appeared in the media talking about clubbers and recreational drugs. “I’d only been here a year or so. I thought, ‘Hmm, this is going well.’”

Dr Fiona Hutton captured on the LCD screen of a video camera.

Fiona is a senior lecturer in the Institute of Criminology, where one of her research interests is dispelling myths about drugs.

Understandably, her early experiences left her a little bashful about the media. But last year, increasingly frustrated at the level of misinformation demonstrated by not only the media but also politicians and policymakers, she steeled herself to return to the fray in order to set the facts straight.

“The vast majority of drug use we know about globally is recreational use of cannabis—the use of other drugs such as cocaine, ecstasy, amphetamines, and heroin is way behind cannabis users in terms of numbers,” says Fiona.

“Most drug use is non-problematic, recreational, and does not cause harm to the drug user, their communities, or to society. However, we are often presented with the opposite picture through moral-panic-type reporting, which serves to fuel public anxieties about particular groups such as drug-using beneficiaries.”

Reforming drug laws would enable us to treat drug use as a health issue, not a criminal one, which would produce far better outcomes, says Fiona.

In her drive to raise public awareness on the subject, she has appeared on television and radio and written articles for a number of high-profile media outlets. Unlike Fiona’s first time in the media, no one has called for her dismissal; on the contrary, she’s had nothing but supportive responses.

“Somebody from the place where I get my hair cut said, ‘I saw you on breakfast telly. I thought you were great. You said some things I’d never thought about before.’ So that’s positive. That’s the sort of wider New Zealand the politicians think are really punitive and opposed to drug law reform.”

One of Fiona’s most recent articles highlighted the need for the Government to ensure voters are properly informed of all the issues before its proposed 2020 referendum on legalising cannabis.

“A lot of people don’t know what the issues are. If they don’t use illegal drugs and don’t know anybody who uses them, it’s a bit off their radar. They’re like, ‘What’s the problem with criminalising people? What’s the big deal?’ So we need to tell them what a big deal it is. I suppose in a way that’s also behind my embracing of the media. Let’s just get some debate out there.”