Demonising drug users

Why is cannabis use illegal but alcohol consumption encouraged in New Zealand? Our researchers are exploring our treatment of drugs and drug users.

Are we addicted to demonising drug users?

Negative images of drug use are everywhere: meth pipes, needles and syringes, immorality, violence and crime are all linked to illegal drug use.

But Dr Fiona Hutton, a senior lecturer in Victoria’s School of Social and Cultural Studies and a researcher in Victoria’s Institute of Criminology, says the reality is not so simple.

“We are addicted to demonising some drug users, forgetting that most of us, those who use tobacco, alcohol and caffeine, are drug users ourselves. It seems that we love drugs but hate some drug users.

“Years of stigmatising illegal drug users has created unrealistic, misinformed ideas about drugs and those who use them.”

Dr Hutton’s focus is on challenging some of the myths and misinformation in New Zealand society with the aim of reducing the harm that drugs can sometimes do.

She also studies the effect of our attitudes to drugs on justice, questioning whether it is right that only some drug users are criminalised in our society.

“Why can a cannabis user receive a criminal record affecting employment and travel for a lifetime, effectively a life sentence, while using alcohol, itself a harmful drug, is actively encouraged?”

How problematic?

A recent Ministry of Health survey shows that 1.4 million people in New Zealand—around a quarter of our population—has tried cannabis. Rates of cannabis use are similar in other countries with the latest World Drug Report (2017) noting that one-quarter of a billion people worldwide use drugs.

Of those, says Dr Hutton, only 0.6 percent say their drug use causes them any problems.

“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.”

“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 media moral panic type reporting, which serves to fuel public anxieties about particular groups such as drug-using beneficiaries.

“We forget that we are all drug users. The vast majority of us use alcohol, tobacco and I can’t think of many New Zealanders who can do without their daily dose of caffeine in their coffee.

“In fact, alcohol and tobacco cause much more harm to users and communities than illegal drugs do.”

Law reform

Drug law reform continues to be a controversial topic. Dr Hutton says compelling evidence that prohibition itself causes harm is often ignored.

She says research demonstrates that drug law reform would reduce harm to drug users and society.

“By reforming drug laws we could actually help people by treating drug use as a health issue, not a criminal one.”

She cites the example of Portugal, which decriminalised all drugs for personal use in 2001. Since then, drug use has not risen significantly and deaths from drug overdoses have dropped sharply.

The New Zealand Drug Foundation recently proposed that cannabis in New Zealand be legalised and all other drugs decriminalised, an approach that Dr Hutton says has merit.

“I think we need to have an informed debate and to try something new, as what we are doing at the moment isn’t working. We are not effectively tackling the harms from drug use.

“The majority of drug offences in New Zealand that are prosecuted are for cannabis possession—are we really going to carry on wasting our time?”

To find out more

If you have any questions about Victoria University's research into drug use, contact:

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