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​What Did This Week’s Mega UN Drug Summit Mean for Kiwi Stoners?

We asked NZ entrepreneur Derek Handley who was at the UN special assembly on behalf of the Support Don't Punish Campaign.

Derek Handley, businessman and forward thinker with Support Don't Punish. Photo supplied.

New Zealand's Associate Minster of Health, Peter Dunne, stood up at the United Nations this week and told the world's nations to go for " boldness" on drug policy.

Dunne was addressing the United Nations General Assembly on Special Session on World Drug Problem (UNGASS) and he basically acknowledged a bold solution to the war on drugs failure would never come out of this pow-wow. "Unless [the talks] result in tangible actions, that make a difference to people's lives, they will be just words, and critics will hold them up as further evidence of an international system that promises much but achieves little," warned Dunne.

But there's hope. According to Kiwi entrepreneur Derek Handley, who was at the UN, Dunne's speech indicates a potential shift in New Zealand drug policy. Handley has a nose for big coming changes before anyone else, and these days he's working with the Support Don't Punish Campaign.

VICE spoke to Derek about where the world is at on drugs and what the meeting means for New Zealand.

VICE: Hey Derek. Fill us in on what Support Don't Punish is about?
Derek Handley: It's a global grassroots campaign supported by over 150 not-for-profits. Essentially it's advocating for all countries to shift their approach from one of punishment and incarceration and stigmatisation as a default way to war on drugs to an approach that's underpinned by a public health strategy.

Part of what we're trying to do is build a network of more influential cultural personalities to get up front on this issue to start advocating and lobbying for their local policy makers to reassess approaches. In New Zealand we've got Dr Lance O'Sullivan , New Zealander of the Year. My goal is to go around a number of different countries and recruit people like him.

What did you think of Peter Dunne's address to the General Assembly?
We were pretty excited about him advocating for boldness. It'll be interesting to see what that means in New Zealand. What kind of policies is he going to propose to live up to this promise of boldness? I think it's a really positive indicator.

How hopeful are you that this summit is contributing to a shift?
I'm not an expert in how the UN works but the number of countries that are voicing these kinds of philosophy shifts are increasing. The pioneers of the war on drugs like Columbia and Mexico are radically changing their approach. A goal with this kind of UN event is trying to increase the momentum and direction that the progressive countries want to go toward.

Equally there are all the countries that still believe zero tolerance is the right approach. There are, of course, still countries that have the death penalty for someone who possesses drugs. I think the most disappointing thing in the lead up to UNGASS was that there was no reference to the death penalty in the document that was formulated as a starting point for the meeting.

Will this UN meeting mean anything for drug users in New Zealand?
Peter Dunne doesn't come home on Friday and things change right away but I think that he may have had a series of meetings that helped him come back with a toolkit of different strategies to consider for New Zealand. If Peter Dunne has put himself out there that he wants to be up front, I think that bodes well.

Now you're a business guy. There is money to be made on a legal market for drugs, is that a motivation for you?
Regulation doesn't necessarily have to be like the alcohol market where it's a profiteering model. It could be a hybrid model where it's a social enterprise or a non-profit model. Something where there is no commercial gain. You run it profitably but all profits might be driven back into society for social issues. That's something to consider.

What impact would a support-don't-punish approach have on law enforcement?
If you designed the police force to address the issue today from a support perspective it would be very different. I think in every cop car you would have people that were trained in mental health, psychology, or counselling.

Once you start digging into it I see how what you're used to thinking about in shifting systems in the business world relates to a new approach to drugs.
Like the B Team approach, it's a big idea. How do you reframe what people expect in business? This is a similar kind of evolution.

The drug policy is so interesting from a global perspective. It intersects with so many issues of our generation that we haven't got right. It intersects with HIV/AIDS and hepatitis. It intersects with racial justice. Every country that has a punishment approach ends up with way more Maori or black kids in prison. It intercepts with over-incarceration which is costing countries hundreds of billions of dollars to keep people in jail who probably shouldn't be in jail. It intersects with all the sustainable development goals at the UN for alternate development because all the farmers are being aerial bombed when they're doing their crops.

Do we just need to shrug and go, humans are going to take drugs and that's not necessarily a bad thing?
Drugs can be a bad thing. They can be a very bad thing but it's about reducing the harm they cause. A drug-free world is a pipe dream. It's like we're having the same conversation they did with Prohibition and Al Capone ruled Chicago. We haven't figured out how this is any different. Except that there's a lesson to be learnt that we don't need to go to a commercial profit market if we don't want to. There's an opportunity to do it differently.

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