In this weeks blog, Katey and Jess take a look at the movement towards shifting our focus to a health based approach to drug use in Aoteaora. Health Not Handcuffs, a coalition of organisations committed to this cause, held two high profile events recently that involved members of our rōpū, and many of us attended. So what did the speakers at these events have to say? How can He Ture Kia Tika contribute to this movement?

What we heard was that prohibition is predicated on white supremacy. US justice reform activists Deborah Small and asha bandele explained how crime and punishment are an expression of colonialist and imperialist powers. Kōrerō continued to focus on the way criminalising people who use drugs has perpetuated harm and prevented vulnerable people from getting the support they need. You can read more on these events in a Spinoff article by Teuila Fuatai called ‘Colonialism, drug laws and incarceration: a tragedy in three parts’.

But what is meant by ‘health’ in the #HealthnotHandcuffs movement? Shifting the focus to ‘health’ does not necessarily equate to an approach that does not cause as much harm as prohibition. As we have learnt through various health inquiries (He Ara Oranga, Wai 2575), the medicalisation and racism embedded across mental health and addiction services has for, many people, not met their needs and only exacerbated their distress. The health not handcuffs dichotomy can create an insinuation to the general public that ‘health’ as it stands in the our current service provision may be the answer to harms that may come from legalisation of cannabis.

We also need to recognise that most use of drugs is recreational and may not lead to harm that requires any health response, and when it is required by whānau for problematic use, a diverse array of approaches needs to be included in our ‘health’ planning. In He Ture Kia Tika we are all about filling kete (baskets) with an array of localised mātauranga (knowledge), strategies and solutions to improve wellbeing – starting with whānau who have experiences of mental distress and addiction, and found themselves in criminal justice spaces. We envisage the collective pūrākau will be able to inform a broad, diverse and inclusive conceptualisation of what a ‘health approach’ may mean should whānau need support.