Drug Reform Now - Wisdom from Lived Experience

June 2, 2021

I did not know what to expect walking into the Drug Foundation symposium at Parliament and I often feel like a fish out of water at these events, despite any University qualifications or job titles I now have. Potentially this is because I identify as having lived experience with drug related incarceration and the stigma of that still dwells inside of me. However, it did not take long before I began to warm up and realise most of the people at the symposium were fighting for positive drug reform and I began to feel at home.

I remember reading “Chasing the Scream” about four years ago, which is a book about the history of drug prohibition by Johann Hari. I recall feeling conflicted and thinking as an addict in recovery, how can I agree with drug decriminalisation and legalisation when I have seen so much harm caused by drug use? I, like many people, have been skeptical. However it’s at places like the Drug Foundation symposium where I am reminded that this is the point; our current drug laws do not work, they cause harm to everyone from the drug addict who can’t seek help because of stigma or legalities, the families torn apart by violence and crime (often driven by underground drug systems), to wider society who has to pay for humans to be caged rather than rehabilitated. There are also those who just enjoy taking drugs and I don’t have any issues with recreational use. Under prohibition everyone is generally forced to purchase their drugs on the black market risking their health from non tested substances and their livelihoods should they get caught possessing or passing these drugs onto friends. So as a past sceptic I now see that something undoubtedly needs to change.

I was also reminded that medical marijuana and CBD need to be made more accessible. The high price of CBD oil and challenges obtaining medical marijuana legally make it inaccessible to most people, especially those in marginalised communities and the many people who are too sick to work. I have no problem saying I believe that in this case the law is deeply harmful and I admire those who break it to help others in pain. What saddens me is that people are then put through the justice system for trying to heal illness’. I found Dr Huhana Hickey’s talk about these issues very thought provoking and left with an increased fire in my belly for drug reform. I know all too well how hard it is to purchase CBD. I have a chronic illness yet I am one of the lucky ones who can afford to purchase it legally. However I still need to weigh up whether I can afford to take it on any given day.

One of the humbling moments at the conference was when I heard various people speaking about why they were attending. Everyone seemed to have their own story of how drugs had affected them or their whanau and the need for change was deep.

I was amazed by the knowledge in the room and I can only hope this kōrero can be extended into the community via outlets other than the mainstream media. What we are shown on the news does not reflect reality and keeps people stuck in the status quo. I also believe we need to share more stories of lived experience so we can all understand what it’s like for those who have experienced the failings of drug policy first hand. I was surprised at some of the reactions in our group work team who did not know that in the remand unit in prison there are little to no programmes to help or rehabilitate. We pay over $120,000 a year to house those in prison yet we are not helping these people heal. My wish is that we may all start opening our minds to how things could be different. I think most people will agree we can do better and this conference helped me see tangible ways to do this such as more drug education and less incarceration as well as taking a health based approach, at least as a stepping stone for bringing people together as well as reducing stigma and drug harm. 

My hope is that no matter what view you currently take that you might do your own research into decriminalisation, with an open mind. Thank you to the Drug Foundation, JustSpeak as well as the many AOD and reform organisations for all the life saving work you do.

- Jess Hastings, JustSpeak Volunteer