Drug Courts a giant step closer

I go to quite a few conferences and, to be honest, most of them are rubbish. A pretty standard format is researchers taking turns to get up and tell us about their work. Sometimes interesting, sometimes not, but essentially always geared around the researchers’ need to disseminate results (and often they only get to attend if they’re presenting).

I’ve often thought it’d be great to design a conference based on the needs of those who’ll be attending. What do they need to hear about and discuss? What will be the best ways of structuring the time together so this is achieved? I’m thrilled to say I’ve just spent a couple of days at a conference that accomplished this superbly.

One of the many recommendations in the Law Commission’s report on the Misuse of Drugs Act was for the introduction of courts for Alcohol and other Drugs. Officials have been working with the judiciary to plan a pilot and, later this year, Drug Courts will be established in Auckland for a maximum load of 100 ‘participants’ and a five-year pilot period.

Two of the judges involved, Their Honours Lisa Tremewan and Emma Aitken, had researched Drug Courts in the United States and had been to a great conference about them over there. When they posed themselves the question “wouldn’t it be great for everyone involved in New Zealand to be able to go to that conference?” they realised there was another option, and brought the main keynote speakers to New Zealand instead.

Hosted by the Auckland District Law Society, the conference attracted over 300 people drawn from a wide range of sectors: judiciary, prosecutors, defence lawyers, law enforcement agencies, Ministries of Justice, Corrections, Courts and Health, treatment agencies, academics and a couple of politicians.

Catherine Masters’ excellent report for the NZ Herald, “Go Straight to Rehab” covers the ground nicely. Most crime dealt with by our courts — generally estimated to be 80 to 90% — is caused or influenced by alcohol and other drugs. There is widespread recognition that the increasingly punitive sentences seldom make a positive contributions to this situation and, often, are making it worse.

Drug Courts are intended to help people escape addictions by using a “carrot and stick” approach. Participants are referred into treatment services and reviewed every couple of weeks by a judge. That judge leads and works with a team including a prosecutor, a defence lawyer and treatment providers. There is regular, random testing for drugs, and positive developments are praised and rewarded. On the other hand, drug use or, more importantly, lying about drug use or not showing up for treatment, are punished. Punishments might include an immediate spell in prison (interestingly, it seems a stay of more than three days has no extra deterrent value, and more than six days makes recovery less likely) but could also be more creative, such as a writing assignment. The test is what will work for that individual.

It’s a pretty familiar approach, and it might surprise us that it works, but the evidence is strong that it works a heck of a lot better than what we do now. With variants of the model now widely used in the US, there is now a lot of evidence about what elements are important in maximizing effectiveness. These include: having police and treatment providers as part of the inter-disciplinary team, having judges who actually want to be involved rather than being assigned to it, making the drug testing truly random, having an extended drug-free period before participants ‘graduate’, and having a relapse prevention service after people leave the programme.

Some of this will translate to a New Zealand context, and some won’t. The strongest elements associated with best outcomes were collecting good data and regularly using this to fine-tune the programme (essentially a quality improvement loop) and making use of independent evaluation. I think this latter point could be important. The tendency to do things on the cheap might lead the Government to try to evaluate the programme internally. In fact for scientific robustness, for the transparency of independence and to insulate the pilot from political interference, the evaluation must be truly independent. Ideally, the evaluators should be contracted at the beginning of the programme so they can inform data collection and other practices to maximize effectiveness.

And, by the way, two pilot sites rather than one is a much smarter way to see what works and what doesn’t.

As I’ve been raving about this conference some people have raised the issue of drug decriminalisation (Portugal, and all that), saying they prefer that model. I don’t see a conflict between the two. I’m guessing that even Portugal still has people who are addicted to drugs and that they make up a disproportionate share of those before the courts. Having a smart way of channelling these people into treatment seems like a good idea to me and, ahem, we’re not quite Portugal, are we.

[Update: included link to NZ Herald Article]

About Kevin Hague 163 Articles

Green Party Member of Parliament

6 Comments Posted

  1. What a very good post by Kevin and I commend him for repeatedly using the correct phrase, ” Alcohol and other drugs” .

    The idea of drug courts and treatment for those who abuse and display dependence problems for alcohol and other drugs is a good idea.

    But our courts and justice system has a rather cult like un-scientific approach to drugs. According to our legal system any illegal drug use is “drug abuse”.

    Which means it is quite probable that recreational drug users ( apart from those who use the drug alcohol ) will end up being ordered to do drug rehab because of our legal system as opposed to any medical need.

    …. an occasional cannabis user does not need drug rehab any more than than a social drinker does, but the law labels one of them a “drug abuser” ….. and the legal system is going to be empowered to order drug rehab for “drug abusers’.

    Im not very hopeful …..

  2. It would be interesting if they ran a conference on this matter.. minus Law Enforcement officials, who just try & keep the status quo intact. (Job Protection ?)

    There may be a better option on the table then.


  3. @Ivy

    I agree.. but unfortunatley law reform happens in small steps & this sounds like a bigger step than usual.
    As long as they dont start arbritrarily rounding people up & forcing them into lock-up rehab. for first offence, making things worse

    The focus should be on the supply of drugs & rehab. for people who cause other harm in society (fueled bt Alcohol or drugs)not just ongoing use

    Some one once said our “greatest liberty is Freedom of Choice” (NOT Freedom from choice)

    Kia-ora Greens

  4. If you legalised all drugs you could/would:
    1) Save vast amounts of money on policing, and evidential testing, and courts (and also save vast amounts of police and court time)
    2) Regulate the quality of drugs for sale to the public, improving safety of use for those using the drugs
    3) Tax the sale of the drugs
    4) Use some of the saved money and collected taxes to better fund drug abuse rehabilitation programmes.
    5) Not punish those who use drugs responsibly
    6) Force the gangs to come up with a new strategy for making money.
    7) Allow people who use marijuana to do so rather than reverting to more dangerous but legal mixtures of synthetic alternatives where adverse effects are nowhere near as well documented.

  5. Does the discussion of drug courts include any means of assessing the level to which problem drug use contributes to someone’s appearance before the court?

    A person may appear before the court for possession of an illicit substance (which is a drug-related crime). However the appearance itself is not an indicator of problem drug use, and coercing them into a rehabilitation program would be a costly and potentially pointless exercise in terms of reducing crime or drug-related harm.

    Another person may appear before the court for crimes related to procuring money for drugs and exhibit problem drug use. This person is more likely to benefit from a coercive rehabilitation program and is more likely to need ongoing help.

    As a taxpayer I’d like to know that drug courts have a means of assessing which person gets the help and targeting money at actual problem drug use rather than applying a blanket approach of coercing all people charged with drug-related crimes into rehab. Is this going to happen?

  6. Hmm, solutions based on research and commonsense and promoted by those who work in the sector? This approach hasn’t been deemed acceptable in education (just blind ideology for us), but you never know…

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