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War on Drugs: Aotearoa Edition

by Vivien Whyte

associate editor

Amongst news dominated by fervent questions about the cost of living crisis and many head-smacks caused by Wayne Brown, you may have completely missed the Sale and Supply of Alcohol (Harm Minimisation) Amendment Bill being drawn from the parliamentary biscuit tin and its subsequent progress towards (maybe) becoming part of the law.

Dubbed the “Booze Bill” by Radio NZ, the Bill seems to be grappling with much more than alcohol harm. It has come head to head with alcohol’s place in “Kiwi culture”. Alcohol is, by far, Aotearoa’s favourite drug. Built on a foundation of the ‘six o’clock swill’ - a binge drinking frenzy caused by restrictive licensing laws from the 1910s to 1960s - excessive and binge drinking culture in Aotearoa has been normalised to the point of glorification as a quintessential part of our identity.

On paper, the Bill aims to reduce alcohol harm by improving community input into local alcohol policies and ending alcohol sponsorship of broadcast sports. And it’s this last point in particular that seems to have people stumped. Sports and beer. Friday nights at the pub. Getting pissed with your mates. They’re all Kiwi-as. Why would anyone want to attack that? Especially whilst our businesses are struggling in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

News headlines like “Banning Booze in Sports” and opening lines like “The fight for people’s right to be able to buy alcohol...” clearly suggest that Kiwis should be steeling themselves for an epic battle to defend our cherished cultural norms. It’s my opinion that this has been an unfortunate case of correlation without causation. Misassociation and misinterpretation.

Easily accessible and highly addictive, alcohol is not only our favourite drug. But our most harmful. In 2020/21, one in every five New Zealand adults were identified as having a hazardous drinking pattern that places them and/or others at risk of harm*. The cost of this harm is overwhelming - affecting lives, families and community well-being. Not only that but the harm caused by alcohol is experienced disproportionately by Māori, Pasifika and low-income communities. This is a systemic flaw in our laws that, without change, will continue to create harmful cycles for generations to come.

Unlike funding decisions and tax cuts, it’s not immediately obvious how our laws around alcohol perpetuate this harm and its disproportionate impact on certain communities. Over the last 30 years increases in the number of places selling alcohol (particularly in low-income areas), the variety of products available, reductions in pricing and increasingly pervasive alcohol marketing strategies have all sealed our fate. Put together, this availability and exposure to alcohol - especially from a young age - has permeated the subconscious of our nation and left us blindsided when it comes to addressing the key drivers of alcohol harm.

Whilst advertising other drugs, including vaping and smoking, is prohibited, our laws provide very little protection against the most harmful of them all. That’s what the Bill is about. Reducing the harm of alcohol on individuals, communities and our nation as a whole. That’s also why it’s sad to see how much the Bill is stumbling towards the finishing line. Having already failed its first reading and both National and ACT likely to vote against, things are looking rather bleak.

*source: Ministry for Health’s New Zealand Health Survey.


Debate spoke to Chlöe Swarbrick about her new alcohol sales reform bill, her long-time passion and advocacy, and where we go from here.

What has fueled your passion and advocacy for drug reform and, in particular, the Bill?

For an abridged history of why Chle came to care so deeply about drug law reform, check out her speech on the Misuse of Drugs Act Amendment Bill in 2019 - where she fought for decriminalisation and managed to win ‘police discretion’.

Alcohol is a drug; the most harmful and widely used one we have in this country. I believe in sensible regulation of all substances to reduce harm; currently, we have regulation of alcohol that enables far too much corporate power and no regulation of illicit substances in the black market. In both of those extreme ends of the spectrum is where you see the maximisation of harm.

How will the Bill help us empower our communities?

The Bill would have removed the 'special appeals' process in the Sale and Supply of Alcohol Act 2012, which currently bakes in disproportionate power and unique, novel rights for alcohol corporations to prevent community rules on Local Alcohol Policies - in practice, that's stuff like how many off-licences there can be and where.

This situation has meant that Auckland Council has spent seven years and over a million dollars in ratepayer funds trying to implement the will of the community; they're currently still awaiting a Supreme Court decision. Christchurch City Council spent the same amount but ended up giving up.

Special appeals are not the same as judicial appeals - which is important to note because the National Party have been seeking to conflate the two in patronising the intelligence of New Zealanders. Judicial appeals still exist when you take away this extra, bonus right for alcohol companies. A right that doesn't exist for any other form of social harm - gambling, tobacco, or otherwise.

What important information or facts about alcohol harm do you believe are frequently overlooked, particularly in the context of the normalisation of alcohol in "Kiwi culture"?

The alcohol lobby has been so successful in their work these past few decades that any question of better alcohol regulation is almost immediately hysterically and illogically conflated with criminal prohibition. I'm the last politician you'll ever find advocating for criminal prohibition of drugs. The Greens are the only consistent, persistent voice for drug law that pulls back power from criminal and commercial organisations in order to get evidence-based harm reduction.

For more, check out Chlöe’s First Reading Speech, which outlines a number of inconvenient truths about the substance.

What role will drug reform policies play in the upcoming election, and why should students be paying attention to them?

It can play as much or a little a role in influencing the election as we, the people, would like to organise to make happen. I would highly recommend that people who are interested in this kaupapa band together to coordinate campaigns, demand responses from politicians and hold our Parliament and Government to account on policies that all MPs at least pretend they want - but often don't have the spine to see-through - drug harm reduction. I'd recommend reaching out to the Students for Sensible Drug Policy in Otago if anyone's interested in starting a local chapter!


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