Debatable: Should we decriminalise all drugs?

Debatable: Should we decriminalise all drugs?

Debatable is a column written by the Otago University Debating Society. The Debating Society welcomes new members and meets at the Business School every Tuesday at 6pm.


It’s high time to hash out some legislation that treats drug use as a health issue, not a criminal one. The war on drugs was waged to put minority groups behind bars, while only putting drug users in more danger; let’s turn over a new leaf. 

To be blunt, the law isn’t stopping New Zealanders from doing drugs, so let’s focus on saving lives. The looming threat of imprisonment (plus the stigma of being labelled a criminal) makes people less likely to seek out healthcare when they need it, as well as resources or services that keep them safe. Decriminalisation might therefore mean more people feeling okay about calling 111 when things go wrong. It might mean better uptake of rehab, and fewer ODs. And for the casual user, decriminalisation could encourage people to check their drugs, or report issues when they first appear. This might mean your MDMA doesn’t get cut with bath salts or meth, making you less likely to traumatise your friends at Hyde this weekend. 

And then there’s the racism. Your idea of a bad trip might be seeing your friends’ faces melt off, or having to gurn without chewing gum. And that’s no surprise – the Police turn a blind eye to the Pākehā kids in the Botans who look way too happy to be there, or the breathas pinging in the streets. But the Police keep tabs on Māori and Pasifika, and the worst case scenario is a lot worse for the less privileged. In 2022, the NZ Drug Foundation reported that Māori make up 48% of those convicted for drug possession offences, and 61.9% of those sentenced to prison. Justice is not even-handed, and criminalising communities for drug use entrenches cycles of crime and poverty – all while the most a breatha in possession gets is a slap on the wrist.

Sure, maybe decriminalisation pushes a few more people to seek out a bump or a bong. Big deal; some of you could afford to relax a bit, or do some ego-death-induced self-reflecting. If that’s the cost of saving lives and protecting already over-policed Kiwis, then the choice should be crystal clear.


As much as we love to see it when himbos try acid and discover empathy, there’s unfortunately a lot more at stake when it comes to getting high.

It’s no stretch to believe that decriminalisation could significantly increase drug use. The logic’s pretty simple: if it’s not illegal to possess drugs, more people will probably possess drugs, and therefore more people will probably also use them. Over time, this might also result in further normalisation and greater access as more dealers enter the market. Why’s that even a problem, though?

Well, it’s probably best not to find out you have a family history of drug-induced psychosis the hard way. Even people who don’t have such a severe reaction can still suffer a variety of physical and mental health effects, or make dumb decisions like driving while high. And then there’s the hard drugs, which are incredibly addictive – and far too often fatal. Meth can have you hooked after only a couple of uses, and the fentanyl creeping onto Aotearoa’s market is scarily easy to overdose on (just look at the US opioid crisis). Given the risks to individuals and the potential strain on the health system, it makes no sense to increase use among people who would never have sought them out without decriminalisation. 

Also, let’s not forget that drug use isn’t limited to well-off uni students having a good time at festivals or seeing god in the pink bathroom mould. It’s often our most vulnerable community members who turn to drugs as a coping mechanism, creating a vicious cycle of worsening physical and mental health, strained relationships, financial loss, and addiction. Further emboldening the dealers who make a quick buck off people in distress isn’t exactly ideal.

Obviously the whole population won’t immediately start shooting up if we decriminalise, but even one extra drug-related death is too many. There are heaps of other ways to reduce harm without making drugs more accessible – like education, better funding for rehab services, needle exchanges, and free and confidential drug checking (shout out to KnowYourStuff!). Just say no to decriminalisation, and let’s nip this in the bud.

This article first appeared in Issue 7, 2024.
Posted 1:56pm Sunday 14th April 2024 by Julia Randerson and Abby Bowmar.