to the left

with chlöe swarbrick mp

By Liam Stretch (he/him)

Currently the electorate MP for Auckland Central, this 26-year-old came to our attention when she ran in the 2016 Auckland mayoral election. Unsuccessful, she then was selected as a parliamentary candidate for the Green Party of Aotearoa in the 2017 election and was elected as the number seven on the party list. Running in 2020 in the Auckland Central seat, she was successfully elected as the member for the electorate, beating National’s Emma Mellow and Labour’s Helen White, for a seat that had been blue for the past 12 years.

Despite not entering politics to be the face of drug reform in the country, Chlöe has quickly become the go-to spokesperson for the media and the nation on all related issues. This is mostly due to her work on the Misuse of Drugs (Medicinal Cannabis and Other Matters) Amendment Bill and the Cannabis Legalisation and Control Bill and referendum. She has since taken the mantel to be the Green Party’s drug reform representative and has moved to number three on the Party list. 

Liam Stretch got to the nitty-gritty of Swarbrick’s feelings on drug reform, harm reduction, and how her perspectives are shaped by facts. 

For Swarbrick, her passion for seeing active drug reformation in New Zealand boils down to a couple of key motivating factors, evidence, contradiction, experience. 

“Why is this meaningful to me? It’s because of justice and a sense of frustration that nobody in parliament goes into bat for an addict. Who goes into bat for recognition of the fact that World Health Organisation data shows approximately 90 per cent of illicit drug use isn’t problematic, it’s entirely recreational and only about 10 per cent is problematic  that which leads to addiction or overdose or otherwise?” Swarbrick said. 

Chlöe believes that the opportunity for meaningful conversation is being dismissed as the issues are swept under the rug, or there is blatant dishonesty from a number of the political elite. 

“There is a huge part of this conversation that we miss. It is highlighted when politicians are door stopped or stopped on the tiles when they go into Question Time, and every few months, they are asked by journalists when the last time they used cannabis was, and the majority will say, and are on record in saying, that they had used it back in the mists of time. 

 The reality is they now oversee a law that penalises people for engaging in the exact behaviour they did, but worse than that, when it comes to things like the synthetic’s crisis, it’s sentencing people to death. So, that’s why it’s so meaningful for me.” 

Chlöe adds that “so many politicians will express completely different opinions behind the scenes as they are willing to in the public sphere, so, for me, it is a matter of integrity”. 

Swarbrick says that she is overwhelmed by the confluence of evidence for drug decriminalisation as a system of harm reduction. She cites two Government initiated reports – one by the Ministry of Justice and one from the Ministry of Health. The former suggests decriminalisation and regulation investigations as a possible remedy, and the latter virtually said decriminalise them all. 

When discussing drug reform policy, Swarbrick and Green Party’s intentions rise from frustration for doing things the same way. 

“I just go back to my experience at the UN in Vienna, which is the birthplace of the war on drugs internationally, it’s called The Commission on Narcotic Drugs. We had country after country say, ‘we’ve got more overdose deaths, we have more people in prison, we’ve dished out harsher penalties, we’ve got more drugs, we’ve got harder drugs. We’ve got to do the same thing but do it harder’. What’s the definition of stupidity? Doing the same thing over and over again.” 

When asking if she could breakdown the drug reform policy of the Green Party of Aotearoa, she revealed it centres around the reality of use in New Zealand and first points to cannabis legalisation, highlighting stats from the Dunedin and Christchurch Longitudinal Studies, which revealed that 80 per cent of all New Zealanders would have tried cannabis before they turned 21. Swarbrick and the Greens believe there is no way to really stop usage, but there are ways to make it less damaging. 

”We know that the best way to reduce harm is to legally regulate that substance, and the majority of that usage does not produce problems; the best way to reduce the potential for harm is to inform people and to make sure that we have funding available for services for people who do need help and an opportunity to intervene if there is problematic usage. 

Swarbrick adds that such responsibility is allowed for when there is a legal duty of care in a legally regulated supply chain. 

A further aspect of the Party’s drug reform policy is a proposition for effective decriminalisation of personal uses substances, which is to say, that criminalising people for using substances doesn’t work, yet only driving them underground.  

“Right now, we have a status quo of unknown people in unknown places, consuming unknown substances, with unknown quality and unknown effect.” 

Swarbrick believes this is a product of ineffective prohibition in which substances get harsher and harsher and more potent, leading to the maximisation of harm… moonshine, anyone? 

Further elements of the reform policy pertain to medical or therapeutic application for certain substances. For example, supporting the University of Auckland led research into psilocybin. 

Asked whether she was frustrated with psilocybin – the stuff found in shrooms – still being a Class A drug, in the wake of other countries and US states decriminalising or legalising the substance, she said, “my frustration with the Misuse of Drugs Act 1975 knows no bounds. She believes that it is the major impediment to us having a logical, compassionate, or even conservative, and has 1970’s ideology and ways of thinking as its backbone. 

Wondering whether dated thinking was a cause for the failure of the legalisation of cannabis at a referendum last year, I put the question to Swarbrick, who prefaced her response with the fact she holds no blame to those who voted ‘No’ and regularly takes on board their arguments against. 

“I think one of the many reasons will be the level of specificity. We didn’t operate this referendum in the way that I argued from the very beginning, which was that we should have had a bill that had passed all the way through parliamentary procedure, which, in turn, meant going into the referendum that people knew it would get into law. What we had was something that a lot of people had uncertainty as to how it would progress.” 

Swarbrick puts part of this uncertainty down to a lack of civics education in schools, with people not knowing what the difference between a bill and an act is, or the meaning of either, as well as the nuances of the parliamentary process. 

“It also meant that we didn’t get to have a meaningful debate about the specifics inherent in it.” 

This saw a number of runaway moral panics, which were picked up by political players. Many of whom, Swarbrick would argue, “were acting in bad faith”. 

“That’s not to be conflated with saying those who voted ‘No’ voted in bad faith, I absolutely do not believe that, but I do think that some people who were advocating for the ‘No’ vote wilfully misused evidence.” 

She believes that further promotion around useful tools such as a draft law or the Prime Minister’s science advisor’s report into the opportunity of harm reduction would have helped clear some confusion. Another spanner in the works was that the discussion became more about whether ‘you like, use, or support cannabis’ and not ‘do you support the Legalisation and Control Bill, a public health model to reduce harm?’. 

 

“It was a misrepresentation of what was actually on the table here.” 

Until we get effective change, there are currently systems separate from the government which act to reduce harm, and such activations have been granted permission to continue their work at areas such as festivals. One such example is Know Your Stuff, which offers drug testing discreetly and confidentially. Swarbrick believes such organisations should be funded. 

“Yes, it absolutely should be funded. The thing I would say as well, that in 2019 we fought and won for the changes to the Misuse of Drugs Act. Obviously nowhere as far as it needed to be, but it at least meant that Police discretion was applied by default when sending people down the criminal justice route.” 

 

The harm reduction measures allowed for a fund available for drug harm reduction measures that funded a project in her electorate called Haven for people dealing with synthetics harm; within that same package, “there is the ability to fund things like Know Your Stuff”. 

“As we’ve seen from research overseas, even from the UK, there’s been a 95 per cent reduction in hospital admissions from festivals by virtue of having legal drug checking.”