Hard News by Russell Brown


This is your government on drugs

Yesterday evening on Checkpoint, Michelle Cooke told the story of Robert Erueti – a story of the most abject failure of practice and policy. And more than that, of simple moral sense.

As the report tells it:

Mr Erueti was evicted from his state house, where he lived for more than 15 years, in February last year after traces of methamphetamine were found in his home. Both Ministry of Social Development and Housing New Zealand say there is no evidence he was responsible for the methamphetamine, but as the tenant on the lease, he was evicted as a result.

He has been homeless ever since, living rough, and has spent 58 weeks in a motel, at a total cost to tax-payers of at least $44,000.

He has serious health issues, including diabetes and essential hypertension, which his doctor has raised in letters to the Ministry of Social Development, stressing he needs suitable, stable accommodation.

Robert's life has been ruined. He is currently, with his multiple health issues, sleeping in a tent on his daughter's driveway. He's concerned that if he sleeps inside the terms of his daughter's own Housing NZ tenancy would be breached.

Traces of methamphetamine found inside his house may have been left by his son, to whom he gave shelter when the son was released from prison. Or not. There's no real way of knowing because no baseline test was ever done. Everyone agrees there was no manufacture, which means there was no actual health risk. And literally no one believes Robert himself is responsible for the traces. But Housing NZ's policy, backed up by the Tenancy Tribunal, was for termination in all cases.

It's immensely depressing on a human level and has imposed needless costs on the taxpayer. But I was happy when I heard the report, because of what the new Housing minister, Phil Twyford, said:

Housing Minister Phil Twyford said Mr Erueti should have never been placed in this position.

He said Mr Erueti's situation was a “text-book” case on how the previous government’s policy has had a huge detrimental social and economic impact.

“It’s just untenable that Robert’s been put through that kind of experience.

"One of the problems with the old policy was there was no baseline testing of methamphetamine contamination, putting aside the question of whether the standard was correct or not, people were being evicted because there was some, often infinitesimal contamination found, but there was no proof in most of these cases who was responsible for that.

"We have to find a better approach.”

If you've been following what I've written about these issues over the past three years you'll understand what a breakthrough this is. It remains to be seen whether Twyford has the nerve to walk away from the whole of the "meth contamination" boondoggle that ministers in the last government were happy to underwrite, but it seems, at least, that things will get better and Housing NZ will look more like the social housing provider it's spent the past few years trying not to be.

Now, this is a housing policy issue, but that's the thing about drug policy: it touches many points. I think there's another area where we'll see things get a bit better: the conundrum of medical cannabis.

The Speech from the Throne recently confirfmed that in the first 100 days of Jacinda Ardern's government: "Medicinal cannabis will be made available for people with terminal illnesses or in chronic pain."

I've been able to glean something of what that statement will actually mean in practice, and I can tell you now that many advocates will be disappointed. But will it be better than it was before? Yes, and there are a couple of areas where change may be quite significant.

I've written that up as a news story for tomorrow's Weekend Herald – and the news story itself will point to a longer feature including interviews with the Nelson medical cannabis triumvirate: Rose Renton, Shane Le Brun and Sue Grey. So youd best get the paper tomorrow.

Until then, here's that Checkpoint report ...

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