Drug Reform Urgently Needed: Over 25 Organizations call for action / A.J. Hendry

Find JustSpeak’s open letter here

Other 25 organizations, representing hundreds of professionals, experts, and people with lived experience have signed an open letter calling on the government to move quickly and decisively to reform our nations response to addiction, moving us from an archaic, punitive system, to a health-based approach.

There have been probably billions of words spilled arguing this point, and yet still there is so much work left to do.

I sit here today feeling a sense of urgency.

This needs to happen, and it needs to happen yesterday.

I didn’t always understand what a health-based approach really meant. I used to think it was part of some soft liberal agenda to legalize drugs and let criminals off the hook. Thinking back, I was fairly naïve.

Growing up in a fairly conservative, Christian context, I grew up with the understanding that drugs were harmful, in fact they were evil, and so the way to protect people from their abuse was to have tough laws, and strict enforcement. You do the crime; you do the time (and all that jazz).

It has become common to paint those who are fairly conservative in this space as heartless, ignorant monsters who just want to see people suffer. But, you know, that caricature isn’t helpful.

My whanau, the community I grew up with, we weren’t heartless, we loved people, and we sort to love people better. The problem was the worldview we were given just didn’t allow us to see how our views on this issue were ineffective and unhelpful.

It wasn’t until I began serving whanau experiencing addiction that I learnt how little I really knew about it.

I remember speaking with a young man who had recently been experiencing homelessness. He spoke to me about his mental health, how he struggled with depression and anxiety, but never got the treatment or support he needed. He spoke to me about how he had begun using cannabis, about how that had helped him cope with what he was going through. He told me about how this had led his mother to kick him out of home, beginning his first experience of homelessness. Of how he used to sleep at McDonald’s to stay warm and charge his phone before going to school, of how eventually someone had given him synthetics, and about how that had made things so much worse.

When he told me this story, he was sitting in his living room, he was once again living with him mum, he was feeling supported, loved, his mental health was doing a lot better, and he was on a journey towards recovery.

This connection between mental health, trauma, homelessness and addiction is one that I have seen play out in hundreds of lives and through hundreds of stories. Over a decade of serving rangatahi suffering from addiction has proven to me that no law, no punishment, no stigma or shame, will be enough to end addiction. We cannot legislate people into healing and recovery. And dragging people into the justice system, and slamming them behind bars, only serves to exacerbate the pain that is driving the addiction in the first place.

I said before I feel a sense of urgency regarding reform. I do. Because, daily people are suffering, daily our rangatahi are being abused and traumatized by a system that fails to acknowledge that they need healing, not handcuffs.

If we are actually serious about ending the harm that is caused by addiction in this country, then the pathway is healing, it is a system built on Love, compassion and understanding, one that acknowledges the trauma and pain that sits beneath the substance use, and embraces whanau into recovery.

There was a lot of big talk after last years referendum. People saying that they would support a health-based approach, over any form of legalization. Well, this is the time to come through. If you are one of those people who made that statement, then I implore you, join your voice to the hundreds of professionals, academics, advocates, and whanau with lived experienced demanding change. If this Government is going to make the changes needed, then it needs to hear you. Let us end this injustice, let us stop harming people, with this misguided notion that punishing a hurting person will bring them healing. Let us build a system founded on Love for one another, rather than driven by judgement for those who are hurting.

You can write to Justice Minister Kris Fafaafoi here expressing your support for the open letter that was sent out today.

A.J. Hendry is a Youth Development Worker of almost 10 years. He currently leads a team of Youth Workers who support rangatahi who have experienced homelessness and has extensive experience supporting rangatahi to heal and recover from addiction. He is also the curator and creator of When Lambs Are Silent.

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