There’s a doctor in the House now

By December 8, 2014 Recent News

Stuff 6 December 2014
The new Health Minister may be confessing to a few “puffs” of cannabis in his youth, but don’t expect him to go soft on drugs.

Jonathan Coleman has moved quickly to make changes since becoming the first trained doctor in the role in more than 70 years.

He has dumped the controversial cost-cutting agency Health Benefits Ltd (HBL), which his predecessor Tony Ryall vigorously defended in the face of revolt among district health boards.

And he is also pushing a more aggressive shift of health services, and potentially funding, from hospitals and into medical centres.

But in other ways, Coleman will be toeing the political line. Anyone hoping that the former GP might take a more health-focused approach to drug use will be disappointed.

Coleman said he had smoked cannabis (although never “a whole spliff”) once or twice in his 20s.

As a GP, he had regularly treated drug addicts, including prescribing methadone, particularly while working in London.

“[But] my clinical experience has led me to the view that decriminalisation isn’t going to work and the policy settings at the moment are the right ones . . . We need less marijuana in society, not more,” he said.

Drug Foundation executive director Ross Bell said Coleman was just the latest in a string of politicians admitting to youthful drug use.

But he was disappointed Coleman’s medical experience hadn’t led to a shift away from punishing drug users.

“If they [the politicians] had been convicted for that use when they were young, they wouldn’t be in the position of being ministers of the Crown now,” he said.

“Why do they think we should give young people today a criminal conviction for the same thing?”

Bell said politicians shied away from changing drug policy because it was widely considered political poison.

But there was a global shift away from a “hard on drugs” approach – for example, some US states had legalised marijuana – and New Zealand was falling behind.

“I think now they are really misreading the public mood.”