Drug Use in NZ, is There a Better Way?

Alternative ways to dealing with pain and anxiety without prescribed medication

Written by Lucy Mullinger

According to statistics from the New Zealand Drug Foundation, 44 per cent of New Zealanders will try an illicit drug at some point in their life. This is not counting the many kiwis who aren’t openly taking illegal drugs. Instead, they are being prescribed it by their doctors.

Benzodiazepines and opioids are the most commonly misused prescription drugs and while many heavy opioid drug takers have a legitimate pain disorder which they need help with, a large percentage (which often go unreported) also have become addicted long past the time they actually need the drug. Over time they may have become dependent or tolerant and require larger doses to function in their daily life.

With this in mind, it makes sense to find alternative ways around dealing with pain, anxiety, depression and other disorders, which is where the Misuse of Drugs (Medicinal Cannabis) Amendment Bill comes in. Currently in its second reading at

parliament, this Bill discusses the idea that people in chronic pain can try medicinal cannabis. If the Bill passes, it will:

Introduce an exception for terminally ill people to possess and use illicit cannabis and to possess a cannabis utensil; provide a regulation-making power to enable the setting of standards that products manufactured, imported, and supplied under licence must meet; and amend Schedule 2 of the Act so that cannabidiol (CBD) and CBD products are no longer classed as controlled drugs.

For now, products containing cannabis are classified as controlled drugs and Ministerial approval is required before most products can be prescribed by a doctor. The exceptions are Sativex for patients with multiple sclerosis (this often costs $1,000 per month to purchase), and products containing a cannabis extract called cannabidiol - which doesn’t make people feel ‘stoned’ or out of control.

Currently 45,000 of New Zealanders receive support to reduce their alcohol or drug use each year, and this is estimated to be only one third of those who are experiencing problems with their use. Which begs the question, how are other countries dealing with the issue and is there a better way?

Looking abroad

Sweden’s drug-use levels, among students, is lower than in the early 1970s, partly thanks to the country’s drug policy, which aims for a ‘drug-free society’.

The country is known for its heavy-handed attitude towards people who could be drug users – with urine and blood tests given

to those suspected. Drug treatment and education services are also widely available.

There is a lot more to this policy than meets the eye. In fact, drug-related deaths in Sweden have increased by 770 per cent - from 70 incidents in 1995 to 609 in 2014. This could be because the zero-tolerance policy however it is possible that the answer can already be readily found in Sweden's severe criminalization of drugs. Sweden introduced a zero-tolerance policy in 1988, which makes drugs scarce on the streets, but which also has the adverse effect of stigmatizing and estranging most high-risk drug-users from society.

Meanwhile, just across the Tasman, medical marijuana has become legal at a federal level and medical cannabis is legal with a card, in Victoria and New South Wales. In fact, there are 30 countries that have said yes to medical cannabis in some capacity.

Europe is the most progressive continent, with The Netherlands, Poland, Romania, Norway, Germany, Italy and Greece all allowing patients to access medical cannabis. France, Spain, and Slovenia also provide cannabis-derived drugs for certain illnesses.

Mood Stabilisers

According to the Mental Health Foundation, in the 2012/13 New Zealand Health Survey, one in six New Zealand adults had been diagnosed with a common mental health disorder and at some time in their lives. According to an official information request that was collected by the New Zealand Herald, in 2017, the number of young people on antidepressants has risen by 98 per cent between 2006 and 2016.

While a lot of things have changed between 2006 and 2016 (particularly the access that young people have to social media and the

stressors that can go hand in hand with this mode of communication), some practitioners are concerned that alternative methods can be utilised either alongside or instead of medication, in some cases.

In countries, such as Finland, where the winter months can be long, hard and dark, Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), can be

treated with the use of ‘light therapy’, where you sit or work next to a light box, which mimics natural outdoor light and is said to

help with depression.

Another way of combatting stress is to take part in ‘laughter yoga’ (hasyayoga), which began in India and was founded by a

physician called Madan Kataria. It focuses on learning how to laugh spontaneously, as a group. Forced laughter soon turns into real

laughter and the group dynamic gives the participant a sense of community.

Statistically, those living in wealthier countries also tend to be more likely to struggle with depression than those living in

countries that are more likely to be poverty stricken. According to the World Health Organisation, in the 10 higher income

countries surveyed, an average of nearly 15 per cent of the population had suffered from depression, whereas only 11 per cent

of people living in low to middle income countries could say the same. While giving up all your worldly possessions is possibly

not a viable option, simplifying it might be a way to stave off depression.

Living longer

You only have to look at the ‘blue zones’ around the globe, to find out how to live a healthier and happier life. Blue zones are

areas where the world’s longest-living people have made their home. They include Costa Rica’s Nicoya Peninsula, where the locals often live well into their 90s.

What makes this region as well as the other four blue zones which include Okinawa, in Japan, Loma Linda in California, Sardinia in

Italy and Ikaria in Greece, stand out from the rest is that the inhabitants usually live on a diet which is healthy and high in fibre, they drink a lot of water, don’t smoke, drink alcohol moderately, live in close communities with a high focus on family involvement and work hard and laugh regularly. Another aspect that stands out in most of these ‘blue zones’ is that the diets of these regions are not so high in dairy and meat products.

Most importantly, thanks to their large family and social circle, they feel needed and want to contribute to the family and wider community. In Okinawa, they call it ikigai and the Nicoyans call it plan de vida. We might refer to it as having purpose.

With social media taking over the western world, it is much easier to communicate with your friends and loved ones via the internet, however it is possibly not the healthiest option. Taking a leaf from the book of any of the centenarians in the five blue zones, could mean that you would join a group, start up a hobby, widen your group of friends and/or go out into your community and help out a charity organisation or family that you know is struggling.

Living a holistic life in a world that has become increasingly less sociable and a lot more reliant on technology is not as difficult

as it might seem at first. In fact, it could be as simple as rewinding the clock a few centuries and living the way your ancestors did.

Eating organically, walking instead of driving everywhere, cutting down your work time and adding to your play and family time, cutting down on the chemicals you use around the house and selling and giving away the things you haven’t used for years. Even cutting out that unneeded computer and television time and replacing it with a good book, could do your stress levels the world of good.

In order to start a positive trend that you can keep up, it is important to start small and work slowly towards your goal. Whether you begin by cutting down on television time or turning off the internet at night time, it can only add to your sense of wellbeing.

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