Cannabis convictions fall in New Zealand while meth still on the rise

Meth convictions are increasing across the country while cannabis convictions are falling, a new report has revealed. 

Low-level cannabis convictions fell "dramatically" between 2009 and 2015, while methamphetamine convictions have risen since 2014. 

The Drug Foundation's State of the Nation report gives an insight into how New Zealand is dealing with alcohol and other drugs. It shows that while there are some positive signs, there is "room for massive improvement". 

The majority of convictions in New Zealand, 61 percent, are defined as low-level drug convictions. This includes charges for personal use, possession, and use or possession of a drug utensil. 

"Illicit drug convictions are creeping up again after falling for many years, with 5710 people convicted in 2017," Kali Mercier, policy and advocacy manager at the Drug Foundation, said. 

"It's concerning that 61 percent of those convictions were for low-level offences, such as possessing or using drugs. And Māori continue to suffer disproportionate harm both from drugs and our drug laws."

People under the age of 30 make up almost half of those convictions, while 80 percent are men and 41 percent are Māori. 

New Zealand doesn't keep good statistics on methamphetamine use, but it is clear that some locations are worse affected than others, the report says. 

By sampling wastewater, it says police have been able to determine that methamphetamine consumption in Whangārei is two to three times higher than in Christchurch. 

Another area of concern raised in the Drug Foundation's report is synthetics. Over 10 dangerous synthetic cannabinoids have been detected in New Zealand since 2017, it says. 

As many as 50 deaths have been connected with the drugs since mid-2017, and hundreds more people continue to be hospitalised with "severe side effects" such as seizures and overdose. 

Solutions to New Zealand's drug crisis 

The number of drug convictions could soon drop after the Government announced last year that it plans to ease up on people caught with personal possession of illegal substances. 

The Government announced in December that it plans to specify in law that police should not prosecute for possession and personal use where a therapeutic approach would be more beneficial.

Those caught possessing and using drugs will face lighter charges under the Government's proposal. On the flip side, synthetics will now be classified as class A, giving the police more power to crack down on drug makers and dealers.

The Drug Foundation report highlights how fewer people are being diverted from court each year on drug charges, and notes how New Zealand should be utilising the various "therapeutic and alternative responses" to drug use. 

These alternatives include Auckland pilot courts that take 'high-risk' cases where addiction is the root cause of repeated offending; as well as eight Te Pae Oranga iwi community panels operating across the country. 

The report also says the number of people receiving addiction treatment is climbing, with 51,612 people receiving support in 2017. The Drug Foundation wants the Government's treatment budget doubled to eliminate waitlists. 

It notes that New Zealand "needs to fund harm reduction initiatives, including drug checking and drug consumption rooms". 

The Government has made its lighter stance on drugs clear in the past year, by easing up on personal possession and passing a medicinal cannabis bill in December which promises a regulated market as well as a legal defence for users close to death. 

A referendum on legalising recreational cannabis will be held during the elections in 2020, Justice Minister Andrew Little confirmed last month.