Cocaine consumption in New Zealand almost doubled - study

Jemima Huston for RNZ

Cocaine consumption in New Zealand has almost doubled - although use is still very low - a new report has found.

The Drug Foundation's latest study uses wastewater testing, as well as the national health and drug trends surveys, to paint a picture of illicit drug use in New Zealand.

Executive director Sarah Helm said 56,000 people (1.3 percent) used cocaine in the 2022/2023 year, which is a 93 percent increase on the previous three years' average.

But she said that number was relatively small compared to other countries.

"We have a very low base and compared to international cocaine use it's very, very low. However, that is a big change in a relatively short space of time."

Helm said drug use in New Zealand reflected what was available and a bump in cocaine use could signal an influx from overseas.

"We know from international information from the UN and others that the international production of cocaine has significantly increased. They're looking for new markets and trying to break into markets where there hasn't been a lot of cocaine consumption previously."

She said there have been a number of recent record cocaine busts by police and NZ Customs, but that had not eliminated supply.

"Decades of experience has shown us that just relying on drug busts and arrests does nothing to reduce use. This report backs that up too. It shows why we need to reorientate our investment towards health-based approaches, harm reduction, education and treatment."

Cannabis remains the most common drug - more than half a million people used it last year.

Helm said 64- to 75-year-olds are using the drug 10 times more (6.4 percent) than the same age group a decade ago.

"We think the reasons might be, over the last five to six years we've known more about the therapeutic benefits or uses of cannabis, perhaps the older age group are using for pain relief, perhaps it's an ageing out of a group that have previously used cannabis in their life when they were younger."

Other trends are that daily consumption of methamphetamine is down 17 percent and MDMA is down 26 percent.

About 47,000 people reported using amphetamines like meth last year with that use concentrated in poor neighbourhoods, particularly in the Waikato region.

About 152,000 people aged 15 or older used MDMA. The drug also sometimes known as ecstasy is most commonly used by young people.

Helm said that decline was a new finding because meth and MDMA use had been increasing in the years prior.

"So it might just be the market settling down post Covid... or for example a big seizure from customs or whatever can take some of these drugs out of the market. However, usually it gets replaced with something else. In this case it could be cocaine or synthetic cathonines, so those new substances that are created to mimic MDMA but are much more harmful for you."

She said this year's data set was reliable, but there could always be improvements.

"We would love better data. We are so keen to see more comprehensive monitoring of drug use among New Zealanders, more information about how and why people are using drugs.

"This is our best effort to compile the most useful data in one place so that we can advocate for the most effective responses and spot any emerging trends."