The Government has announced a major crackdown on synthetic drug dealers after a spike in deaths and hospitalisations.
A coroner's report in June linked the drugs to as many as 45 deaths in a year compared with two deaths in the previous five years, and there have been over 1000 related ambulance callouts in a year.
- Two deaths from suspected bad batch of synthetic drugs in Christchurch
- Christchurch doctor's grim warning to synthetic drug users
- Christchurch Hospital's blunt warning to synthetics users after seven admissions
On Thursday, Health Minister Dr David Clark and Police Minister Stuart Nash revealed their plans to tackle the problem. Together, they will target suppliers while making it easier for people with addiction problems to get treatment.
"Under current laws synthetics and other dangerous drugs are killing people and fuelling crime while dealers and manufacturers get rich. The current approach is failing to keep Kiwis safe and can't be continued," Dr Clark says.
"It's time to do what will work. We need to go harder on the manufacturers of dangerous drugs like synthetics, and treat the use of drugs as a health issue by removing barriers to people seeking help."
What the Government will do:
- Classify the two main synthetic drugs (5F-ADB and AMB-FUBINACA) linked to recent deaths as Class A. This will give police the search and seizure powers they need to crackdown on suppliers and manufacturers, who will also face tougher penalties - up to life imprisonment.
- Create a temporary drug classification category, C1, so new drugs can easily be brought under the Misuse of Drugs Act.
- Specify in law that police should not prosecute for possession and personal use where a therapeutic approach would be more beneficial, or there is no public interest in a prosecution. This will apply to the use of all illegal drugs.
- Allocate $16.6 million to boost community addiction treatment services.
What this means for police and users:
Mr Nash says police are increasingly focused on targeting synthetic drug dealers and supplies. Fifty-two people were imprisoned for drug possession or use during 2017/18.
"Misuse of drugs remains illegal and people should not be complacent about the risks of getting caught. Whether a drug user ends up getting police diversion, goes through an alternative resolution process, or is referred for health treatment, they will still come to the notice of police," he says.
"We are striking a balance between discouraging drug use and recognising that many people using drugs need support from the health system, or education about harm reduction. We don't want our jails full of people with addiction problems, we want those people getting treatment."
The announcement has been welcomed by the Green Party, which says it points the way to a more sensible drug policy approach.
"This is an evidence-based step to reduce drug harm, drug demand, and drug supply," says Chlöe Swarbrick, spokesperson on drug law reform.
"We know that when we take people down the criminal pathway we do nothing to reduce drug use or demand. Instead we increase the harm to those with addiction problems and to communities. We also increase gang control and associated criminality.
"This Government has listened to the evidence and is acting with compassion to create a pathway of care and recovery for people with addiction problems."
NZ First MP Darroch Ball told Newshub the announcement effectively made National MP Simeon Brown's Psychoactive Substances Amendment Bill dead in the water.
Mr Brown's proposed legislation would increase sentences for individuals supplying psychoactive substances, like synthetic cannabis, from two years in prison to a maximum of eight. Class A drug supply and manufacturer sentences can be up to life imprisonment.
"[The announcement has] made Simeon Brown's bill irrelevant now, so no need to continue support," said Mr Ball.
NZ First supported the legislation through its first and second reading in Parliament. It has not yet been read for the third and final time.