NZ Defence Force grapples with more than 50 illicit drug use and supply infringements in two years

Newshub can reveal not only are Defence Force personnel consuming illicit drugs, they're dealing them too, with more than 50 infringements recorded in the last two years. 

The data obtained by Newshub under the Official Information Act shows 55 drug infringements from 2019 to 2020 - 33 in 2019, including an Air Force worker at Ōhakea Air Base punished with 365 days detention, reduction in rank and dismissal.

In 2019 there were 11 infringements by members of the Royal New Zealand Navy, 18 by Army personnel and three by members of the Air Force. The data does not say what drugs were involved in the infringements.

In 2020 four Navy personnel committed drug offences, including two members of the HMNZS Philomel in Auckland who were sentenced to about a year's detention each and dismissal. The Army dealt with 15 infringements that year while the Air Force dealt with two.

The data doesn't provide specific details, but the two HMNZS Navy personnel dismissed last year were revealed in media reports as technicians Ryan Carroll and Cadell Heney, both in their 20s, who pleaded guilty to charges relating to MDMA.

The data also mentions an Air Force worker who faced 85 days detention and dismissal in 2020. It matches the punishment handed down to Aircraftman Tom Lowther, 23 at the time, who pleaded guilty to six charges of consuming and offering to supply MDMA.

National's defence spokesperson Chris Penk described the findings as "hugely concerning" and that it "reflects a troubling trend" in New Zealand society "as the Government seems set to liberalise" illicit drugs.

"We've seen decriminalisation by stealth through greater discretion being given to police not to prosecute drug offences, mixed messages on party pill testing and aerial surveillance of cannabis quietly ditched," Penk told Newshub.

"In the context of Defence more specifically, though, drug use is even more concerning. Our soldiers, sailors and Air Force personnel deserve to feel safe at work, but the use of illicit drugs puts everyone in danger.

"Operating combat systems and working in physically demanding environments - at home and abroad - spells danger when drugs are involved. It's crucial the Government moves strongly to make sure the life and limb of our troops aren't endangered further in this way."

Defence Minister Peeni Henare.
Defence Minister Peeni Henare. Photo credit: Newshub / Zane Small

Defence Minister Peeni Henare says the Defence Force has been working with the NZ Drug Foundation on more effective ways to reduce substance misuse. He insists offences are taken very seriously.

"The misuse of substances is incompatible with duties in the Defence Force. Not only are there harmful effects on individuals, but there are health and safety implications for those involved, and their colleagues, especially if they are operating machinery or doing other hazardous work," Henare told Newshub.

"The Defence Force has for a number of years recognised that there must be a comprehensive organisational response to such issues through prevention, support, treatment, rehabilitation, reintegration, deterrence, detection and enforcement."

He highlighted the Defence Force's Operation STAND, a framework developed in partnership with the NZ Drug Foundation focused on responding to impairment and enabling those experiencing problems to access support.

The Defence Force hired the NZ Drug Foundation in 2017 after a report it commissioned found a number of critical issues with its approach to alcohol and substance abuse.

It found the policies were too "enforcement" based.

NZ Drug Foundation executive director Sarah Helm described the decrease in infringements from 2019 to 2020 as a "positive shift" but said it is "still concerning" to see drug issues.

"As a result of the work between NZ Defence Force and NZ Drug Foundation, a new process was put in place to tackle substance use, including alcohol use, and ultimately prevent infringements. This includes clearer guidance about how infringements are dealt with," she told Newshub.

"While the statistics seem to be an improvement to date, it is possible an increase in infringements could occur because more awareness brings issues out into the open, which allows for them to be addressed. They are concerning and need to be addressed."

The Defence Force is one of the largest organisations in New Zealand, comprising more than 14,000 people, and all personnel are subject to the Armed Forces Discipline Act. Drugs offences are covered under this legislation.

Earlier this year Lance Corporal Kasey Rey Tapara, 31, was dismissed from the Army after pleading guilty to four drug charges. She admitted to taking and supplying MDMA, but avoided prison due to the effect it would have on her new-born baby.

The Defence Force denied claims it suffered from a drug problem in 2016, after Newshub revealed an average of two Defence Force personnel were being investigated for drug offences every month.