The Controversial Steps We Need to Make to Stop the Drug Problem in NZ

Another week, another drug bust, another contaminated home. It seems like every other day we’re getting these headlines. But what are we as a country doing about it? And are we brave enough to take extraordinary steps to minimise drug abuse in Aotearoa?

As this report comes together, I flick to my homepage and a headline appears for a haul of 900 kilograms of meth that’s been discovered in a shipping container in Melbourne. It has an estimated value of $977 million. It’s the biggest catch in Australian history, and numbers are thrown around the same as might be used for a prize catch after a hard day’s fishing. It comes hot on the heels of reports of a Head Hunter drug bust in late 2016 in Wairarapa going to court. In a sadder case, a woman living in her car is funding her habit by also being a dealer. She’s sent to counsellors and sentenced to home detention. That’s fine, her home is on wheels.

Drugs are, of course, nothing new. Amphetamines have always lurked around in the form of speed or one of its variants. In fact, Oceania has the highest usage in the world.

However, in the mid-1990s, meth hit the scene and quickly grew in popularity. By the mid-2000s, its use peaked. At that time Kiwis became among the highest users of meth in the world. It hit Oceania hard; 2.7 percent of adults in Australia and the Marshall Islands had used amphetamines. This wasn’t a drug that only targeted the down and out either. In the adult Kiwi population, 2.1 percent had used meth. It’s just as popular with the Mad Men-style boardroom types as it is with bored kids, and this is why. Apparently, the rush hits you and you can feel everything. All of a sudden what you considered to be ‘life’ before, is just a grey imitation of THIS. It’s a vacation from reality where even sex feels a 1000 times better than it did in your washed-out version of reality.

But then, of course, you crash, and you spend the next few days scratching around feeling uncomfortable and awful, unable to concentrate on distractions.

Despite the rush that can come from this illicit drug, there are countless negatives. In the New Zealand Drug Harm Index Report, it was estimated that dependent users of amphetamine-type stimulants had the highest level of drug-related crime. The study also found that methamphetamine was ranked as the most harmful drug for dependent users, users whose drug use was “weekly or more frequent and resulted in self-reported harm” followed closely by heroin/homebake. Methamphetamine was also ranked as being responsible for high to very high harm for dependent users.

The government’s recent efforts to put more money into treatment are paying off, but there’s still a long way to go.

According to a 2014-15 report from the New Zealand Ministry of Health, amphetamine use had dropped to 0.9 percent in 2015. So why is it still receiving so much hype in the headlines, and what caused the dip?

According to Ross Bell, executive director at the New Zealand Drug Foundation, a few things are happening. First of all there’s been extra funding going into fighting our drug culture. “The government’s recent efforts to put more money into treatment are paying off, but there’s still a long way to go.”

The numbers may also be skewed by new synthetics hitting the scene, lowering numbers on amphetamines, but not on drugs overall. “New drugs are on the market, synthetics like bath salts for example,” Bell tells me.

“Another thing that’s happened is that people have seen the real problems meth has caused. They look around and see their friends who have taken meth get real f**ked up. They don’t use because they’ve seen what the problems are.

Bell also says “What we’re seeing now, in terms of the new community concern for meth, is its provincial use. It’s remote and out of the cities. It’s in Northland, it’s on the West Coast of the South Island, it’s in Southland, it’s on the east coast. Those are parts of the country that don’t have treatment services. Drug treatment services are concentrated in the cities. We’re seeing problematic drug use in parts of the country where help isn’t available.”

The NZDF director continually comes back to the statement that our culture of drug abuse isn’t a law enforcement issue, rather it’s a health issue. When we consider the issue in this light, our current methods for dealing with it come up wanting.

“What we’re found now is that the police are saying ‘we can’t arrest our way out of this problem’, and it’s what we’ve been saying for a long time. Whether it’s methamphetamine or cannabis, our drug problem is first and foremost a health issue. Police recognise our role in helping reduce the social harm caused by illicit drugs in our communities,” Bell says.

A police spokesperson told M2: “This is not a problem police can solve alone – we work alongside our partners in health, [NZ] Customs, and other agencies, in order to hold those committing offences to account, and help those affected by drugs to get the assistance they need.”

But is this assistance being provided?

When a person, through all the chaos of their life, put their hand up to get help, and are told by the treatment agency: ‘you’re on a three-month waiting list’, what are they going to do?

In the National Report 2012, by the Mental Health Commission, findings noted about 1.9 percent of the population (or about 50,000 people) in the past year had wanted help to reduce their drug or alcohol usage, but had not received it. As a kicker, “Pacific people, Māori and people from the most deprived neighbourhoods” were significantly more likely than other groups to want help but not receive it. “When a person, through all the chaos of their life, put their hand up to get help, and are told by the treatment agency: ‘you’re on a three-month waiting list’, what are they going to do?” Bell asks. “They’re going to keep on using. We lose them and they may never put their hand up again. We miss so many opportunities in New Zealand to provide help when it’s needed.”

Then again, Bell says: “We put too great a proportion of resources into law enforcement efforts – police, Customs, the courts and prisons – and we have failed for a long time to invest in the health side of dealing with the drug problem,”

The Drug Harm Index from the Ministry of Health outlines how much the government spends on fighting the drug problem. The total amount is $351 million. Only $78 million, or 22 percent, of that $351 million goes toward health. More than 80 percent goes to police, court, Customs and prisons. “That alone shows us we have got the balance wrong,” Bell says. “And if we really wanted to get on top of our drug problem, whether it be meth or anything else, we want to put money into health and treatment.”

Increased funding from the government has shown a positive effect in this area, but more is needed.

Labour’s health spokesperson, David Clark, told M2: “Drug use can never be an excuse for crime. That said, support for those wishing to deal with these addictions needs to be strengthened. A reported 62 percent of people in prison have had a mental health or addiction issue in the 12 months prior to being admitted. Ninety percent of those in the prison system wrestle with a health or addiction issue sometime in their life.

“Unfortunately, mental health and addiction issues have felt the squeeze under the current government,” Clarke continues. “They have shut beds in hospitals that were set aside for acute patients, despite the numbers presenting actually being on the rise. And NGOs running mental health and addiction facilities have not been funded sufficiently to meet their ongoing costs. This is one of the consequences of the government’s $1.7 billion in cuts to the health sector over the past six years.”

Bell believes it is all about where the effort should be focused: “Is it the fence at the top, or the ambulance at the bottom?”

We’re still spending money right at the bottom of the cliff, which is prisons, rather than at the top at prevention.

Bell tells me: “At the moment we have a government that likes to talk about the social investment approach. They are willing to spend money earlier if it prevents problems later in life. That’s a great theory, but we’re not seeing it practice when it comes to alcohol and drug treatment. We’re still spending money right at the bottom of the cliff, which is prisons, rather than at the top at prevention.”

The idea is that there will always be supply where there is demand. Just look at old examples such as the prohibition.

So, 40 years of cracking down hard on drugs has had little effect in minimising its damage to society. Numbers from Statistics New Zealand from 2012 show it’s not a problem unique to New Zealand, and other countries are trying alternative methods of dealing with the situation.

The United States, notably in the past few years, has started legalising marijuana, a remarkable turnaround for the country, although its approach has been a strong commercial one with its own set of pitfalls. Canada, in early 2017, has legalised weed, but in a far more cautious manner, making it only legal for medical use. They’re also building strong laws around it, to allow communities to decide whereabouts it can be sold or advertised.

It should be stressed that there is a difference between decriminalisation and legalisation.

In a case more pertinent to New Zealand, Portugal decriminalised drugs in 2001. It should be stressed that there is a difference between decriminalisation and legalisation. Once I personally got my head around the concept, the pieces started to make a lot more sense. In short, decriminalisation means that acts are no longer crimes, though they can still be subject to penalties. Legalisation, however, would remove all or most legal detriments from an act that was previously illegal. People caught with small quantities of drugs are referred to a treatment program or given a fine. They don’t receive jail time or any sort of criminal record.

Drug-related death numbers in Portugal are now among the lowest in the world, and over the last 15 years, the feared spike in drug use in the country has failed to materialise. Rates of continued drug use among adults went from almost 45 percent in 2001 down to just less than 30 percent in 2012.

New cases of HIV and AIDS among drug users has also significantly plunged, from a combined number of 1600 in 2001 to less than 100 in 2012.

An interesting side effect is that the use of legal highs and synthetics is extremely low; since people can get regular weed, why bother with the freaky, tweaked stuff?

In the 2016 report, National Drug Policy 2015 to 2020, by the Ministry of Health, one slated plan for 2017/18 is to “develop options for further minimising harm in relation to the offence and penalty regime for personal possession within the Misuse of Drugs Act 1975”. This may be a step in the right direction.

If parents thought about this: if your kid had a drug problem and was busted at school with cannabis, would you want them to have a criminal record, or would you want them to get help?

It’s a hard concept to swallow. Our ‘tough on drugs’ attitude has been deeply ingrained in our mindset. It seems antithetical that decriminalising drugs will result in better results than what we’ve been getting from law enforcement. But Portugal’s experiment should make us reconsider.

It all goes back to what Bell told us: “parents think ‘yes, I don’t want my kids to do drugs, so we need tough drug laws’. But what’s the side effect of that? The consequence is that a lot of young New Zealanders are getting criminal records for drug use. It screws you up for life, you’re not going to be able to get a job, you’re not going to be able to travel. The criminal approach screws up young New Zealanders and we’re still among the highest users of cannabis in the world. We’ve still got drug problems but we’re just making them worse.

“If parents thought about this: if your kid had a drug problem and was busted at school with cannabis, would you want them to have a criminal record, or would you want them to get help?”

* According to New Zealand Drug Harm Index 2016 and the World Drug Report 2016. ** Users of amphetamine-type stimulants, which include amphetamine, methamphetamine, dexamphetamine, pharma-stimulants and cocaine.

Unfortunately due to print deadlines I was unable to include a few statements including one by deputy prime minister Paula Bennett. In the interest of letting everyone weigh in who didn’t get a chance I have included their statements unedited and un editorialised below.


“Illegal drug use causes a huge amount of harm in our communities. With the funding available we’ve got to both crack down on organised crime and gangs, as well as take an investment approach to prevent drug abuse from happening in the first place, especially with young people.”

“It’s why we’ve increased funding for Police to include 80 new specialist officers to target organised crime and gang activity. It’s also why we target services at young people where we know it will make a long-term difference.”

“Tackling this problem takes an all of government approach, involving the health sector, the justice sector, customs and police.”

“Last month it was great to see Customs and Police stop the importation of 160 litres of t-boc at the border. T-boc is a form of methamphetamine chemically masked to prevent detection. The liquid form hadn’t been detected here before and your smart policing has prevented the harm that could have been caused by this insidious drug infiltrating our communities.

The Health and Justice sectors also work together to make sure people receive the rehabilitation they need, while also sending a message through sentencing that this drug won’t be tolerated in our communities.


“Meth and drug abuse in New Zealand is a considerable problem. Too often it is wrongly characterised as only affecting a part of New Zealand, a part that is separate from the white collar world. But drug abuse is not confined to those in poverty. The pervasiveness of drug use in New Zealand is visible in the affects it has across our society, across a range of people.

The illegality of drug abuse cannot be overlooked. However problems arise when the ongoing criminalisation of certain groups obscures real and productive support and solutions to the problem. The dominance of this narrative is visible in the discrepancy between media portrayal and false rhetoric given by National MPs including the Prime Minister, and the actual results of drug testing of beneficiaries. For example in 2015, there were 31,791 referrals for drug testable positions nationwide by the Ministry of Social Development and only 55 sanctions for failing a drug test.

A key priority for dealing with drug abuse is accessibility to support and trust in support services. Mental health and addictions services provide lifelines for people with addictions and offer a pathway to recovery. Yet these social services are being eroded by this Governments failure to value their contributions to our communities. For months, the Minister of Social Development has been pushing for social services to share private client information in return for funding because they don’t think they are getting their money’s worth. The requirement of contracted social services to provide private client information to the Government has been heavily criticised by Labour, alongside social services themselves, the people who seek out their support, law experts and now even the Privacy Commissioner.

The report from the Privacy Commissioner confirmed Labour’s belief that those who are most in need of social services may be deterred from seeking support. This could have considerable repercussions for individuals, and could result in many people missing the help they need. Anyone with a drug addiction, no matter their income, their job or where they live, deserves support and privacy.”