Plant material containing the synthetic cannabinoid AMB-FUBINACA. Credit: ESR

Synthetic drug crackdown – Expert Reaction

The Government has signalled a range of changes to drug policy in response to increased synthetic drug-related deaths.

The changes include classifying two synthetic drugs as Class A drugs, creating a temporary drug category that will allow new drugs to be included under the Misuse of Drugs Act, and amending the Act to specify that police should not prosecute for possession and personal use where a therapeutic approach would be more appropriate.

The SMC asked experts to comment on the changes. 

Dr Paul Quigley, Emergency Medicine Specialist, Clinical Toxicologist, comments:

“The combined announcement today from the Ministers of Health and Police is a significant step forward towards reducing risk for those New Zealanders with substance use disorders. In particular, it may potentially reduce harm from synthetic cannabinoids by reducing access to supply, while not overtly penalising those using the substance.

“Synthetics are very addictive. By increasing the funding and access to treatment services, those already hooked will be able to have a health-directed – rather than punitive criminal – approach. For those who continue to fall foul of the justice system, it is clear that the Police would prefer to have access to drug treatment programs than jail cells. This is consistent with overseas evidence that demonstrates significant public health benefit from the creation of drug courts and mandated treatment programs.

“The recent toxicological outbreak that has been seen with synthetics has required a significant multi-agency approach, and the setting aside of funding to assist will enable on-going public health efforts into at-risk communities and fund social initiatives to try and stop the demand for synthetics. The cases we have seen have come from some of the most vulnerable and disenfranchised sectors of New Zealand society, their personal stories filled with tragedy and poverty.  It has also affected those already isolated by existing mental health conditions or substance abuse issues.  None of the cases I have reviewed have ever been ‘criminal’ by nature but simply victims of circumstance using drugs to escape the horror of their lives.

“The acknowledgement that a Drug Early Warning System will provide intelligence and harm information to direct some of these initiatives is groundbreaking. This will allow for information from Emergency Departments, forensic toxicology, addiction services, customs, police and academic researchers to be used in a coordinated fashion to create a proactive approach in reducing harms from recreational drug use.

“While the trigger for this initiative has been from the synthetic cannabinoid outbreak it is clear that the intention behind the changes is for all illicit and novel substances. This open approach will have significant benefit for those who experiment with novel psychoactive agents and other drugs.

“I personally believe these changes are a positive step forward in recognising illicit drug use as a significant health issue and a clear indication that the Government is willing to explore a new approach to the misuse of drugs with the ultimate outcome being a reduction in harm.”

Dr Fiona Hutton, Senior Lecturer in Criminology, Institute of Criminology, Victoria University of Wellington, comments:

“This announcement is a significant public shift in government approaches to addiction and the use of drugs in New Zealand. The ministers involved are to be commended for taking a bold step in response to the Inquiry into mental health and addiction. It is excellent to see the extra money going towards treatment and community support services. It is also excellent to see that the government has stated their commitment to ‘do what will work’, and to ‘treat the use of drugs as a health issue by removing barriers to people seeking help’.

“However, there is still work to do. Reclassifying substances as Class A and ‘getting tough’, even with a focus on suppliers, is not the way forward – this will not help those who have addictions, many of whom are user/dealers themselves. We have been ‘getting tough’ on drugs and those who supply them since the 1975 Misuse of Drugs Act came into force 43 years ago. Since then drugs have become purer, cheaper and more available than ever before, with the latest world drug report noting that drug markets are ‘thriving’.

“Amending the 1975 Misuse of Drugs Act to specify that Police should use their discretion in deciding whether to prosecute for possession and personal use is also of concern. Certain groups in society come to the attention of Police more often, are prosecuted more often and more severely within the criminal justice system (The Colour of Injustice, 2018). Embedding ‘discretion’ further into the New Zealand justice system will serve to deepen the existing inequalities in our justice system and should be avoided. Why not decimalise the personal possession and use of drugs as recommended by the New Zealand Drug Foundation in 2017? This removes the issue of discretion and would work towards lessening the inequalities apparent in prosecutions for drug offences.

“Extending Police powers of search and arrest is also concerning – the Search and Surveillance Act 2012 already provides enough power for the Police in terms of these things, and extending such controlling measures does not ‘treat the use of drugs as health issue’. Why not instead enact ‘good Samaritan laws’ in a New Zealand context? These laws mean that if someone overdoses and another person calls an ambulance or the Police to help them they will not be prosecuted under the law, and a person’s life could be saved.

“There are some excellent and positive initiatives contained in these measures to address the harms related to synthetic drugs, but also some concerning issues around the rhetoric of ‘getting tough’ – an approach that has not helped us in over four decades of the ‘war on drugs’.”

Professor Doug Sellman, Professor of Psychiatry and Addiction Medicine, University of Otago, Christchurch, comments:

“The Government needs to be applauded on its announcement today to amend the Misuse of Drugs Act for Police to exercise discretion and not prosecute people for personal use of illicit drugs where a therapeutic approach would be more beneficial.

“Even though this is essentially sanctioning what the Police are often doing already, this is arguably the most important step a government has announced in gaining better control over illicit drugs for over 50 years.

“It is very hard to imagine a situation where a therapeutic approach would not be more beneficial than criminalisation. However, there needs to be easily accessible therapeutic options available to the Police for this to be enacted. The $8 million dollars provided over four years as a discretionary fund will not achieve this. This amount needs to be enhanced by an order of 100x to achieve transformative gains.

“The small move by the government announced today is likely to take a little heat off the ‘get tough on drugs’ approach which has been very damaging to drug users, their families and communities. However, it needs to go much further in order to get better control of illicit drugs.

“Getting better control of illicit drugs will come with undermining the enormous black market in illicit drugs that exists in New Zealand. In order to achieve this the government needs to take two bold steps:

  1. Enact a Portugal-like shift of resources from the criminal justice system to the drug rehabilitation system in order to significantly enhance treatment options for drug users;
  2. Create a strictly regulated, not for private profit system of supply of currently illicit drugs, beginning with cannabis.”