A mandatory review of the Psychoactive Substances Act is more than a month overdue, while as many as 45 people have died since the middle of last year after using synthetic cannabis. Laura Walters looks at the state of the war on synthetics.

Nicole Graham died on the floor of her sister’s Lower Hutt home. She’d grown up as a gang child, and had acute mental health issues. At the time of her death, she was under a compulsory community mental health treatment order.

On that day in 2016, the 30-year-old had a few sessions of “the $8 stuff”, causing her to slump over in a zombie-like state. Later, someone in the house noticed she hadn’t moved. Her face was orange, and the man noticed a fly flying off her face by her mouth.

A Coronial Services spokeswoman says since June 1, 2017, between 40 and 45 people are believed to have died because of synthetic cannabis use.

In almost all cases, the findings are provisional, and are being dealt with by Coroner Morag McDowell. The six closed cases – three pre-June 2017 and three since – show patterns: a history of mental health issues, as well as alcohol and substance abuse. Some were in medical or mental health care at the time of death, or in the days immediately prior.

On the last page of one of the reports, the coroner said he suppressed the details of the man’s death, at the request of the family, “with a good degree of reluctance”. “To publish (had I allowed that) would draw the issue of (and the evils of) synthetic cannabis use to public attention. That would have been a positive thing.”

As the number of hospital admissions, emergency callouts and deaths continue to rise, authorities are ramping up their response, with five agencies now involved in the Government’s working group: the Ministry of Health, Ministry of Justice, NZ Police, National Drug Intelligence Bureau, and NZ Customs Service. Coronial Services is working with the Ministry of Health, police, district health boards, ESR and pathologists to identify the substances involved.

In July, police provided the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet (DPMC) information on the state of play.

Police said psychoactive substances remained a significant concern, but they found it difficult to carry out enforcement.

There were limitations with the current legislation, including limited penalties for dealing, limited powers of search and the time it took to identify and regulate for new substances.

“An effective response to synthetic cannabis would include both legislative change and a properly resourced multi-agency response model led by the Ministry of Health… We will not enforce our way out of this problem.”

Law review overdue

Amid all the proposals and working groups, the mandatory review into the law aimed at controlling these substances is more than a month late. The law stipulates the review would take place no later than five years after the Act came into effect. That date was July 17.

In a statement, Health Minister David Clark said the review of the act was not well-advanced under the previous government. “I’m advised that work is now nearing completion and I expect advice and a draft report from the Ministry in coming weeks.”

This is the same statement he gave to another media outlet four weeks ago.

In a separate statement, Ministry of Health acting chief strategy and policy officer Todd Krieble said the ministry had almost completed the review, and expected to provide advice to the minister this month.

Can we legislate out of this mess?

National MP Simeon Brown has a bill before Parliament that would increase the penalty for those distributing synthetic cannabis.

NZ First supported the bill through its first reading, but the guts of this law and order bill is a far cry from the health-led approach the Government says it needs to tackle the country’s growing drug problems. It’s also out of sync with the coalition’s plans to reduce the prison population.

Brown said he believed his Psychoactive Substances (Increasing Penalty for Supply and Distribution) Amendment Bill addressed part of the issue, and harsher penalties would act as a deterrent for dealers.

New Zealanders wanted legislators to be tough on drugs, and keep communities safe, and this bill would do that, he said.

In a submission on the bill, Drug Foundation executive director Ross Bell said the proposed changes were unlikely to achieve the purpose of reducing harm, saying it would put further pressure on the prison population, and may increase the potency of drugs on the market.

It might seem counter-intuitive, but coming down harder on drugs pushed up prices, making them more attractive to professional criminals, he said.

“Unfortunately, addressing the supply side of drugs in this way is doomed to failure…. Supply will always step up to meet demand.”

New Zealand’s war on drugs

Green MP Chloe Swarbrick said the war on drugs had failed.

“It’s grotesquely irresponsible of politicians to continue beating the blunt and broken instrument around moral panic, and calling for increasing penalties when we know demonstrably that is simply not working.”

The issue should not be “pushed further into the shadows”, it should be confronted in the light, she said.

“Of course it’s going to be uncomfortable. To deal with any complex, nuanced issue, is going to be messy and uncomfortable, and I think it’s irresponsible for us not to deal with it in that way.”

Swarbrick has established a cross-party group to build consensus for evidence-based drug policy that reduces harm.

“Our current approach to drugs is literally costing people’s lives. It’s irresponsible to sit on our hands as decision-makers and not do anything to address that.”

The Government has rejected the Opposition’s calls for a separate inquiry into synthetics, saying it would be covered by the current inquiry into mental health and addictions, which was due to report back next month.

It’s a wider issue

New Zealand’s drug issue goes beyond synthetics.

Police Minister Stuart Nash has repeatedly referred to the country’s methamphetamine problem as an epidemic.

In the latest findings of police wastewater testing, meth was the most commonly used drug in the three testing locations – Auckland, Whangarei and Christchurch.

Police said the three sample sites generated about $58 million in known drug revenue to organised crime groups over the period of testing. And over the past 18 months, 1.5 kilograms of meth was estimated to have been consumed on average each week across the sample population, which was estimated to translate into $2m per week in social harm.

Nash has also expressed concern about the misuse of the synthetic opioid fentanyl, and in May the drug was added to the wastewater testing pilot.

In its information to DPMC, police said a multi-agency response model need not be limited to synthetic cannabis and would arguably be more powerful if available to be deployed to any significant drug harm problem.

* This article was first published on Newsroom Pro on Friday at 2.20pm. 

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