The coroner is calling for a harm reduction approach to synthetic cannabis as the death toll continues to rise, Laura Walters reports.

The number of deaths believed to be caused by synthetics has risen to as many as 50, with the coroner releasing detailed findings into two more deaths caused by the drugs – and repeating a call for a change in approach to users and easier access to addiction treatment.

Health Minister David Clark is currently working on a strategy to combat the problem, but the National Party is accusing the Government of dragging its feet while New Zealanders die.

Meanwhile, the Green Party is continuing to advocate for regulation rather than prohibition, as the drug argument rages on.

On Friday, Coroner Michael Robb released two findings along with a warning to lawmakers, saying increasing enforcement created further barriers to users seeking help.

Rotorua man Shannon James Thomas Coleman-Fallen, 29, died after choking on his vomit while unconscious, after using synthetics. Meanwhile, Robb ruled the death of Taupō man Isaiah Terry McLaughlin was “likely caused or contributed to, by consumption of synthetic drugs”.

In both reports Robb repeats recommendations of Coroner Gordon Matenga, made in the wake of an earlier synthetic cannabis-linked death.

The recommendations include a synthetic cannabis related harm reduction approach to reduce demand and supply, and easier access to drug treatment.

He also recommended anyone who encounters someone they believe to have taken the drug to seek medical assistance immediately and said anyone found collapsed should be shaken and roused, then placed in the recovery position.

A Coronial Services spokesperson said there had been 45 to 50 cases nationally since June 1 2017 which provisionally appear to be attributable to synthetic cannabis toxicity.

This is an upgrade to what had previously been reported as up to 45 deaths, in this time period.

Health Minister David Clark said any death as a result of drug use was a tragedy.

“The Government is taking the synthetic drugs issue very seriously – these drugs are killing people.”

Health, Police, Customs and Corrections were working together on the issue, while Government – led by Clark – looked at the question of reclassification, Clark said.

A decision from Cabinet is expected in the coming weeks, he said.

“It’s important to acknowledge that there is no silver bullet. We need to treat drugs, including synthetics, as a health issue.

“Our focus is harm reduction and reducing the supply of synthetics, rather than simply criminalising people using these drugs.”

Clark said the Government was working with service providers, and focusing on community-based initiatives, adding that Budget 2018 included a further $200 million (over four years) for DHBs to spend on mental health and addiction.

In June it announced funding for the construction of extra alcohol and drug detoxification beds in Auckland.

National MP Simeon Brown has called for a Parliamentary inquiry into addiction to psychoactive substances, including investigating the health and addiction resources available.

“There’s a real need for support,” he said.

Clark said a separate inquiry wasn’t needed on top of the current mental health and addiction inquiry. But Brown said the Government was dragging its feet.

A working group to look into synthetics was set up in August, but so far there have been no results. Meanwhile, the deadline for the mental health and addiction inquiry has been extended.

In the meantime, Brown urged the Government to support his bill to increase the penalty for those dealing and supplying synthetics.

The bill calling for harsher penalties is a contradiction to the Government’s much-touted harm reduction and health approach, but it passed its second reading with the help of New Zealand First – a coalition partner of Labour and the Greens.

Brown described the latest findings and rising death toll as “shocking”.

“It confirmed the need for there to be some real action taken by the Government on this issue.”

Green Party drug reform spokesperson Chloe Swarbrick said the latest finding showed New Zealand politicians could no longer sit on their hands, “nor bicker about increasing penalties”.

“New Zealanders are dying and if this were concerning any other issue other than these ‘evil illegal drugs’ we would be talking about regulation. But instead we are very much stuck in this myopic narrow focus around increasing penalties.”

There needed to be a stronger focusing on improving the lives of people who were turning to psychoactive substances, like synthetics, and on reducing demand, Swarbrick said.

Ministry of Health data, as well as coroner’s findings, showed more needed to be done to support people, and encourage them to access help. That wouldn’t happen while people were afraid of police or the law, and decriminalising users rather than ratcheting up penalties was supported by international evidence, she said.

Politicians needed to focus on reducing harm and “getting past political rhetoric”.

Earlier this week, the Drug Foundation released an economic impact report, which found reforming the country’s “punitive” drug laws – including the decriminalisation of all drugs and introduction of a legal market for cannabis – would benefit the country by at least $450 million a year.

The report, produced by economist Shamubeel Eaqub says there would be a net social benefit of at least $225m from investing an extra $150m in addiction treatment, drug education, and harm reduction interventions.

It estimates there would be a net social benefit of $34m to $83m from replacing the Misuse of Drugs Act, passed in 1975, with a new law based on a health-based approach to the issue.

Creating a legal, regulated market for the purchase of cannabis would bring $185m to $240m in new tax revenue while also saving the justice sector $6m to $13m.

The debate over drug reform is ramping up, as the effects of synthetics and methamphetamine ravages communities; the inquiry into mental health and addiction nears its conclusion; and the country prepares for a referendum on legalising the personal use of cannabis by the next election.

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