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Show me the money!

1 November 2015

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Whether we’re treating drug issues in the health sector or enforcing the Misuse of Drugs Act in the law enforcement and justice sector, addressing drug-related harm isn’t cheap. The relative funding we allocate to health approaches like treating drug addiction versus law enforcement approaches like imprisonment affects our outcomes in reducing drug harm.

The weight of international preventive and drug harm reduction evidence demonstrates it’s more effective to tackle drug problems predominantly with a public health, social support and strong regulatory approach than a criminal justice approach. Criminal justice approaches can actually make the problem worse
by hampering access to treatment and increasing health and social problems for people who use drugs. However, for many years, it’s been widely acknowledged that we put significantly more funding into our criminal justice-based enforcement approach to drugs than our health and socially focused approach.

While it’s not easy to get good data on funding and costs around these endeavours, we present some of the available figures

Alcohol and other drug treatment services (2012/13 financial year)

Vote: Health

Vote: Health
Funding $116,236,789
Funding for young people under 19 years $15 million (approx.)
Number of people treated 46,641
Average cost per person treated $2,492
Full-time equivalent workforce positions funded 1,452

 Vote: Corrections

Vote: Corrections
Funding $5,415,000

Average cost per prison-based drug and alcohol treatment programme participant

Number of prisoners who completed an alcohol and drug programme (prison-based and community) 1,507

Harm reduction (Needle Exchange Programme)

Drug harm reduction activity, designed to reduce the harm occurring from drug use for those unable or unwilling to stop, is one of the most cost-effective ways to use funding. New Zealand’s Needle Exchange Programme (NEP) is an excellent example of this.

A review of the effectiveness/efficiency of the New Zealand NEP between 1988 and 2001, also applying evidence from an Australian review of needle exchange programmes, reveals some impressive harm reduction figures.

Total net benefit of lifetime hepatitis C and HIV treatment savings from infections prevented between 1998 and 2001 was estimated at $202 million. 

Needle Exchange Programme (NEP)
NEP total current Vote: Health funding $4.75 million
(approx. per annum)
Blood-borne infections/deaths avoided between 1988 and 2001 HIV – 1,031 cases/20 deaths Hepatitis C – 1,454 cases

Enforcement costs

There is a particular lack of current, accurate and comprehensive information available on government drug enforcement costs. However, the figures below were presented in the New Zealand Police’s New Zealand Drug Harm Index published in 2008. Drugs covered by the index were cannabis, opioids (opium, homebake, heroin, morphine), stimulants (cocaine, amphetamine, methamphetamine, ecstasy) and LSD.

Illicit drug enforcement costs 2005/06 ($ million)
Prisons 110.5
Police 106.9
Criminal courts 40
Customs 24.7
Community sentences 20.9
Total  303

The figures presented support the generally accepted view that we spend considerably more on drug enforcement than on drug treatment and harm reduction. However, these figures are not comprehensive, and the accuracy, particularly of the enforcement figures from the 2008 Drug Harm Index, has been questioned.

There is also Vote: Social Development funding, through Child, Youth and Family and Work and Income New Zealand, for some treatment services for youth, families and individuals. These figures were not available at the time of printing. Further, government funding for drug and alcohol prevention activity has not been included.

We should therefore be cautious about conclusions around overall government spending on approaches to drug and alcohol problems. Certainly, there is a need for better and more easily available funding data across our various approaches. This would allow us to better determine what funding is going where and assess relative effectiveness at reducing harm.


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