Every year there are two and a half thousand convictions of people aged 25 and under for possession and/or use of an illicit drug or drug utensil in New Zealand.
Between 2007 and 2011, there were 12,895 convictions in this age range. Over this period, New Zealand has spent more than $59 million imprisoning those who are convicted of minor drug offences and have to serve custodial sentences. This money is spent on imprisonment costs alone – it does not include costs to Police, the courts, treatment or probation.
With an average cost of over $18,000 per person imprisoned for minor drug offences, we have to start asking, what is the cost of convicting young New Zealanders?
According to a Ministry of Health survey, about half of all adult New Zealanders – or around 1.4 million people – have used illegal drugs. Around 485,500 had done so in the past year.
Most people will use drugs when they are young. The Ministry of Health found that over half of those aged 18–24 and almost two-thirds of those aged 25–34 admitted to using illegal drugs.
Data from the Christchurch Health and Development Study found the rates of youth drug use to be even higher. By the age of 25, over 77 percent of the young people in their study admitted to using illegal drugs.
This is a bad thing for many reasons. It severely narrows opportunities: it’s harder to get a job, harder to travel, harder to get credit and harder to do many things most of us take for granted. It also exposes them to a negative environment, and it puts them in prison – a university of crime where drug use is rampant and joining a gang is often necessary for protection. All of this at a time when their brains and identities are forming.
We are stacking the odds against our young people. Almost half of all people convicted of possession and/or use of an illicit drug or drug utensil are aged between 17 and 25.
|Age group||Mean sentence (days)|
|Drug type||Class||Mean sentence (days)|
The mean sentence for possession of BZP is 425 days, while people who are in possession of heroin or methamphetamine get 75 days. This is obviously not a system based on relative harms.
|Age group||Number of people sentenced||Mean sentence (days)||Cost per person||Total cost|
|Drug type||Number of people sentenced||Mean sentence (days)||Cost per person||Total cost|
That means we spend over $4 million a year imprisoning young people for minor drug offences. This is just the cost of imprisoning. It does not include Police costs, court costs, legal aid costs, probation costs or social costs.
to imprison one person for one day.
number of convictions for minor drug offences between 2007 and 2011.
spent between 2007 and 2011 imprisoning people for minor drug offences.
spent between 2007 and 2011 imprisoning people 25 and under for minor drug offences.
average number of days people are in prison for possession of BZP.
average number of days people are in prison for possession of cannabis.
average number of days people are in prison for possession of methamphetamine.
The 2019 State of the Nation report provides a snapshot of available data on how NZ deals with drugs. Release November 2019.
Did You Know appears in the new discussion guide for parents and caregivers accompanying 13 Reasons Why.
Ross Bell brings the drug policy debate back to what really matters: whānau.
2019 Parliamentary Drug Policy Symposium, Through the Maze: just and equitable drug law reform
Back to top