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Last week, Acting PM Winston Peters directed government officials to take urgent action to stop any further deaths from synthetic cannabinoids. Peters’ statement was prompted by a shock announcement from the Coroner’s Office that 40-45 New Zealanders’ deaths in the last 12 months have been attributed to synthetic cannabinoids.

This is the first acknowledgement of how serious this situation is since the first deaths were reported in July 2017. Health, Police, Customs and Justice ministers have been directed to work on a plan of action to end the tragic pattern of deaths, life threatening injury, and community pain. While acknowledging the need for urgency, Peters would not specify when we could expect results.

“We have failed to get on top of it and I hope in the next six months we will. What I hope we can come up with using the best information we have, is a cross-party solution that actually works.... and on this issue as fast as possible,” Peters said on Tuesday 31 July.

To ensure a fast and effective solution, the Drug Foundation is recommending an inter-related package of measures, which we believe is necessary for a public health crisis of this magnitude.

  1. Fund central coordination of an urgent cross-agency response. Make sure each agency has the mandate and resourcing to implement practical, on-the-ground solutions.
  2. Focus on practical treatment and harm reduction interventions, such as:
    ◦ ensuring every person discharged from hospital after an overdose is connected with a support worker
    ◦ distributing our best practise toolkit to communities, to guide local responses.
    ◦ outreach to communities that are most vulnerable to harm from synthetics
  3. Implement an early warning system to coordinate information between police, customs, hospitals, ambulance staff, treatment providers, NGOs and ESR. Communicate this information as practical advice for the public.

In addition to these short-term measures, the Drug Foundation maintains the best long-term solution is to decriminalise possession of all drugs, and regulate access to less harmful substances.

For several months ESR scientists have been working on a platform for a national drug monitoring and surveillance system to tackle the wave of evolving synthetic drugs entering the country. Their system will provide timely information to help agencies develop a co-ordinated response. The Drug Foundation will continue to play an active role in supporting this initiative.

In a bizarre coincidence, last week also saw the Justice Select Committee hear more public submissions on the ill-conceived Psychoactive Substances (Increasing Penalty for Supply and Distribution) Amendment Bill. The Drug Foundation is highly critical of this Bill.

Presenting to the Select Committee on Thursday 2 August, Drug Foundation Executive Director Ross told MPs that the bill is a source of immense frustration.

“On the back of the deaths last year – first it was seven, then 10, then 20 deaths – all you could come up with was an increase in the penalties for supply. Nothing else! That’s kind of typical of the simplistic response we get to complicated drug issues,” Mr Bell said.

Our submission, which will be publicly available soon, explains why the idea of increased penalties for possession of synthetic substances is so deeply flawed. In summary, here’s what we said and the full submission is available below to download.

  1. Discard this Bill. It is unlikely to achieve its purpose of reducing harm. It will put pressure on the prison population and may further increase the potency of drugs on the market.
  2. Focus instead on ensuring the upcoming review of the Psychoactive Substances 2013 Act is comprehensive, wide-ranging and includes public input.
  3. Situate any changes to the Act in its wider context. To have a real impact on the harms caused by drugs in New Zealand we need wider law reform and more comprehensive investment in health programmes.

It’s critical that political leaders adopt a sense of urgency. The drug market is constantly evolving with new substances being concocted at a regular rate, and the demand for drugs continues undiminished.

Injury and deaths from synthetics are going to continue without considered government action. As summer approaches there is also a risk of fatalities from synthetic cathinones that are increasingly appearing at festivals.

Many people use synthetic cannabinoids to escape trauma, poverty and emotional distress. A large proportion of people using these drugs are extremely vulnerable, living in poverty, and many are homeless. Strictly regulating access to lower harm substances, including natural cannabis, should form a major part of any solution. More systemic issues also need to be addressed, such as addressing the root causes of poverty, alienation and despair. 

Read the full submission 

Other resources

Psychoactive Substances (Increasing Penalty for Supply and Distribution) Amendment Bill - Oral Submissions (Skip to the 8-minute mark to hear our Executive Director Ross Bell's critique of the National member's bill to extend penalties for supplying synthetic drugs, under the Psychoactive Substances Act)


RNZ: Focus on Politics for 3 August 2018

Further reading
RNZ: Huge jump in synthetic cannabis deaths - coroner
Vice: Legalising Weed Alone Won’t Stop Synthetics Deaths in New Zealand


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