28 Aug 2018

Police look to change 'inadequate' law to combat synthetic drugs crisis

6:13 pm on 28 August 2018

A law change to give police stronger powers to tackle makers and sellers of synthetic drugs could be on the cards, the police minister says.

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The Psychoactive Substances Act that regulated synthetics is "inadequate", according to the police minister. Photo: RNZ / Luke McPake

Following the revelation last month that up to 45 people had died from synthetics in the past year, the health and justice ministries, police and customs set up a working group to find possible solutions to deal with the crisis.

The Psychoactive Substances Act that regulated synthetics was "inadequate" and moving it to the Misuse of Drugs Act was a possible solution, Police Minister Stuart Nash said.

"The psychoactive substances legislation is not the right legislation to deal with synthetic cannabis," Mr Nash said.

"This is nasty, incredibly cheap and easy to make but the police just don't have the powers at this point to go after those who are producing and selling this in the way they do under the Misuse of Drugs Act."

The maximum penalty for making or selling synthetics under the Psychoactive Substances Act is currently two years in jail.

Under the Misuse of Drugs Act, the maximum penalty for supplying methamphetamine is life imprisonment, and 14 years for natural cannabis, which is up to 70 times less potent than synthetics.

It was too early to say what penalty synthetics might carry if the change was to go ahead, Mr Nash said.

But it would also give police greater powers to search properties and go after dealers, he said.

A police briefing on synthetic cannabis to the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet in July, obtained by RNZ, said the issue required "a strong health lead".

"We will not enforce our way out of this problem," the police briefing said.

"In summary, it is police's view that an effective response to synthetic cannabis would include both legislative change and a properly resourced multi-agency response led by the Ministry of Health."

Boarder control was also at the forefront in the battle against synthetics, Customs Minister Meka Whaitiri said.

There were more than 600 different compounds used to make the drug, and Customs intercepted a new one each week.

Staying one step ahead of those who made synthetic drugs was tricky, she said.

Often a single molecule in a compound was tweaked, making it legal, and legislators were forever catching up, but the working group was tasked with finding a solution to this problem, she said.

The working group's first report was due in the next month.

Meanwhile, more immediate help was being offered to addicts who were struggling to synthetics the drug in Napier's poorest suburb, Maraenui.

As RNZ has been investigating, residents who are hooked on synthetics say they have given up trying to quit because accessing help is too hard.

Click here to read the full report: 'Maraenui: The suburb swallowed by synthetics'.

Hawke's Bay District Health Board's chief medical officer John Gommans said the DHB would investigate setting up an addiction outreach clinic in Maraenui - but only if the community wanted it.

The community would be consulted first on what help it needed, and the DHB would determine what could be provided, Dr Gommans said.

One of the volunteers who used to help run a free walk-in clinic in the suburb last year, Tracey Benson, described the DHB's response as "fabulous".

"We definitely need one. I'm a firm believer that the opposite of addiction is connection. If these people have somewhere to go and talk about what's going on for them and know there is support there, it will really help."

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