7 Mar 2019

Government moves to increase synthetic cannabinoids penalties

5:34 pm on 7 March 2019

The government has introduced legislation that will re-classify the two main synthetic cannabinoids as Class A substances.

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Photo: RNZ / Luke McPake

Once it passes through its readings in the house and select committee process, the bill would mean offences related to the drugs would carry a maximum sentence of life imprisonment.

It would also gives police better powers of search and seizure.

The Misuse of Drugs Amendment Bill was introduced to Parliament today, following the government's promise last year to do something about the increasing number of deaths related to synthetics use.

The Coroner has now said it could be as many as 65 or more who have died - with 55 so far confirmed linked to use of the drug.

Health Minister David Clark said while the bill increases penalties, it also encourages a therapeutic approach to dealing with drug offenders.

"Making sure that police are using their discretion to say when a therapeutic approach might be more beneficial than applying the criminal law and we are reaffirming that with this bill," he said.

Police Minister Stuart Nash said there was "no point in criminalising good people who find themselves in really bad situations, or who have made really bad decisions".

"We are asking police to use their discretion. They do at this point in time anyway, we're just codifying this in law. What we are saying is for someone who is an addict, locking them up in jail is not the best approach."

National MP Simeon Brown yesterday delayed his Member's Bill - which increases the penalties for dealers of any strain of synthetic cannabinoid - by a month, so that the government would have longer to consider it before voting it down.

He said he was pleased some action was finally being taken on this issue, but asked why it had taken the government so long.

"I've had my bill in parliament now for over a year," he said.

"Does it go far enough? My bill was going to ensure that all substances received a a class B classification. What we're going to see now is new substances coming on, new mixes coming in, and the government's going to be playing catchup."

The government Bill however would shift two key synthetics - 5F-ADB and AMB-FUBINACA - into the Class A drug category and it also creates a temporary category, C1, allowing new drugs to be easily brought under the Misuse of Drugs Act.

The bill states it would "enable temporary drug class orders to be issued for emerging and potentially harmful substances".

New Zealand First supported the move.

"It's a very good start and probably the first time that any government's really approached the problem of drugs in our society with such a broad range and holistic approach," the party's law and order spokesperson Darroch Ball said.

"We're targeting the dealers, targeting the suppliers, giving the judicial system a greater set of powers for maximum sentences and giving the police greater powers of search and seizure."

Mr Brown however was worried that by not automatically including all cannabinoids in the legislation, some would slip under the police's radar.

"The test in that will be how quickly they can respond. What my bill does, is ensures that it doesn't matter what substance gets mixed by the drug dealers, it's illegal from day one, and will be attributed with a serious penalty."