15 Nov 2019

Fewer low-level drug charges laid, health referrals increase

6:19 am on 15 November 2019

The month after a law change on low level drug offending the number of people charged over low-level meth offences dropped by almost a third.

hand holds packet with white narcotic - cocaine, meth or another drug closeup

Low-level meth charges fell by almost a third after the law change, and cannabis charges dropped by a half over six months. Photo: 123rf

The number sent to health services rose, including people caught in possession of methamphetamine or the utensils used to consume the drug.

But those dealing with the health issues related to addiction say they need more resources to deal with increased numbers.

In July, 488 people were charged for low level methamphetamine offences, including possession, consumption and the possession of drug utensils.

The following month, after an alteration to the Misuse of Drugs Act which gave police more discretion when dealing with low level drug crime 170 fewer people were charged over meth offending.

Referrals to health services for methamphetamine offences prior to the law change were almost non-existent - with just three between April and June.

But in September, 18 people were referred to a health service rather than being locked up in a police cell.

Drug Foundation director Ross Bell said it is a positive start, and those numbers will only increase.

"Importantly for those people who aren't being burdened with a criminal conviction, but instead are being offered appropriate help, that's massive for them and their families."

Mr Bell said police resources will also be freed up as a result of the change in focus, allowing them to hone in on more serious offending.

Health Minister, David Clark, said the numbers are encouraging so soon after the law change.

"From what I can see I'm cautiously optimistic about the trend," Dr Clark said.

"It does show that police seem to be taking a health approach."

Cannabis charges fall

According to the numbers RNZ has obtained under the Official Information Act, about half the number of people were charged with cannabis possession in September as they were six months earlier.

In April, 413 people were charged with an offence, compared to 223 in September. The number dropped each month.

During the same months, the number of people referred to health services doubled.

But with more people being kept out of court, Ross Bell said health services could struggle in the short term.

"There will be in the short term services having to play catch up because we know that there are some significant service gaps in terms of addiction treatment services in different parts of the country," Mr Bell said.

"And right now there will be some parts of the country like Auckland that can cope quite quickly with these referrals.

"But we are going to have to build up services as that potential demand increases."

One area that is already struggling is Hawke's Bay.

Caroline Lampp is the chief executive of the Whatever It Takes Trust in Napier, and said keeping people out of police cells was great, but health services might not be ready.

"Well, I think they may be well enough equipped in teams of, you know, they're the right people to deal with it," Ms Lampp said.

"But I don't think they're well enough resourced because the increase is going to put huge pressure on existing services."

She said people are already having to wait too long to be referred to a counsellor.

"One of the issues with alcohol and drug support is that when somebody appears in a service looking for support, that's a critical moment when they need support.

"They don't need an appointment a month or six weeks or eight weeks down the track, which is what's unfortunately happening for some people."

Dr Clark said he was aware of the problem, and the government was committed to boosting resources for support workers.

"We are determined to make sure the right facilities are in place and to build the workforce to support people who are seeking help to get out of the web of addiction."

National Party drug reform spokesperson Paula Bennett declined to comment on the numbers.