14 Dec 2018

Addiction services back govt move on synthetic cannabis

6:05 am on 14 December 2018

Organisations working with people addicted to synthetic cannabis are backing the government's plan to take a less punitive and more health-based approach towards them.

A male smoking using a homemade bong.

Over the past year more than 50 people have died as a result of taking synthetic drugs. Photo: RNZ / Claire Eastham-Farrelly

Over the past year more than 50 people have died as a result of taking synthetic cannabis and yesterday the government announced a plan to try to turn the statistics around.

In Hawke's Bay, Caroline Lampp has seen first-hand the harm being caused by synthetic cannabis.

Ms Lampp is the general manager of the Whatever It Takes Trust - a mental health peer support service.

Over the past couple of years the service has been working with the homeless and rough sleepers in Napier.

Ms Lampp said those who are are addicted to synthetics are extremely unwell.

"We've had a number of them admitted to hospital with seizures and with severe reactions to synthetics, we've had one who suffered a stroke as a result of it, we've had a death as a result of synthetics, so clearly there's a huge amount of harm being done," she said.

Ms Lampp blamed that harm on the people who are making and selling the drugs.

The government is cracking down on dealers by making the two main synthetic cannabis drugs linked to the recent spate of deaths Class A drugs.

That will mean harsher penalties for manufacturers and suppliers - something Ms Lampp welcomes.

"The synthetic drugs appear to be extremely addictive, so people selling it for not much money are catching people up into the cycle of addiction around synthetics and if we can stop that happening, particularly for young people or people who haven't used it before, than that would be a great thing."

The government is also changing the Misuse of Drugs Act to specify that the police should use their discretion and not prosecute for possession and personal use of drugs when a health-based approach would be more beneficial.

That change will apply to all drugs, not just synthetics, and it will be accompanied by a $17 million funding boost for addiction treatment services.

Ross Bell from the Drug Foundation said the police are increasingly using their discretion when it comes to drugs like cannabis and even methamphetamine.

"Getting a little bit more consistency, building that into our drug law and at the same time providing resources for health and social agencies I think we're going to see greater consistency across the country because at the moment we know that that discretion isn't always evenly or equally applied," Mr Bell said.

Ross Bell, Drug Foundation Executive Director

Drug Foundation executive director Ross Bell. Photo: RNZ Insight/Teresa Cowie

Auckland City Missioner Chris Farrelly said addicts often have complex problems that go beyond their drug addiction.

"We know that in the whole these are really, really vulnerable and unwell people to start with. It's a trauma upon a trauma upon a trauma, and so we know that penalising these people is not the way to address what is really the underlying issue."

Ms Lampp said getting people into treatment is a good start, but more needs to be done to ensure they get the wrap-around support they need once they're out.

"If you take people from an environment that it is embedded in drugs and drug use, put them into a treatment centre for 12 weeks or 16 weeks, have them come clean, but then release them back into the same environment without any kind of support, then it's very hard for them to maintain the change they've made and stay clean."

Mr Farrelly said users who've received good support have been able to turn their lives around.

"Now that they have a home and some wraparound supportive services, the use of the synthetics has diminished incredibly.

"There's a correlation there between poverty, homelessness and the use of these drugs," she said.

Last week, the government received the report from the Mental Health and Addiction Inquiry.

It made further recommendations around drug law reform and the Health Minister David Clark said they would be considered separately.