Hard News by Russell Brown


About that Rhythm and Vines "dangerous drugs" alert

I was at a music festival in Auckland on New Year's Eve when I saw, on my phone, the news that "dangerous drugs, made with pesticides and paints, have been found at Rhythm and Vines." And that patrons had received a warning about about the potentially poisonous drugs that evening, via a push-notification from festival management that went to all phones on site.

I still haven't been able to locate a screenshot of the actual warning (but would be keen to see one), so for the moment I have to assume that it was identical, or at least very similar, to the one posted on Facebook by the local DHB.

On one level, it was the kind of health-based early warning that harm reduction advocates have been calling for  as a lifesaving measure for years. On another, it was frustratingly vague, to the point of being almost useless. The harm reduction organisation Know Your Stuff, which was not on site at R&V, politely tweeted:

We urge those issuing alerts to at a minimum include a description of the pills/substance, and likely symptoms from consuming.

The part of the alert urging anyone suffering "adverse effects" from drugs to see onsite medical services was salient in a general sense – and the request that, if possible, they bring a sample of what they'd taken was useful. It might have helped to emphasise that no one bringing such samples to medics would face police action, but it seems notable that police  made no arrests of any kind at Rhythm and Vines.

Ruwani Perera managed to introduce more useful information – after the fact – in her Newshub report, with the news that the bad drugs were pills and "the pills look like MDMA or Ecstasy and are purple."

But we still don't know what quantity was seized, what the exact contents were. Inevitably, the vagueness of the alert has led some people to suspect that it was simply a scare story to put people off taking drugs altogether, rather than a real warning. I would hope not, because the ultimate effect of that will simply be to lead users to ignore such warnings. That's obviously undesirable.

It was also unclear who had actually issued the warning in the first place. The DHB? Festival organisers? The police? The One News report offers a bit more context there. It appears that Gisborne police had borrowed a spectrometer  from Customs to analyse contraband drugs seized by festival security. Some pills were just sugar.

It is likely that a properly set-up spectrometer, drawing on a library of reference profiles, would be able to promptly identify toxic paint and pesticides. More so given that in the field Customs uses the FirstDefender handheld Ramam spectrometers, which are built to identify almost any chemical, including those found in poisons and explosives.

But the FirstDefender is a quick-detection device, and doesn't have the level of forensic analysis offered by the likes of the FT-IR scanner owned by the New Zealand Drug Foundation, which is used in the field by Know Your Stuff. It could be difficult to identify multiple substances in one sample, especially for non-expert users – and to determine actual quantities of the contaminants.

So did the machine pick up mere traces of pesticides and paint? That's possible. But even traces of unwelcome contaminants should be a warning sign. And it's worth noting that one of FirstDefender's shortcomings is its relatively poor detection limits, so there had to be enough of the contaminants for the spec to pick up. So it was worth a warning, I think – just a better one.

Some of the information in the One News story came from Police minister Stuart Nash, who visited the site and was also shown the spectrometer by officers. What he had to say was immensely encouraging:

Festival-goers overseas are often able to get their drugs tested openly to check that they're safe and that they are what they're claimed to be.   

And the New Zealand Government would like to see pill testing become the norm here, too.  

"You know, you had 20,000 young Kiwis party and have a really good time here. I would like to see drug testing at festivals. I think it saves lives, it save hospitalisations. And it's actually the right thing to do. And it's dealing with the reality in which we find ourselves," Mr Nash said.

It's a shame that the government has satisfied itself with talking about drug-checking at this point, rather than moving forward and actually amending the Misuse of Drugs Act in time for this summer's festivals. The truth is that festival organisers don't want kids getting sick or dying from bad drugs, but  they put their businesses – and specifically their event insurance – at risk by acknowledging that people use drugs at all (other than alcohol, which is easily the most problematic one at large events).

But we seem to have reached a point where politicians, police and health agencies are on board with realistic harm reduction strategies. A point where, however flawed, an alert has been issued to people who may consume something very harmful.

What needs to happen next is to allow this to be done properly. As Dr Jez Weston of Know Your Stuff wrote in a series for SciBlogs last year, the psychology of drug-checking is just as important as the technology:

Trust is critical for people in possession of illegal substances to bring them to us for testing. It helps that we’re not the authorities. We are a grass-roots organisation and many of our volunteers have attended, assisted, or organised festivals for more than a decade. Being members of the community we serve nurtures a higher level of trust, in what can be a very exposing situation for our clients.

We are going out of our way to provide a free service for our clients, so in a sense, it’s a gift from us to them. This sets up a mutual obligation. We’ve provided our clients with a service that they value; it’s now up to them to reciprocate by providing us with something that we value, namely making safer choices about their drug use.

This kind of harm reduction, the kind that works, is about more than fancy machines. Jez concludes:

The majority of drug users we see are not addicts or drug abusers. They are adults who want to have a good time, are willing to take on a small amount of risk to do this, and are keen to reduce that risk.

When someone who has purchased drugs and is planning on taking them becomes someone who is willing to not take them and dispose of their drugs in front of us, that shows the confidence they are placing in our testing and explains the remarkable effectiveness of this form of harm reduction. Put simply, providing factual, objective information to allow people to make better choices leads to them making better choices.

There's a right way to do this. Let's get on with it.


Meanwhile, in Australia, where a young man died (and two others were hospitalised) after taking an "unknown substance" at a music festival on New Year's Eve – the fourth such death there since September –  a former Labor Party leader tweeted this filth:

Ironically, the story linked above emphasises the extraordinary lengths Australian police are going to to detect and prosecute drug possession at events. It's not keeping anyone safe. If anything, it's doing the opposite. But this most recent death has moved the leader of Latham's former party in New South Wales to rethink his opposition to drug-checking. Things may be changing there too.


Another year on earth

Sometimes – often, even – grief is an ambush. You don't know what's in there until you lose something, or someone. You don't know how the experience of loss will make you feel about yourself, or what to do about it.

It was chance that brought me back into the ambit of my old friend Grant Fell and his wife Rachael at the end of 2017. Officially, Grant was clear of the brain tumours that had been the central fact of his life for three years, and I wanted to do a follow-up on an interview I'd done with him for a planned Audioculture article – which itself had taken two or three attempts to conduct, as he shuttled in and out of hospital. He wasn't answering his phone or returning messages.

Eventually, I got hold of Rachael, who told me that complications from treatment had made Grant very ill, very quickly. He was back in hospital and it wasn't good. I went and visited him, but we never did the follow-up interview. My old friend was dying.

I don't mean to pretend I was one of the group of people, led by Rachael herself, who cared for Grant for every day of those three years. I'd only seen him occasionally. But I think I did sense quite quickly that it was time for me now to step up. One of the first things I did was break the law.

Grant seemed to have benefited earlier in his cancer battle from the modest use of cannabis oil. It came in a syringe, passed on from another cancer patient who had died, but Rachael's mother had accidentally thrown out the last of it when she cleaned the fridge. Rachael and I discussed it and I said I figured I could source some more.

The experience of doing so, and briefly entering the community where these things are shared, was humbling and intriguing. As I wrote later in a submission on the government's medicinal cannabis bill, it seemed to make a critical difference to Grant's final, precious days.

When Grant left us, we were lucky to have Hilary Ord, a brilliant and experienced celebrant, to lead the small group of friends tasked with putting together a funeral service. She explained to us what a funeral for someone like Grant meant – it wouldn't be a small affair. I was tasked with quickly raising some money. We didn't announce the names of people who helped financially at the time, but I think it's appropriate to record them here. The New Zealand Music Foundation, Tim Wood, Phantom Billstickers, the Music Managers Federation and Flying Nun Records, thank you.

At Rachael's request, I also delivered the eulogy. That was a deep dig. I think it was the first time I've spoken some words of te reo Māori and not been simultaneously conscious that I was doing it: it was as if the words at the end simply flowed up through me. I almost wasn't sure what had happened.

It wasn't just about Grant, but about all of us; the kids who met all those years ago, grew up and did things. About how often we did things because Grant decided they could be done and beckoned us all in to the doing. I talked about it in interviews and in the Audioculture article – and every time it made me reflect on the way he'd changed my life.

It also made me think a lot about tribe and identity, about who we all were and what was important to us. In particular, about my role in our tribe. Outside of the bonds of family, it seemed the most enduring duty I had.

One thing it wasn't was a job. After nine years of at least 20 weeks annually of TV money, I was obliged in 2018 to reinvent the whole thing. It wasn't easy and at times I wondered whether it was even possible. I've long been comfortable with the risks of freelance life, but it was getting a lot harder. Every time editors are ordered to cut editorial budgets, the first and easiest place to do that is freelance costs. It was hard to get commissions and when I did, the word rate was hardly better than it had been in the 1990s.

We're homeowners, so we are not poor. But with two adult disabled children still at home, we're not a cheap household to run. It's not a pleasant feeling, burning through long-time savings just to keep things going. I wasn't depressed, but there was the odd despondent day. You just keep pitching.

And all the time, things circled back to Grant. I spoke about him at the Taite Music Prize ceremony, then did a little crisis PR the next day. I wrote the medicinal cannabis submission about him, then travelled to Wellington to make an oral submission to the committee. I don't think I was released until the Headless Chickens played that huge, emotional set in his name at The Other's Way festival.

There was also Public Address. I've been thinking about how much I used to do here and I genuinely don't understand how I had the bandwidth. Writing blog posts most days, moderating the sprawling discussions in the most intensive, sometimes emotionally taxing, way. Trying to have new ideas. And because it generally wasn't a living, making a living elsewhere.

This is a quieter place than it used to be, for a range of reasons. A new, more professional generation of digital publishers has sprung up. The most immediate argument now takes place on social media, and Twitter in particular. But also, I couldn't really do it any more.

I've always been good at drawing a crowd; at throwing a party. A community had formed around Public Address and it brought me wonderful new friends. But when you're the host, you're responsible when the guests – some of whom had literally been together under my roof at various times – start fighting, it's not fun. It feels like there has been a new, sharper, more polarised kind of argument abroad in recent years that the site is ill-equipped to deal with. That I am ill-equipped to deal with. Maybe it suits venues where no one is really responsible; where there is no host cleaning up the empties. In that sense, this being a quieter place has been a choice.

I also feel less inclined to general commentary these days. I'd rather write about the things I have experience with and insight on. So you mostly get drug policy, music, bike-riding, the occasional fact-check. Sometimes this year, I've been too busy fretting about not having writing work to just write, and simultaneously aware that that's a dumb position to be in.

The entry of Press Patron and its voluntary subscription platform has come a little late for any big strategies on my part, but I would like to express my deepest gratitude to those of you who have contributed. It's a significant motivation to keep going with this. I've begun to treat it as not just support for the site, but support for what I do in general. Most months, the $700 to $800 it brings in has been a crucial part of our household getting by.

Happily, things improved in the latter part of the year and I'm reasonably optimistic that I'll be in a position to ask CactusLab to do some modest work on the site. I'm not really recruiting new bloggers, but I'd like to tidy up the cruft of years, retire all our inactive personal bloggers to an emeritus section and maybe open a couple of new topic blogs for occasional contributors. I think Access has been of value in that sense and I'm grateful to Hilary Stace in particular for her care and commitment to disability issues.

It hasn't been all bad. I've leared new skills and written some things I'm really proud of. It was nice to be completely vindicated on the "meth contamination" debacle I wrote about two years ago. I've really enjoyed working a few days lately at RNZ and it looks like that will continue in the new year. I'm hugely happy that my older ASD son is working again, with good people who like and respect him, at the excellent Cotto restaurant.

I have also been cheered and enriched more than ever by the music made by people around me. Blair Parkes, Tom Scott, Julia Deans, Tom Scott, Julian Dyne, Marlon Williams, Sandy Mill, Anthonie Tonnon and others, thank you. You make a difference to us – to me. And The Beths: guys, you would not believe how many dishes and kitchen cleanups your brilliant, bouyant album has facilitated. I'm also personally pleased to have delivered on what I wrote this year after Golden Dawn closed – about making your own spaces. On Friday night, our final DJ night for the year at Point Chev's Cupid bar was great. It really felt like we'd done something. We'll be back there next year. Come see us.

I was delighted that you all voted "kindness" as the Public Address Word of the Year. Do be kind to each other, and think what kindness means in action. Have a good summer and take joy in people and places. Swim, ride, walk. Ask for help if you need it, offer help when it's needed. Be kind.

And next month, Grant's anniversary will come around, and that will be tough for Rachael more than anyone else. I'll cry, yet again, when I think about him. We'll all think again about who we are, where we've come from and what matters to us. We'll be another year on earth.


WOTY: The Kindness Scandal

In a hastily-issued press release today, Public Address publisher Russell Brown admitted that his site's annual Word of the Year vote "may have been used by terribly nice people to express a blessedly good sentiment."

Shortly after the announcement that the 2018 Public Address Word of the Year is "kindness", it was revealed that so-called Kindness t-shirts are already being sold by a company called Good Bitches Baking to raise money toward's the company's goal to "try to make the world a little bit less shitty, by baking treats for people having a tough time."

"I'm as shocked as everyone else," said Brown. "I had no idea our annual vote would be harnessed by people who want to make the world better."

In the wake of the announcement, it further emerged that the Public Address reader who nominated "kindness" for the vote, Nicole Murray, is in fact a co-founder of the Good Bitches enterprise.

"As the first person to nominate the winning word, which won the public vote by the proverbial country mile, Ms Murray has won a double pass to any date on Fat Freddy's Drop's boffo summer tour," said Brown.

"I have contacted her and her first response was to ask if she could give the tickets away to someone else. I simply can't explain the unabashed kindness on display here. I wish to apologise to anyone who is triggered by this and possibly made to feel that they should seek ways to practice kindness in their own lives, perhaps by buying a t-shirt."

Brown added: "I know it looks bad, but Richie Hardcore had nothing to do with this."

The Top 10 words for 2108, as voted by Public Address readers, are:

1. Kindness

2. #metoonz

3. Mahi

4. Omnishambles

5. Woke

6. Brexit


8. Virtue signalling

9. E-scooter

10. Lime

"It was nice to see 'mahi' get up to third in late voting," said Brown. "It's the latest word from te reo Māori to cross over into mainstream usage and it has a sense of soul to it. Ka pai.

"And a word about word number seven. As nominated, it was 'TERF', an acronym whose perceived meaning has become markedly more negative over the course of the year. I did wonder about not including it after it was nominated in the discussion, but reasoned that 2018 was the year in which a fairly large number of people heard it for the first time and then possibly wished they hadn't.

"But after a number of strongly-worded submissions via Twitter from people I don't even know in the UK, I have made the the decision to swap it out out with [gender-critical feminist]. In the context of a debate which sometimes seems to consist almost entirely of people trying to make each other feel bad, I figured that Christmas week was probably not the time to incrementally increase the overall level of feeling bad. Consider it an act of kindness."

Update: I thought putting an alternative term for #7 in brackets was a suitably snarky way to acknowledge all the people who were yelling at me last night. Clearly, it wasn't, as I now have another set of people expressing hurt and offence at what was meant to be neither hurtful or offensive. I've changed it back.

Public Address Word of the Year 2018: Time to vote!

The debate has been had and the longlist has been written. It's time now for you, the public, to vote. Just use the form embedded below to register your top three choices for Word of the Year – and go in the draw for a double pass to a Fat Freddy's Drop's summer tour. I'll close the vote later in the week and publish the results. NB: The form scrolls independently, so don't forget to look at all the nominations.

Did I mention prizes? There are prizes.

Both the first person to propose the winning word and one lucky voter will win a double pass to their choice of shows from Fat Freddy's Drop's boffo summer tour, which runs the length of the motu, from Whangarei to Queenstown, and includes the amazing Western Springs show , featuring not just our friends the Freddies, but Unknown Mortal Orchestra, Norman Jay MBE, Ladi6, Troy Kingi, Silva MC and Logg Cabin. The prizes are fully transferrable, so whether you're spending the summer in Bali or you're just a grinch who can't dance, someone gets to share the love.

Thanks, Fat Freddy's Drop!

Winners will be able to enjoy both beloved, familiar tunes and the new jams they've been rolling out for European audiences:

You don't want to miss this ... so get voting.

PS: As I've explained in previous years, the law now prevents us giving alcohol as prizes. But I do like to modestly reward the lovely Hadyn Green for his help with the Word of the Year voting forms, and Hadyn really does love the beer, so I'm delighted to say that the excellent new beer shop and tasting room Bottle Stop, in Vinegar Lane, Ponsonby, will be supporting democracy with a brew or two. Thanks Bottle Stop!


Just quietly, this is a big deal

It's in the nature of politics that this morning's announcement about changes to drug laws is headed 'Crackdown on synthetic drug dealers'. The billing is not inaccurate: it's no secret that the government has been seeking to have the two most damaging synthetic cannabinoids, the ones that have been killing dozens of people, rescheduled as controlled drugs under Class A of the Misuse of Drugs Act.

That is confirmed this morning, and it means that importers, producers and suppliers of synthetics will face greatly increased penalties under law – and that Police will have search and seizure powers related to these drugs that aren't available under the Psychoactive Substances Act. The process by which the Minister of Health can bring under the control of the Misuse of Drugs Act any future drugs deemed to be causing similar harms will also be expedited.

But an accompanying announcement is the really interesting part. As I've indicated here before, ministers have been seeking to balance the get-tough part of any new approach to the synthetics problem in both a specific and general sense. Specifically, to try and ensure that people stuck using synthetics aren't further victimised by the harsher penalties for simple possession that the rescheduling implies. And generally, to do justice to its mantra that drug use should be approached as primarily a health rather than a criminal matter.

Finding the actual nature of that balance has not been an easy matter, and both official and independent expert advice has been sought on how to manage it. But this is what they're doing, per this morning's announcement:

Amending the Misuse of Drugs Act to specify in law that Police should use their discretion and not prosecute for possession and personal use where a therapeutic approach would be more beneficial, or there is no public interest in a prosecution. This will apply to the use of all illegal drugs, so there is no perverse incentive created encouraging people to switch to a particular drug.

Yes, you read that correctly. The Misuse of Drugs Act will be amended to guide Police discretion in such a way that the default will be to not prosecute personal use and possession of any illegal drug. The government is at pains to emphasise that this is not the full Portugal-style decriminalisation  repeatedly called for in last week's Report of the Government Inquiry into Mental Health and Addiction, and you may even expect reform advocates to play it down a bit. But it's a really big deal.

I've pasted in below both this morning's announcement and the accompanying factsheet. Both documents acknowledge the issue that has been posing the biggest challenge to the officials and analysts working on the new policy: the fuzzy, untidy line between possession and supply. In many cases, the users and suppliers of harmful drugs are the same people, supplying at a small scale to support their own use.

The thresholds for presumption of supply in the current law don't help. We could fill the prisons with people momentarily in possession of more than 28 grams of cannabis by deeming them presumed suppliers, but that wouldn't make sense. For the time being, the government has kicked for touch on this. There's no mention of the existing presumption-of-supply thresholds being altered.

My read, however, is that the newly-Class A synthetics have been an easier matter. A threshold needed to be defined anyway, and I gather it will be 56 grams. I'm presuming that's 56 grams of smokeable product, because 56 grams of pure AMB-FUBINACA is a lot. This is still somewhat tricky, because, as we are grimly reminded every time there is a cluster of deaths, the black market is not delivering standardised doses.

So a great deal depends on the actual exercise of police discretion, and on the actual wording of the guidance to be added to the act by amendment. We will likely learn more more, including about the potential problems of the new strategy, from the Cabinet paper that informed the decision.

The other, key part of any reform like this is resourcing. The announced $16.6 million extra to community addiction treatment services, including for an emergency "surge" response – with some more for the Drug Early Warning System the last goverment repeatedly promised but never looked like funding or delivering – has to be regarded as a mere down payment ahead of next year's Budget.

The resourcing announcement could and perhaps should have been made separately from the rest of it, but I can understand the government's desire for political cover. The Opposition is still likely to make a horrorshow out of the announcement and the legislative process for the amendment. I hope my journalistic colleagues are careful about reporting claims made.

But, for now, even given the weight of official advice behind it, today's announcement is a brave and principled move by the goverment, in the face of a likely political shitstorm. It really is a pretty big deal.


Crackdown on synthetic drug dealers

The Government is responding to increased drug-related deaths by cracking down on the suppliers of synthetic drugs while making it easier for those with addiction problems to get treatment, Health Minister Dr David Clark and Police Minister Stuart Nash have announced.

“Under current laws synthetics and other dangerous drugs are killing people and fuelling crime while dealers and manufacturers get rich. The current approach is failing to keep Kiwis safe and can’t be continued,” David Clark said.

“It’s time to do what will work. We need to go harder on the manufactures of dangerous drugs like synthetics, and treat the use of drugs as a health issue by removing barriers to people seeking help.”

The Government has today announced a suite of measures to tackle synthetic drugs, the culmination of work initiated by then Acting Prime Minister, Winston Peters, in late July. The measures include:

  • Classifying as Class A the main two synthetic drugs (5F-ADB and AMB-FUBINACA) that have been linked to recent deaths. This will give police the search and seizure powers they need crackdown on suppliers and manufacturers, who will also face tougher penalties – up to life imprisonment.
  • Creating a temporary drug classification category, C1, so new drugs can easily be brought under the Misuse of Drugs Act, giving police the search and seizure powers needed to interrupt supply – an important part of a health response.
  • Amending the Misuse of Drugs Act to specify in law that Police should use their discretion and not prosecute for possession and personal use where a therapeutic approach would be more beneficial, or there is no public interest in a prosecution. This will apply to the use of all illegal drugs, so there is no perverse incentive created encouraging people to switch to a particular drug.
  • Allocate $16.6 million to boost community addiction treatment services, and provide communities with the support to provide emergency “surge” responses, when there is a spate of overdoses or deaths, for example.

“To be clear, this is not the full decriminalisation of drugs recommended by the Mental Health and Addiction Inquiry. These are immediate steps we can take in response to the challenge we face with synthetics. We are considering the Inquiry’s recommendations separately,” Dr Clark said.

Police targeting dealers

Police Minister Stuart Nash says frontline Police are targeting dealers and suppliers with an increased focus on organised crime and trans-national crime as a result of extra resourcing in Budget 2018.

“Misuse of drugs remains illegal and people should not be complacent about the risks of getting caught. Whether a drug user ends up getting Police diversion, goes through an alternative resolution process, or is referred for health treatment, they will still come to the notice of Police,” Stuart Nash said.

“However Police currently use their discretion when it comes to drug users who are suffering from addiction or mental health problems.

“Prosecutions for possession are decided on a case by case basis and follow prosecution guidelines from Crown Law. Fifty-two people were imprisoned for drug possession or use during 2017/18.

“I expect Police will continue to prosecute people for possession when appropriate under the guidelines announced today. It is not a black and white exercise to distinguish between users and dealers. Factors include the seriousness of the offence, if there are victims, if safety of others is at risk from the drug use, if there is public disorder, and if the evidence is sufficient to justify a prosecution.

“We are striking a balance between discouraging drug use and recognising that many people using drugs need support from the health system, or education about harm reduction. We don’t want our jails full of people with addiction problems, we want those people getting treatment,” Stuart Nash said.

More support for treatment services, community responses

David Clark says the Government is allocating an additional $16.6 million to bolster addiction treatment services.

A total of $8.6 million has been set aside for an Acute Drug Harm Response Discretionary Fund over four years, and will be available immediately. The fund will:

  • Help communities respond to acute issues such as a surge in overdoses or deaths
  • Help people make lasting change to their lives to tackle issues that might be driving their use of drugs, such as homelessness

Up to a further $8-million (over two years, $4.6 in 2018/19 and $3.4-million in 2019/20) will be used from the proceeds of crime to:

  • Establish a Drug Early Warning System to provide intelligence and data to support the discretionary fund
  • Develop and deliver ‘Addiction 101’ training in communities experiencing harm from synthetic drugs
  • Fund other Ministry of Health drug and alcohol initiatives

“There’s no question that more investment in addiction services will be required over time, but the changes we are announcing today clearly demonstrate this Government’s focus on harm reduction and supporting people to live healthier lives,” Dr Clark said.

Synthetic Drugs Crack-down Backgrounder

What prompted this response?

  • In July the Chief Coroner reported that between 40 and 45 people had died as a result of taking synthetic cannabis type drugs in the previous year.
  • Then Acting Prime Minister Winston Peters asked the Ministers of Justice, Corrections, Police and Health to instruct officials to consult the experts and come up with the solutions proven to work.

Their advice was that the current approach is not working, and that New Zealand needs to shift to a health-based approach designed to minimise harm.

As a result, Ministers now propose a two pronged health-based approach that will interrupt the supply of dangerous drugs, and get help to those who need it.

This approach:

i)              enables a local community-led ‘surge’ response with a public health and prevention focus, linked with appropriate addiction treatment

ii)             ensures that enforcement powers and penalties are focused on those who import, manufacture and supply dangerous synthetic drugs, and not the people who use the drugs themselves.

Facts on existing alcohol and other drug treatment (AOD)

1.         More than 50,000 people access addiction treatment services each year. Of these, almost all are treated in intensive outpatient services.

2.         The total cost of addiction treatment services is $150m per annum, of which around $26m is through residential care.

3.         Research indicates that nationally around 150,000 people could benefit from an intervention.

4.         There are a number of reasons why the majority of people do not seek help, including stigma, self-shame, a lack of self-awareness, and fear of arrest.

Factsheet: Police

Police discretion to prosecute

1.    The power to arrest a person or to even issue a transport infringement is discretionary. General factors considered by Police include:

  • the nature and seriousness of offence
  • the necessity to maintain public order, i.e. potential breach of the peace
  • evidential sufficiency, based on the Solicitor-General's Prosecution Guidelines
  • the public interest, based on the Solicitor General's Prosecution Guidelines
  • the suspect's behaviour and circumstances
  • any victim considerations

Police officers are also guided by the organisation’s Prevention First operating model, which focuses on preventing crime and harm, and emphasises working with partners.

2.    The changes announced today will build on the current approach to discretion. They will support a consistent Police approach to prioritise a health response over a criminal one when dealing with drug possession for personal use. However, the option will still remain for officers to prosecute when it is appropriate.

3.    The specific factors to consider in prosecution decision-making for the possession and use of drugs will be included in a guidance that Police will develop in partnership with the Ministry of Health and other partners. 

4.    Current public interest considerations for prosecution include:

  • Where there are grounds for believing that the offence is likely to be continued or repeated, for example, where there is a history of recurring conduct
  • Where the offender has created a serious risk of harm

5.    Current public interest considerations against prosecution include:

  • Where the loss or harm can be described as minor and was the result of a single incident, particularly if it was caused by an error of judgement or a genuine mistake
  • Where the offence is not on any test of a serious nature, and is unlikely to be repeated

Recent examples of Police discretion

6.    November 2018, Operation Garden, MDMA (ecstasy) and LSD

This was a prevention-focused Police operation targeting the importation of illicit drugs purchased on the Dark Net. The National Organised Crime Group worked closely with their Dutch counterparts, and NZ Customs Service, to identify New Zealanders who had been importing drugs. The majority of people identified were buying for their personal use, rather than for the purpose of on-selling for profit. For that reason, the focus was education, encouraging treatment engagement, and harm-reduction, rather than prosecution. Police visited 84 addresses across New Zealand. Some charges may follow but Police also issued a number of formal warnings to most people they visited.

7.    June 2017 to present. Te Ara Oranga pilot programme, Police & Northland DHB

one of the activities of the Police team is to drug test bailees on abstinence conditions. Often these drug users fail (65 percent) the test and are breaching their bail. Sixty percent of those who failed the test were arrested and put before the court while 40 percent were either warned or had no action taken. When deciding whether to arrest or warn, officers consider the individual’s circumstances, their engagement with treatment (provided by health services) and the seriousness of the breach. At the end of September 2018, there had been 208 Police referrals to the DHB for addiction treatment.

8.    October 2017-September 2018, Operation Notus in Bay of Plenty 

More than 40 people were arrested on firearms and drug supply charges. Dealers were connected to the Mongrel Mob. Police also identified a large number of methamphetamine users. Not all were arrested and charged. Decisions about these people factored in the level of offending, the best form of resolution, and the resources available to prosecute, as part of the Public Interest Test. During the Police follow up in Kawerau, officers worked to strengthen and build resilience in the community and work with other agencies to support those who have been affected by methamphetamine. This involved contacting all identified users of methamphetamine and providing them with guidance and advice about seeking help. There was a 34% reduction in crime in Kawerau in the three months following the termination of the operation.

New search and surveillance powers

Police have greater powers to investigate the use and supply of a substance when it is classified under the Misuse of Drugs Act (MODA). Currently, even when a substance is linked to deaths, Police are limited in their ability to investigate and prevent harm until that substance is classified under the MODA.

9.    Limitations of the Psychoactive Substances Act 2013 (PSA) are:

  • If a person has a controlled drug in their possession, they may have either committed a personal possession offence or, if they have a significant amount of the drug, a supply offence. For drugs controlled by the MODA, the amount of a drug that denotes that a person may have committed a supply offence is specifically listed in Schedule 5. There is no presumptive amount for supply of substances regulated by the PSA, which makes prosecution for supply offences more difficult.
  • If a person is suspected of being in possession of unapproved psychoactive substances for personal use only, there are no powers of search or arrest available. Search and arrest is available under the MODA. 
  • Under section 48 of the Search and Surveillance Act 2012 (SSA) an enforcement officer may use an emergency surveillance device if the offence being investigated attracts a penalty of seven years imprisonment or more, such as supply of Class A or Class B drugs under the MODA. Under the PSA, the offence of supplying drugs attracts a maximum penalty of two years, so it is not possible to investigate supply offences using an emergency surveillance device. However, a pre-planned device warrant can be applied for under section 45 of the SSA.
  • Sometimes, during the course of an investigation, if a search of a place is not carried out immediately, evidence relating to a suspected offence may be destroyed. Section 77 of the PSA, ‘warrantless power to enter and search’, specifically excludes private premises from being subject to search. Many activities around supply and use of synthetic cannabinoids, and a number of the related deaths, have occurred in homes, so limitations around search of homes can impede investigation. When investigating offences relating to some drugs classified under the MODA, private premises are not excluded from warrantless entry and search if the officer has reasonable grounds to believe an urgent search is required to prevent evidence from being destroyed. 
  • In the PSA there is no provision that facilitates domestic controlled deliveries of drugs, or protections that would enable the deployment of undercover officers against suppliers. These protections are available when investigating many offences related to drugs classified under the MODA, and are often critical to the success of investigations/operations targeting importers, manufacturers and suppliers of illicit drugs.

Distinguishing between users and dealers

Distinguishing between users and dealers/suppliers of illicit substances is not a black and white exercise. The complex interplay of a number of factors includes a person’s conduct or behaviour, the context of that behaviour, their intent, and the amount of the drug involved. Making this distinction can be particularly complex when a person is both a user and supplier.

10.  Information Police take into account includes:

  • whether there is evidence that the person offered to sell the drug to another person
  • the nature of the relationship with the ‘buyer’ – i.e. is the ‘buyer’ a stranger?
  • whether there is evidence of multiple buyers, multiple suppliers, importation and/or a clandestine lab
  • whether the person obtained profit
  • whether the amount of the drug involved meets the threshold for presumption of supply. There are different amounts for different drugs. For example, 28 grams for cannabis plant; half a gram for heroin. These are found in Schedule 5 of the MODA.