In an effort to crack down on synthetic drug dealers the Government has today classified two common types of synthetics as Class A drugs.
The Government sets to specify police could use discretion and not prosecute for possession and personal use of all illegal drugs where a therapeutic approach would be more beneficial, or there is no public interest in a prosecution.
Moving the drug classification to A mean police would be given search and seizure powers and dealers now could face up to life imprisonment.
A temporary drug class, C1, will be created which would give police search and seizure powers.
"Those drugs are incredibly dangerous," Health Minister David Clark said.
He said the new class C1 was for new and emerging drugs, "because we know that the synthetic drugs coming into our country change from week to week and we need to be able to respond promptly as new concoctions arrive".
Therapeutic approach to users
Police will also be given the ability to use their discretion "where a therapeutic approach would be more beneficial" and not prosecute for possession and personal use.
"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," Dr Clark said.
$16.6 million will go to addiction treatment services and to provide communities with emergency responses when there is a spate of deaths.
"This is actually a part of a health response. Those who are caught in the web of addiction need to have support and the presumption would be police take a therapeutic approach except where there is a clear public interest in prosecuting."
Dr Clark said that would be where children were involved or where was evidence of re-offending.
Police Minister Stuart Nash said the changes were "striking a balance between discouraging drug use and recognising that many people using drugs need support".
He expected police to continue prosecuting for possession "when appropriate".
"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."
Dr Clark said the current approach is failing.
"Synthetics and other dangerous drugs are killing people and fuelling crime while dealers and manufacturers get rich. 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 began working towards classifying certain types of synthetic drugs as Class A earlier this year, after receiving advice the two deadly types of synthetic cannabis were so potent it should be classified as class A.
Making synthetic cannabis a class A drug put it alongside methamphetamine, cocaine, magic mushrooms and LSD.
The two main types, 5F-ADB and AMB-FUBINACA, were linked to deaths from synthetic cannabis.
However, in October the Green Party were critical of the move, calling it a "costly war on synthetic drugs that is destined to fail".
"People who make synthetics are constantly changing the compounds and chemicals, it's impossible to know what's in these drugs," drug law reform spokesperson Chlöe Swarbrick said at the time.
Today, Ms Swarbrick welcomed the changes "to address the synthetic drugs crisis and broader addiction problems", calling it a health-based approach.
"Supporting people into care and recovery will be set down in law as the first measure for Police on the front lines, rather than pushing people with addiction problems down a criminal pathway
"This is an evidence-based step to reduce drug harm, drug demand, and drug supply."
"This is a huge step that points the way to a more sensible approach to drug policy than the tough-on-crime rhetoric we have seen fail over many years, all over the world."
The Drug Foundation said today's response "strikes a balance between giving law enforcement the tools they need to target criminal networks and changing drug law to make it easier for people to access help when they need it".
Ross Bell, Drug Foundation executive director said the "proposals will remove the barrier of fear that prevents people from seeking help".
"This proposal addresses our earlier concerns that a blunt classification to Class A for these substances would impact harshly on vulnerable people. It also gives greater scope to deal with all illicit drug use from a health and harm reduction approach."
Hospitalisations due to synthetic cannabis have doubled in the past two years. Ministry of Health figures showed 84 people were hospitalised between 2017 and 2018 due to the drug.
Fifty people have died in the past year in New Zealand after using synthetic cannabis and the Government is still scrambling for a solution.
In November, psychotherapist Kyle Macdonald told 1 NEWS decriminalisation was the answer that will keep the drug from going underground.
"I'm calling for the drug to be regulated so we can control what's in the substance and remove the problem of criminal penalties for people who are struggling with addiction,” he says.
Also in November, Elizabeth Hall, criminal defence lawyer, said that "decriminalisation and regulation is what works so let's ditch this failed social experiment of locking people up for longer and longer and longer".