Drug education is vital to help our young people make positive choices

Detective Inspector Blair Macdonald is the manager of the National Drug Intelligence Bureau (NDIB). He’s been at the forefront of drug and organised crime investigations for over a decade. Detective Inspector Macdonald works with organisations like ours to promote education and informed decision-making about drugs. His work aligns beautifully with our own, where we focus on equipping young people to make healthy choices for better futures.

One of the strengths of Life Education's programmes is that they embed the latest insights from experts and specialists and so we were delighted to welcome DI Macdonald as a guest at our Educators conference. Experts like him help keep our educators connected and upskilled, so they pass on such knowledge to teachers in schools. Many of the statistics DI Macdonald shared were confronting. However, having a clear picture of our young peoples' worlds allows us to give more practical help in navigating its challenges. 

NDIB's data shows an alarming amount of illicit drugs continuously entering the country. The new variations of these drugs are getting harder to monitor. As a result, hospitalisations and deaths are on the rise. Detective Inspector Macdonald highlighted the importance of education among our rangatahi so they can make informed decisions and think critically about the risks to their physical health and the social impact of illicit drugs.

Detective Inspector Macdonald noted Police cannot arrest our way out of this problem.  Enforcement is just one option that now sits alongside genuine health based approaches to reducing drug harm.  He also believes more could be done in the education space and reaching out to our young people to help them understand the very real risks of illicit drug use. He is extremely grateful that Life Education is trying to address this space and looks forward to supporting future endeavours.

"My personal view is there seems to be a distinct lack of consistent and targeted education focused toward our young people, making the work of the Life Education Trust so very important.  More needs to be done in the space you're operating and all schools should be strongly encouraged to adopt drug education programmes.

"The teachers are uncomfortable talking about this stuff. They don't have the skills, knowledge, and experience that you all come with, so they're reliant on the work that you're doing to really share the vision and to share the knowledge with our young people.  We all want the same thing ultimately, and that's for young people to make good decisions around drug use."

New Zealand continues to be a breeding ground for profitable sales of illicit drugs

According to Detective Inspector Macdonald, transnational organised crime groups are targeting New Zealand to distribute illicit drugs because of the strong demand and significant profits.

"Our overseas intelligence identifies expansion through the large volume of drug shipments from new locations by overseas drug cartels from drug-source countries such as South and North America, and of course the golden triangle in Southeast Asia. The ability to obtain illicit drugs through online channels also allows drug-producing countries in Europe to contribute to the drug market in New Zealand.

"Unfortunately, it's now really common for international syndicates to partner with our domestic organised crime groups to then distribute drugs across our country.

"We see lots of new and innovative methods of importation of drugs into New Zealand.

"The reality is we are an island in the middle of the ocean, and we can't patrol the whole border.

"Just to give you a quick example, a kilo of methamphetamine can be sourced internationally for NZ$21,000 and then once it's back here, that can be sold for up to NZ$180,000, and that's just at the wholesale rate, so that's an incredible 883% per cent profit."

Channels to ensure safe drug use should be available

DI Macdonald emphasises the importance of different channels where people can get information that will help them stay safe. Letting our kids know about these is especially important. The New Zealand Drug Early Warning System, or High Alert, has been successful in implementing a system that helps minimise possible harm posed by illicit drugs.

"The network has been fantastic at bringing together law enforcement agencies, health professionals, ambulance service departments, treatment providers, drug checkers (that are now operating legally) all together and are all feeding information into the drug early warning system as to what they're seeing on the front line.

"It's a website where we write articles about what different drugs are in the community and what perhaps the drug checkers are seeing. If we do publish an alert on a bad or dangerous drug that's out there, you'll receive a notification on that. It also gives us an opportunity for people to report back to us if they've had a bad experience with a drug, and believe it or not, people are getting in touch with us.

"It's because we've got the credibility of all these other groups who aren't enforcement agencies alongside us. We recognise now that this is all about harm minimisation. This is not about catching people; this is not about arresting people for drug use; this is all about providing consistent messaging about what drugs they should be avoiding to keep themselves safe."

"I believe drug checking services prevent harm, especially young people. I think our young people are going to take drugs whether we want them to or not, and for them to have the ability to go and have their drugs checked to make sure they don't have a dangerous liver toxin or a synthetic cathinone, that's a good news story.

"Drug checking services don't equal more drug use by young people; it just equals safer drug use by those who are likely going to take, or choose to take drugs, to start with."

Wastewater analysis shows significant data on illicit drug use in many communities

Data from wastewater analysis shows how illicit drug use is prevalent in many communities up and down Aotearoa. The Lockdowns seem to have lifted drug use over the last few years.

"We went from an average of around 11 to 12 kilos of methamphetamine consumed each week in New Zealand, to a record high of just over 20 kilos in September last year.

"No different to alcohol and other substance use, when people are locked down, they're under extra stress and anxiety, so that definitely also contributed to the higher consumption.

"They've got to a point where some of the problems with our society are causing their lives to be quite grim, and so they're looking for an escape and these drugs offer that.”

Better choices about drugs have a far-reaching impact

When we equip our young people to make safe, informed decisions about drugs, they're not the only ones we help. Illicit drugs have far-reaching financial consequences and cause societal damage. Every year billions of dollars are spent, several deaths and hospitalisations are recorded, and families are separated due to the abuse of illicit drugs.

"The annual estimated cost of social harm in New Zealand, including both enforcement and government interventions, is thought to be about NZ$1.5 billion a year.

"Looking at methamphetamine, MDMA, and cocaine use alone, that's equating to NZ$8.8 million generated for our illicit organised crime groups in one week. To me, this is really, really sad because that's NZ$8.8 million coming out of the economy every week, and typically, as we all know and we've all experienced, this is coming out of members of our community who can often least afford it.

"We have seen hospitalisations due to methamphetamine use grow from around 300 in 2015 to 837 in 2019.

Knowledge helps young people stay safe

As caregivers and educators, it's difficult to accept our young people will face decisions about drugs. However, DI Macdonald explained the extent to which drugs have penetrated our communities. Importantly, he reminds us that one of the most critical things we can do to keep our young people safe is to equip them to make informed and healthy decisions.