A Tauranga judge concerned about the spate of deaths from synthetic cannabis use has declined to sentence a man caught dealing the illicit drug until he has more legal advice.
Judge Thomas Ingram has called for some advice from police and the Crown prosecution team about the appropriate sanction for Sefo Alesana who appeared before him last week.
Alesana, 37, from Gate Pa was due to be sentenced in the Tauranga District Court on Friday after he earlier pleaded guilty to possession of cannabis plant and possession of synthetic cannabis for supply.
When police searched his home on April 24 they found a large plastic rubbish bag containing 13 cannabis tinnies and about 235 grams of synthetic cannabis under his bed.
Inside a bag beside the bed was about 13 grams of synthetic cannabis and $765.
Alesana's lawyer, Simon Whitehead, argued that based on previous high court legal authorities and sentencing guidelines, a sentence of under two years was possible.
As a first-time offender before the courts, it could open the door for Alesana to receive a sentence of home detention.
Judge Ingram said those previous high court legal authorities were now outdated, and "the world had moved on".
"The problem is that since that time 20-odd people have died in the past 18 months to two years due to their involvement with synthetic cannabis."
Judge Ingram said eight people had died in about a week for using the drugs last year.
"We do know that synthetic cannabis kills people. This is a serious and concerning matter to me ... My view is that this is a golden opportunity for the police or the Crown to come up with some proposals as to what the most appropriate sentence should be.
"If I had my way I would impose the stiffest prison sentence I could," said Judge Ingram, as he adjourned the matter until August 16 for a case review hearing.
Currently, people caught dealing cannabis face up to eight years' prison, while the maximum penalty for possessing synthetic cannabis for supply or sale is two years' jail.
Judge Ingram's comments mirrored growing concerns by the Government, opposition MPs and a Tauranga drug addiction centre director about how to best tackle the problem.
Acting Prime Minister Winston Peters has called for urgent advice from the Ministers of Health, Justice, Police and Customs on how to reduce the number of drug deaths.
Provisional figures from the Coroner's office show that up to 45 people have died from synthetic cannabis use in the year to June.
Peters said a multi-agency response to reduce the size and supply was needed.
National Party leader Simon Bridges said the Government should consider National MP Simeon Brown's member's bill currently before Parliament which calls for stiffer penalties.
Upping maximum penalties for dealers and suppliers to eight years would have a deterrent effect, he said.
David Benton, the director of Hanmer Clinic in Tauranga, said the number of people being treated at the clinic for synthetic cannabis addictions was relatively small.
Benton said he was also deeply concerned about the number of deaths and people using these "mind-altering" substances, and it was a hard road for people to kick the habit.
"But the reality is there wouldn't be dealers if there wasn't a market for it."
Benton said increasing penalties was not the magic bullet and the solutions must lie in finding out why so many people were turning to synthetic drugs.
"We know many low-level dealers are also users and many often supply to others to support their habit."
Benton agreed a multi-agency response was needed and any solutions must also be backed by extra funding to enable more users to access rehabilitation programmes.
In a written statement, emergency medicine specialist Dr Paul Quigley, from Wellington Regional Hospital, said the key to reducing the use of synthetic cannabinoids was to try to find out what was driving demand.
Interviews of users of "synnies" uniformly state that they do not enjoy smoking them, and that when compared with other recreational drugs they are "s***", he said.
Quigley said despite being aware of the harm, seeing associates collapsing, fitting and acting like zombies, and some friends dying, they continue to use "avidly".