Only six to seven drug users a month are engaging with a substance helpline after being given a health referral from police.
The number is being described as "abysmally low", and the dial hasn't shifted five months after Health Minister Andrew Little talked about the importance of increasing uptake.
But Little has also said it's hard to know what the benchmark figure should be, given that some drug use isn't harmful and engaging with the health referral is voluntary.
The referral - to Whakarongorau Aotearoa's Alcohol Drug Helpline - was set up following changes to the Misuse of Drugs Act, which came into force in August 2019 and was hailed at the time as a turning point towards harm minimisation if someone's most serious offence was using or possessing illegal substances.
The Ministry of Health reviewed the impact of the law change last year, and one of the key findings was the extremely low rate of engagement with the referral pathway.
In the 22 months since the law change, police data shows 8586 people faced the possibility of a drug use charge as their most serious offence, but only 959 health referrals were made - or about 44 of about 390 people a month.
The referrals are made via an app, and the user is then sent a text message by an alcohol and drug helpline. Only 147 of the 959 people responded to the text message.
This amounts to a 1.7 per cent engagement rate (147 of 8586 people).
The latest data, released to the Herald under the Official Information Act, shows police referring a further 291 people over the following eight months, and a further 49 people responding to the helpline's text message.
This makes a total of 1250 people referred in 30 months, dropping the monthly referral average to 42, while 196 people - or 6.5 people a month - responded to the text message.
Drug Foundation executive director Sarah Helm said a greater share of resources needs to be allocated for minimising drug harm.
"There's been a woefully historic underinvestment in health-based approaches to drug use. We've tended to throw every penny into enforcement and nothing into providing support."
What little there is in that space has tended to go to those with addiction issues at the more extreme end of the scale, she said.
"There's almost no funding left over to develop services to support people who use occasionally. There's just a very unsophisticated, undeveloped set of responses."
Budget 2019 saw almost $2 billion set aside for mental health services, but only a fraction of that was for addiction services, and even less for supporting those whose drug use is harmful.
"It's a small increase in resources in a sector who are providing treatment to about half the number of people that need it," Helm said.
"So we're treating a small number of people versus providing a sophisticated range of health and harm reduction services for all people who are experiencing harm from using drugs.
"It's not surprising that the police referral numbers are abysmally low. The text message they get probably isn't hitting the mark for many who receive it. Maybe there's a better intervention that can be designed for everyone."
The intervention that Little backs is Te Ara Oranga, a Northland programme targeting harmful methamphetamine use that is a collaborative effort involving police, health, iwi providers and the wider community.
An evaluation of Te Ara Oranga, published in December, found a 34 per cent reduction in crime harm following the programme, and a return of between $3.04 and $7.14 for each dollar invested into the programme.
Little said last year that he wants it rolled out nationwide, but can't say when.
He told the Herald the Government remained committed to its election promise to have the programme in the eastern Bay of Plenty and the East Coast. The former has already been allocated $2.8m, but funding for East Coast is yet to be announced.
"We remain committed to the rollout of Te Ara Oranga by the end of the term - it was an election promise and we keep our promises," Little said.
He said he was "pleased" police are still making health referrals, which may be offered a lot more than the engagement rate suggests; police don't keep data on how many referrals are offered, but rejected.
Helm asked what the hold up was for a nationwide rollout.
"We continue to be desperate to have Te Ara Oranga resourced in multiple regions around the country.
"It's a great example of a more sophisticated approach that's sitting there on the shelf, waiting to be rolled out. These people will benefit much more from a health intervention than a police one."