Less than 1 per cent of drug users engaged with any health services in the first year of a new law hailed as a game-changer in the Government's health approach to drugs.
A concerted effort from the Ministry of Health has led to an increase in engagement in recent months, but the low take-up is still being called "disappointing" by the Drug Foundation.
The change to the Misuse of Drugs Act - which came into force in August 2019 - raised expectations that drug users would be diverted from the criminal justice system towards health professionals.
It codified police discretion into law for prosecuting drug use/possession, but consumers shouldn't be charged if a health approach was "more beneficial to the public interest".
In the first year it was in force, 5484 people faced the possibility of being charged with drug/use possession as their most serious offence; 565 people were referred to health services, or just over 10 per cent.
And of those people, only 49 engaged with any health service - or less than 1 per cent of those who faced police action.
Engagement jumped four-fold in September and October this year, when a further 124 referrals were made and 45 of those people sought support.
But in those same months, the proportion of people being charged instead of being warned spiked.
Those given a health referral are sent an automated text message from Homecare Medical that says: "Kia ora from the Alcohol Drug Helpline. For advice info & support on drug use reply to this or call 0800 733 808 anytime 24x7 free to kōrero with a counsellor".
National Party health spokesman Shane Reti said a health response centred on an automated text message "strains credibility".
"A text message is not a health response, and certainly not an otherwise alternative to a conviction for use or possession of drugs.
"The minimum for an adequate health response as an alternative to conviction for drugs should be a requirement to at least meet with a health professional."
The NZ Drug Foundation said the low take-up was "disappointing".
"We would also question whether an automated text message is sufficient," said the foundation's policy and advocacy manager Kali Mercier.
She added that many people use drugs without any health issues, a point also made by the Police Association.
She pointed to the Law Commission's 2011 recommendations of a mandatory cautioning system, which would erase police bias in how the law is applied as well as provide different options depending on an individual's situation.
'That might be naive'
But Health Minister Andrew Little said he wasn't too concerned about the automated text message, saying the support needed to be opt-in.
"The approach we've started off with is, let's get information to somebody who is affected. The question, and it's a legitimate question is: is that enough? Does it make any difference?"
He said those not being referred to health services might be getting help anyway.
"I think there's an assumption that most people who haven't got the information also accept that their drug consumption is problematic and will get help themselves. Now that might be naive. I don't know that.
"What we expect is that for those who need help, they get the help. And that won't be everybody who's found in possession of illicit drugs."
He said he expected more than one in 100 drug users would need help.
"But without seeing what the practical experience is underlying these figures, it's just hard to know."
A review of the law change will take place next year, he said.
A Ministry of Health spokesperson said that Homecare Medical was in the process of implementing a series of follow up text messages to increase engagement.
Fewer prosecutions, more warnings
Police data released to the Herald under the Official Information Act show how police have changed the way they deal with drug users.
In the 12 months before the law change, police came across about 400 people a month where drug use/possession was the most serious offence they might be charged with.
A third of them were charged, 58 per cent were given a warning, and 9 per cent were given an alternative measure which include Youth Aid referrals, family group conferences, alternative action plans, community justice panels, or no further action.
In the 14 and a half months since the law change - from mid-August 2019 until the end of October 2020 - police lowered the rate of prosecution: 24 per cent were charged, 65 per cent were given warnings, and 11 per cent were given an alternative measure.
Māori were hit harder, with 28 per cent charged since the law change - down from 37 per cent for the 12 months prior to the law change - 61.5 per cent given a warning, and 10 per cent receiving alternative measures.
Māori are also being charged for cannabis use/possession at a higher rate than non-Māori.
According to the statistics provided to the Drug Foundation, almost half of those convicted in 2019/20 were aged under 30, 71 per cent were men, and 39 per cent were Māori.
Little has previously said that the proportion of users receiving a referral - 10 per cent - seemed far too low, and those who face drug use/possession as their most serious charge should almost automatically get a referral.