Children as young as nine in Rotorua are committing crimes to fuel their substance addictions and are turning up to school with cigarettes, alcohol and marijuana.
Local police say the issue is on their radar and the Rotorua Principal's Association president says there needs to be more addiction counselling services, not just educational programmes, for children under 13.
But the government ministries approached by the Rotorua Daily Post believe it is not a big enough issue at that age group to look into it formally.
Lakes DHB's emergency department staff at Rotorua Hospital have seen three cases of children under 13 who appear to have come to the ED as a result of an alcohol-related incident in the last six months.
There have been no cases of drug-related incidents presenting to the ED in the last six months for this age group.
Lakes District Health Board communications officer Sue Wilkie said she could not give more details on the age of the children or what they presented with.
Figures from the Ministry of Education show nationally, 20.8 per cent of total suspension cases in 2015 were for drug and substance abuse issues. This was the second highest reason for student suspensions, behind continual disobedience.
Figures for 2016 will not be available until next year.
PRINCIPALS SPEAK OUT
"It's a very real problem that still hasn't been addressed because to do formal research would be very uncomfortable," Rotorua Principal's Association president and Ngakuru School principal Grant Henderson said.
"I don't think it's just a Rotorua problem, when I was working as a deputy principal in Opotiki we had to deal with an 11-year-old who was stoned at school. The youngest case I have come across, which was an extreme, was a 6-year-old who was addicted to tobacco.
"It does seem to be linked to low socio-economic communities because it is often those children who are exposed to these substances from a young age."
He said currently any evidence of the issue was anecdotal.
Tobacco is just as concerning as cannabis or alcohol as it is just as detrimental to a child's development and can be a gateway to other substances.
"You'd be strapped to find any formal New Zealand research, but I would definitely encourage the Government to be brave and contract a university to look into it. Even if it shows only one per cent of 100,000 children in that age bracket have a problem, that's still 1000 children, and that's quite high."
The Rotorua Daily Post asked the Ministries of Health, Education, Justice and Social Development whether they had done any formal research into drug and alcohol abuse in children under 13.
All four said they had not.
Mr Henderson said tobacco addiction was the most prevalent.
"Tobacco is just as concerning as cannabis or alcohol as it is just as detrimental to a child's development and can be a gateway to other substances.
"When it comes to cannabis, we are much harsher with our discipline, standing down or suspending the student due to the illegality of it.
"I think it's rather strange this issue hasn't been investigated especially because if we had the resources to nip it early, then we would stop it getting to a high-school level."
John Paul College principal Patrick Walsh said there was a definite need for more resources specifically targeting children under 13-years-old.
He said it was a concern that issues were not being dealt with when a child first presents them, causing roll-on effects at a high school level.
Sunset Primary School principal Niels Rasmussen said children were experimenting at a younger age than they used to.
He agreed there needed to be more focused support processes for under 13s with drug and alcohol issues.
"In every group of children there are those who dabble and experiment then move on but then there are those dabbling and experimenting who continue to do it.
Mr Rasmussen said recently he had an 11-year-old student smoking on the field but stressed it was an isolated incident.
"The good thing children don't get the opportunity to do drugs or drink alcohol on the school grounds because the other students know its bad and alert the teachers."
Western Heights Primary School principal Brent Griffin said drugs were prevalent in his community but had not seen any of his pupils presenting with addiction issues.
"I am not naive enough to believe it's not happening but we are very fortunate to not have had any issues in our school for at least the last five years.
"We had one child bring a marijuana joint to school this year but it was more to look cool than to smoke it.
"Our pupils are very knowledgeable about drugs and have more knowledge than they should at that age but in our school, we've had virtually no issues."
POLICE ON THE CASE
Rotorua area prevention manager Inspector Stu Nightingale said issues with young people and substance abuse was not unknown to the Rotorua police.
"We are aware of children between the ages of 10 and 13 who have issues with drugs and alcohol who are stealing and committing crimes to pay for their addictions.
"When we deal with children that young who are walking around the CBD all hours of the night, it's huge alarm bells for us that things are not good at home.
"When we do come across these cases, we look very carefully at their home situation and link up with other agencies when we can because even at that age, it's a problem."
Ministry of Education acting head of early learning and student achievement Karl Le Quesne said the ministry specialised in educational research so any research on this issue would be carried out by health agencies.
He said they were not aware of a "significant problem with younger students smoking, drinking or taking drugs at school".
"Most students are at school to learn."
When asked what advice the ministry gives schools when faced with this issue, Mr Le Quesne said, "schools are experienced in dealing with a range of issues with students and have a range of strategies available to them, depending on what the context is. They do not usually need to seek advice from us".
Te Utuhina Manaakitanga general manager Donna Blair said she believed there were plenty of resources available for children under 13.
"We will get around half a dozen cases a year of children 9 to 12-years-old. The referrals tend to come from the schools and we work with them in conjunction with their parents, given their young age."
She said in her experience, substance use in that age group was more opportunistic, than addiction-based.
"It's often one-off type situations that have landed the child in hot water. In these cases we are educating the child so it doesn't become an issue of dependency or addiction.
"In our experience the parents of these children are often slightly mortified this has happened. They always want the best for their children - we haven't come across parents who have not been scared or worried."
Ministry of Health director of Mental Health Dr John Crawshaw said the ministry had not currently commissioned research into the area of drugs or alcohol for children under the age of 13.
He said Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) and Youth Addiction Treatment Services were available for people aged 0-19 and the number of children accessing the services was low.
Child, Youth and Family midlands regional director Sue Critchley said the Ministry of Social Development had not carried out research into the issue.
"It is a sad fact that substance abuse is a reality for far too many children and young people of all ages and every social group.
"Help and support is available from a range of professionals such as psychologists, health workers, NGO's and community groups to help turn lives around.
"When children come to the attention of Child, Youth and Family, there is often a family history that is complex and chaotic. In some circumstances this has resulted in children having access to drugs or alcohol, or abusing drugs and alcohol as a result of the trauma they have experienced.
"Every child and young people coming into our care has a Gateway Assessment, where any health issues can be identified and addressed, including substance abuse."