Police are finding children aged nine — or even younger — with drugs, new figures reveal.
Over the past five years, police have caught more children and young people with illicit drugs in the Bay of Plenty than in any other district.
And a former drug kingpin says children as young as six are smoking cannabis.
Details of police dealings with youngsters and illicit drugs between 2016 and 2020 were supplied to NZME under the Official Information Act.
The figures showed 631 people aged 17 or younger had run-ins with police in the Bay of Plenty, the most out of any of New Zealand's 12 police districts. The Bay of Plenty is the seventh biggest by population.
Nationally, when offences for young people resulted in court action, most were related to possession of illicit drugs. Other offences dealt with included dealing, trafficking and importing.
Cannabis was the illicit drug most were caught with, however methamphetamine and ecstasy were other common substances.
More than 80 per cent of the youth police dealt with were aged between 15 and 17. However, five were aged five to nine.
Billy Macfarlane was once a major drug dealer in the Bay of Plenty but has since turned his life around and runs an offender rehabilitation programme.
"I think the reason the Bay of Plenty numbers are the highest is that we've got the most active police force," he said.
"The Bay of Plenty police are pretty good and active of late. I'd say within the past five years they've stepped up.
"That's why there are lots of busts going on in Rotorua, Bay of Plenty, Taupō, Ōpōtiki, Whakatāne — not because we're the ones who have got all the drugs."
In 2018, the police opened a branch of the National Organised Crime Group in Tauranga -the first outside of Wellington and Auckland - specialising in drug investigations.
Macfarlane said there was an unwritten rule among drug dealers not to supply to children.
"When children are getting access to drugs it's because they're either stealing them or they're around irresponsible parents," he said, in his view.
Last year, more than 800 youths were caught with cannabis by police nationwide. The yearly average over the five-year period was 931.
Macfarlane thought people took a far too lenient approach to cannabis and said he knew of children as young as six and eight smoking it.
"It's sad, because we're just too casual about it. We say 'it's just cannabis'," he said.
"People need to keep an eye on their children … We all need to do our part. We can't keep turning a blind eye."
The figures showed methamphetamine was the next most common drug youth were connected to, with 210 incidents over five years.
Macfarlane said he was surprised the number wasn't higher.
He said developments like the dark web on the internet meant people could get their hands on meth for as little as $50 for a gram.
Elsewhere, Department of Corrections figures shows five per cent of the 6290 people charged with drug offences in 2020 were aged 19 years and under.
The police figures showed they had run-ins with around 100 fewer youths in New Zealand last year compared to 2019.
NZ Drug Foundation executive director Sarah Helm hoped amendments to the Misuse of Drugs Amendment Act 2019 were behind the decline.
One of the key changes gave police the discretion to prosecute for possession and use of controlled drugs.
"That could be because 2020 was an unusual year, where we were in lockdown for two months," Helm said.
"It might also be because of the amendment and police taking a different approach to use and possession of substances.
"I would hope the latter is true and we're seeing less and less."
Helm said most young people caught with illicit drugs would have only been experimenting with them.
Police were not able to provide the number of times a child or young person was arrested for illicit drug offences as the record was not kept.
However, they kept a record of "proceedings", which count each separate occasion over the five-year period when police deal with an alleged offender for one or more offences.
They showed cannabis was the most common type of illicit drug, with 4655 of the 5144 total proceedings against it.
Methamphetamine/amphetamine was the next highest with 210, followed by other/unspecified on 127, ecstasy on 55 and LSD on 34.
The figures for cannabis, methamphetamine, LSD, cocaine, opiates and other drugs remained relatively the same in each of the five years.
However, there had been a spike in ecstasy. In 2016, there were just six proceedings compared to 27 in 2020.
The rise was likely because ecstasy was relatively less expensive and more available than other drugs, New Zealand Police community partnerships and prevention Superintendent Eric Tibbott said.
"Any illicit drug use by young people, particularly the use of such an extremely addictive, powerful stimulant such as methamphetamine, is extremely concerning for police and the wider community," Tibbott said.
"The motives for drug dealing and drug use are different, the former is essentially a business transaction for financial gain whereas the latter is personal gratification.
"Police [are] interacting with young people who are affected by drugs are able to connect them and their family/whānau with our partner agencies who are able to provide help and support."
Tibbott said police were working at both district and the National Organised Crime Group level to disrupt and dismantle drug networks in the country.
"As well as our enforcement goals, the ultimate outcome we are seeking is to reduce the social harms drugs cause within our communities."