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New Zealand revises sentencing framework for methamphetamine offences

Someone holding a crystal of methamphetamine

Dr James Foulds, Consultant forensic psychiatrist, Christchurch New Zealand

Methamphetamine smoking is the commonest form of stimulant use in New Zealand. Asian importation has increased recently, and the drug has got much cheaper. However, despite harsh sanctions, dealing remains attractive for many people- including those who sell the drug to fund their own use.

Until recently, a conviction for supplying up to 5 grams of the drug- a few days’ supply for some heavier users- carried a starting point for sentence calculation of between 2 and 4 years in prison. Recognising current penalties as out of step with evidence and expert opinion, a recent judgment from the New Zealand Court of Appeal (NZCA) has revised the sentencing framework for methamphetamine supply convictions.

The NZCA judgment notes lower-level dealing is often driven by addiction and “ingrained, systemic poverty”. Current sentencing practices also disproportionately affect women, as one in five female prisoners have current (past 12 month) stimulant dependence.

Similarly, as over 50% of people in prison are Māori, unjust sentencing practises worsen racial inequality. Further, rates of imprisonment among Māori women are some of the highest of any indigenous group in the world, and methamphetamine likely accounts for much of this disparity.

The judgment, guided by evidence from experts including Professor David Nutt, recognises that prison sentences for this type of offending have little deterrent effect. It suggests that where addiction has led to offending, there should be a discount in sentencing, “a rehabilitative approach” and in some cases a community-based sentence instead of imprisonment.

These new guidelines mean defence lawyers will need to identify clients whose methamphetamine-related offending has been driven by an addiction or related social problems. They will need to put this information before the Court, along with a proposed treatment plan.

New Zealand still has some way to go in its legal framework for offending caused by substance addiction. Nonetheless, the judgment shows the New Zealand Courts view long prison sentences as counterproductive in this situation, and that they support a gradual move towards a more rehabilitation-focused approach.

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