A new breed of powerful cannabis and ballooning costs in treating its health effects have led to calls for urgent action, including drug education for primary school children.
The information, in a National Drug Intelligence Bureau report obtained by The Dominion Post under the Official Information Act, shows that cannabis, the most widely used illicit drug, causes more than $30 million a year in hospital bills.
The report the first of its kind to use information from Customs, health and police officials warns that the drug is likely to become more harmful. The threat posed by high-potency "re-engineered" cannabis has been steadily increasing, it says.
Hospital costs jumped 50 per cent from $19.5 million in 2004 to $31 million in 2005. Of the 2062 hospital cases in 2005, 48 admissions cost between $100,000 and $370,000 each.
The report calls for further action to reduce supply and demand as communities have become "comfortable with high prevalence levels".
Included is a call to curb the "alarming" trend of teenagers to use cannabis by making drug education programmes an immediate priority in primary schools.
Cannabis could account for up to 10 per cent of cases of psychosis, the report says, pointing to increasing admission rates for psychotic disorders, including schizophrenia and behavioural disorders.
Bureau co-ordinator Detective Inspector Stuart Mills said the report provided the first big picture of cannabis' harmful effects.
"We talk about methamphetamine, but here we can see the harm it causes with the number of hospital admissions caused solely by cannabis."
Health Minister Tony Ryall said he had not yet read the report, but suspected the cost to the health system would be "significantly higher than that, when you consider its contribution to accidents and family breakdown".
The call for primary school drug education is welcomed by the Wellington youth drug and alcohol counselling service WellTrust. The average age at which the trust's clients begin using cannabis is about 12, executive officer Murray Trenberth says.
The report says users prefer marijuana grown indoors, where "a consistently higher-quality product is achieved". Scientific tests ESR completed this year are believed to confirm increasing amounts of THC, the ingredient responsible for the giving the "high", in cannabis.
Police have refused a request for the THC test results, but the report says levels are believed to have increased between six and 12 per cent since the late 1990s.
Key findings in the Customs, Police and Health Ministry report:
* Cannabis-related hospital admissions exceeded the numbers admitted for opiates, amphetamines and cocaine combined.
* In 2005, more than 2062 hospital admissions were related to cannabis. There was also a big jump in emergency department admissions from 61 in 2001 to 142 in 2005.
* Maori account for nearly half of all cannabis-related hospital admissions.
* The majority of patients were suffering from a psychotic disorder, followed by cannabis poisoning, harmful use, dependence and acute intoxication.
* The cost of cannabis hospital admissions increased from $22 million in 2001 to $35 million in 2005.
* In 2006, some 25,580 cannabis plants were seized in more than 1075 raids. Bay of Plenty was the worst, with 266.409kg of cannabis seized.
* A quarter of all cannabis seized is linked to organised crime.
Source: New Cannabis: The Cornerstone of Illicit Drug Harm in New Zealand.
By ANNA CHALMERS and BEN FAWKES
The Dominion Post
Posted on Monday, 22 December 2008