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Synthetic cannabis, party pills, herbal highs: “Psychoactive substances”

Possessing synthetic cannabis or other psychoactive substances

Psychoactive Substances Act 2013, s 71; Criminal Procedure Act 2011, ss 6, 71

It’s illegal to possess any synthetic cannabis, party pills or herbal highs – what the law calls “psychoactive substances” – if they haven’t been officially approved by the government.

These drugs sometimes used to be called “legal highs”, but since July 2013 they’ve all been illegal.

As of October 2021, no psychoactive substances have been approved by the government agency that deals with this area, the Psychoactive Substances Regulatory Authority (PSRA) – which means that currently it’s illegal to possess any psychoactive substances.

If you’re convicted in court, the judge can fine you up to $500.

In the criminal justice system this is a Category 1 offence, which means that, unlike more serious offences, you don’t have to go to court at all if you simply want to plead guilty, as you can send the court your plea in writing. If you plead not guilty, you’ll have a District Court trial. For more about the different offence categories, see the chapter “The criminal courts”.

Psychoactive Substances Act 2013, ss 72–74; Psychoactive Substances (Infringement Fees and Form of Notices) Regulations 2014, reg 4

Alternatively, rather than taking you to court, the police can simply give you a $300 infringement notice on the spot (like a speeding ticket). To do this they need to at least have reasonable grounds for believing that you possess a psychoactive substance. With an infringement notice you only have to go to court if you want to challenge the notice. Infringement notices don’t give you a criminal record.

Psychoactive substances have been sold on the street under a range of product names – including Anarchy, Apocalypse, Black Widow, Chocolate Haze, Haze, Hydro Budz AK-47, Hydro Budz Hindu Kush, Karma, Puff, Southern Lights, Voodoo, White Rhino and WTF.

Buying or having any psychoactive substances if you’re under 18

Psychoactive Substances Act 2013, ss 72–74; Psychoactive Substances (Infringement Fees and Form of Notices) Regulations 2014, reg 4

If you’re under 18, it’s illegal to buy or possess any psychoactive substances, such as synthetic cannabis, whether they’ve been officially approved or not. For this you can be fined up to $500 if you’re convicted in court.

Note: As of October 2021, no psychoactive substances have been officially approved, so there’s currently no practical difference in how the law applies to young people compared to adults.

Alternatively, instead of bringing charges against you in court, the police can give you a $300 infringement notice.

If you’re 14 or over, and the police take you to court, you’ll be dealt with in the adult courts (the District Court), rather than the usual Youth Court. But if you’re under 14 you’ll be dealt with under the care and protection laws, not the youth justice system or the adult justice system, see the chapter “Dealing with Oranga Tamariki / Ministry for Children”.

Dealing in synthetic cannabis or other psychoactive substances

Psychoactive Substances Act 2013, s 70

There’s a maximum penalty of two years’ jail if you:

  • sell or give unapproved psychoactive substances to anyone, or offer to sell or give them, or
  • have unapproved psychoactive substances in your possession with the intention of selling or giving them to anyone.

    Note: As of October 2021, no psychoactive substances have been officially approved.

Criminal Procedure Act 2011, ss 6, 73; Case: [2015] NZHC 2565

This is a Category 3 offence, which means that if you plead not guilty, you’ll have the right to choose either a jury trial in the District Court or a trial in front of a District Court Judge alone.

The type and level of sentence you get in your particular case will depend on the scale of the dealing you’re involved in:

  • “Minor”: little or no profit-making – If you have a small amount of synthetic cannabis for the purpose of selling or giving it to others, but this isn’t a commercial operation designed to make you money, then the starting point for your sentence is likely to be a fine or a community-based sentence. For example, you might use the drug yourself and sometimes supply it to friends either at cost or for a small profit. However, if there’s repeat offending on a similar scale, you might get a short sentence of home detention or jail.
  • “Moderate”: moderate commercial dealing – If you’re convicted of dealing as a profit-making business on a moderate scale, the starting point sentence will probably be between six and 12 months’ jail.
  • “Serious”: large-scale commercial dealing – If you’re dealing on a large commercial scale, with a sophisticated, well-organised operation, the starting point is likely to be more than 12 months’ jail.

    Note: The “starting point” means the level of sentence the judge initially decides on based simply on how bad the offending was, before looking at you and your situation to decide whether your sentence should have any “uplifts” for aggravating features (like previous offending) or “discounts” for mitigating features (like a guilty plea). See “How criminal sentencing works” at the start of this chapter.

Selling or giving approved psychoactive products to under-18s

Psychoactive Substances Act 2013, s 49; Criminal Procedure Act 2011, ss 6, 71

Even if a psychoactive product has been officially approved for sale, it’s still illegal to sell it to anyone under 18. For this an individual can be fined up to $1,000, and companies can be fined up to $10,000. This is a Category 1 offence. For how Category 1 offences are dealt with in the criminal justice system, see the chapter “The criminal courts”.

Note: As of October 2021, no psychoactive substances have been officially approved.

Psychoactive Substances Act 2013, ss 50, 72–74; Psychoactive Substances (Infringement Fees and Form of Notices) Regulations 2014, reg 4

It’s also illegal to give any approved psychoactive substance to someone under 18, or to give it to someone over 18 with the intention that they’ll later give it to someone under 18. For this you can be fined up to $2,000, if you’re convicted in court. Alternatively the police can give you a $300 infringement notice (like a speeding ticket).

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Common crimes

Where to go for more support

Community Law

www.communitylaw.org.nz

Your local Community Law Centre can provide free initial legal advice and information.

Ministry of Justice

www.justice.govt.nz/publications

The Ministry of Justice website has a range of pamphlets and other information on the criminal court system. You can access this information online, or you can order hardcopies of the pamphlets from:

Phone: 0800 587 847
Email: publications@justice.govt.nz

Drug Foundation

www.drugfoundation.org.nz

The New Zealand Drug Foundation has a large amount of information about different drugs and their effects, and about criminal offences and penalties. They also provide drug checking services.

KnowYourStuffNZ

www.knowyourstuff.nz

KnowYourStuffNZ provides free information, advice, and drug checking services using a range of testing methods at events around New Zealand.

The New Zealand Needle Exchange Programme

www.nznep.org.nz

The Needle Exchange Programme provides and collects needles for safe disposal, advice on harm reduction, and is licensed to provide drug checking services.

The Level

www.thelevel.org.nz

The Level provides free guides for people who use drugs. Click on “I’m looking for drug checking” on their website for a calendar of non-festival drug checking clinics in Aotearoa.

Ministry of Health

www.health.govt.nz

The Ministry of Health has information about the legal use of cannabis products for medical reasons, and which particular products have been approved. Look under “Our work / Regulation / Medicines control / Prescribing cannabis-based products”.

Ministry of Primary Industries

www.mpi.govt.nz/travel-and-recreation/fishing

The MPI website has information about recreational fishing rules and customary gathering rights.

The MPI also runs an automated information line that you can text to find out about minimum sizes and daily catch limits for particular species. Just text the name of the species in your message – just “paua” for example (it doesn’t work if you spell it “pāua”) – and send it to 9889.

How to find the cases we’ve cited in this chapter

This chapter cites a number of New Zealand court decisions as legal authority for the law as we’ve stated it. If you need to look up these cases, you can look at the references for each section and search for them either online or in a law library.

When we give the case citation, we give just the unique case reference – for example, “[2012] NZHC 15”. We haven’t included the case name (which is usually in a format like “Police v Douglas” or “R v Myers”).

You’ll be able to read most of these cases on the government website Judicial Decisions Online, at forms.justice.govt.nz/jdo/Search.jsp. The case will be on that site if the citation we’ve given includes either “NZHC” (for High Court), or “NZCA” (for Court of Appeal), or “NZSC” (for Supreme Court). You’ll need to search for the case on that site by inserting the citation (for example, “[2015] NZSC 135”) in the “Neutral Citation” search field.

Cases that have “NZLR” in the citation (for “New Zealand Law Reports”) usually won’t be available online, but they are available in hard copy in some larger city public libraries, published in orange-brown volumes. For the occasional case that we’ve cited from other report series (like CRNZ, for “Criminal Reports of New Zealand”), you’d need to go to a specialist law library at a university or local Law.

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