16 April 2014

A good proportion of New Zealanders apparently have a drug of choice. This was indicated by responses to the 10th Annual Global Drug Survey, results of which were published yesterday. That is an explanation for the 19% increase in the number of on-site workplace drug tests reported by the New Zealand Drug Detection Agency, up from 68,346 urine tests in 2012 to 81,410 last year. A number of these were in State sector agencies which of course have the same obligations to ensure safe workplaces as any other employer.

The good news is that the 5.5% testing non-negative – an indication that presence of a drug is detected – was down from 6.4% in 2012.  Over 71% of non-negative results indicated use of cannabis.

New Zealand participates each year in the Global Drug Survey, along with USA, UK, Australia, Germany, France, Ireland, Belgium, The Netherlands, Denmark, Hungary, Spain, Portugal, Switzerland, Mexico, Slovenia and Brazil. The latest survey of drug users (conducted during November / December 2013) was the biggest ever.  It received almost 80,000 responses.

A conclusion is that a reduction in criminal penalties is unlikely to encourage non users to try drugs or for current users to increase their use. What would be likely is that drug users would be more open with their family and friends about their habits and the consequences.

A typical respondent was between 20 and 40, well-educated, and socially active. That could describe many State servants.  A common characteristic was that they were more likely to have used drugs at some stage than the general population but in the last year only around 60% had used an illicit drug – usually cannabis.

Generally, alcohol, tobacco and cannabis were the most common drugs used within the last year, with cocaine, amphetamine in its various forms and MDMA frequently just behind them, but there were some quite marked national variations.

New Zealanders, along with users in USA had a particular preference for meth – and “prescribed and non-prescribed psychoactive medication particular opioid painkillers and benzodiazepines”.

A study of over 38,000 cannabis users showed that “only” 25% of New Zealanders chose to smoke cannabis with tobacco  compared to over 80% of smokers in most other countries – excepting the USA which had a lower rate than New Zealand.

The researchers were surprised that more New Zealanders  (one in 30 of last year’s users) sought emergency medical attention after using synthetic cannabis products despite the products being regulated and apparently “safe”.   The survey suggests that regulation does not necessarily reduce drug related harm.

A consolation is that New Zealand had the lowest rate (at fewer than 8%) of  people at work  showing the effects of drugs, unlike the Netherlands (25%) and the UK and Ireland (both over 20%). More hung over Irish turned up for work (50%) than elsewhere.

If a rise of electronic THC product use is excluded, the biggest drug users among the 17 countries surveyed were in the USA, UK and New Zealand.

The closest that any State Services Commission guidance gets to referring to the use of drugs is the 18th and ultimate standard in the code of conduct  that “We must avoid any activities, work or non-work, that may harm the reputation of our organisation or of the State Services”.

In Understanding the Code of Conduct – Guidance for State Servants   the explanation is of a duty to avoid being connected publicly with behaviour that creates a sense of public disquiet, and that, implicitly, diminishes trust in the State Services. “Involvement in some personal activities, including unlawful behaviour… is likely to bring our organisation into disrepute.”

State servants are counselled that … “when considering whether an activity may be harmful and therefore unacceptable, our immediate feelings can often be a useful guide. What is your conscience telling you? Another test of appropriateness may be the opinions of colleagues following discussion of all the facts, in effect a collective conscience. A reluctance to openly discuss an activity may reflect our innate awareness that the activity is not acceptable.”