Eleven jails, and numerous drug offences for Hawkes Bay man. Could rehab have saved him sooner?

Anaru Birch has been in and out of prison for the last 40 years on numerous drugs-related charges.

The 56-year-old from Hastings has done time in 11 different New Zealand jails.

His last stint for drug-related offences was in 2016 when he served two-and-a-half years for possession of meth and utensils.

But Birch says a rehabilitation programme that he’s found has kept him away from addiction.

As he slowly recovers, he can’t help but feel that a system with more discretion to send drug users to rehab rather than prison could have saved his life a lot sooner.

Birch’s comments come as statistics released under the Official Information Act show that the Eastern District (Hawke’s Bay andTairāwhiti) leads NZ for the rate with which police charge drug users.

In the four months from November 2020 to February 2021, when Health Minister Andrew Little sent a clear message that such people should almost automatically not be charged – police charged fewer than one in five people, or 18 per cent.

But the rate in Eastern police district was 38 per cent.

Police in the Eastern district were also most likely to charge people for cannabis use/possession (21 per cent), as well as methamphetamine use/possession (68 per cent).

Birch, who has had Class A charges for possession and supply, told Hawke’s Bay Today that all prison had done for him was make his addiction worse.

“You get thrown in at the deep end, you make connections, you are exposed to other people with drug offences.

“You can do drug programmes in prison, but they don’t work. You just meet other drug users. Rather than being sent to prison, a rehabilitation programme would have helped me.”

Hawke’s Bay Area Commander Inspector Lincoln Sycamore says police in the wider region recognised drugs in the community continued to be a significant driver of harm with police dealing with the effects of drug and alcohol impairment daily.

“Depending on the situation, we use our discretion on a case-by-case basis to determine the most appropriate intervention to prevent future harm,” Sycamore said.

“Our approach remains prevention focused.

“We work with a number of agencies, including the District Health Board, government partners and non-government groups and stakeholders to help address the often complex factors behind addiction.

“It’s important the focus is providing early intervention where we can.”

Police Commissioner Andrew Coster said he hadn’t dug into why officers in the Eastern district – which includes Hawke’s Bay and Tairāwhiti- charged drug users at more than twice the national rate, but said regional consistency was “desirable”.

Coster said there was ongoing work in general looking into consistency in charging decisions.

“In principle, I think consistent application across the country for like offences is desirable, but we have to be quite careful. Constabulary discretion is ultimately at the level of the individual,” he said.

“Sometimes there are local drivers in terms of the prevalence of a particular kind of offending that could lead to variations in practice.”

Coster said he expected police to continue the trend of charging fewer people, especially as more health services become more available.

Birch’s last sentence meant he was released in January, when he heard about Hawke’s Bay charitable trust Kia Tipu Te Ora Trust-a centre to help those going through addiction rehabilitation.

“I was released from prison in January, and I came here and found my own help,” he said.

“The trust has helped me because I am out of prison, away from other influences, people. I come here twice a week, I attend counselling and group sessions and separate myself from others using. It has helped me develop boundaries.”

Former drug addict and trust founder Chris Jenkins gave up his full-time job as an addiction support worker to found the trust.

He identified gaps in the system during his five years as an addiction support worker and said procedures and paperwork took too much time away from supporting people in need.

“On any given day we get approximately 15 people who have been through the court system, we offer support and support groups,” Jenkins said.

“We don’t view their addictions as criminal – it’s a health issue. We don’t judge.

“One hundred per cent of people who use our service have experienced trauma, and for them substance use is a way of coping, so the treatment is healing what drives them to use.

“Sending them to prison means often they come out worse, they have made new connections and it makes healing harder.

“The idea is to get in earlier and support rather than punish. It’s a health issue.”

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