School children still paying heavy price for legal highs

Children have been going to school hungry while their parents waste money on psychoactive substances, Palmerston North principals say.

Students and parents' drug problems have led to police intervention, Child, Youth and Family callouts and school suspensions.

One example of fallout from legal highs was that addicted adults feasted on a child's school lunch he had made for himself and the boy then resorted to stealing.

The principals say they are relieved legal highs legislation has changed, and hope the positive effects will soon be felt in schools.

The Psychoactive Substances Amendment Act was passed under urgency in Parliament this month, removing all psychoactive substances from shop shelves until they are proven to be low-risk, banning the testing of such products on animals and making possessing or supplying the drugs illegal.

Some schools have had to call police, Child, Youth and Family, as well as other social services agencies, such as Youth One Stop Shop and Whakapai Hauora, for help.

Schools also stepped in to provide counselling and pastoral support for students struggling with substance addiction and pupils have been suspended or expelled this year for drug-related offences, particularly around psychoactive substances, principals say.

West End School principal Gary Punler said he knew pupils who had accompanied their parents to purchase psychoactive substances, knowing the price and store location.

One pupil, whose parents were both users, would come to school hungry, had been found roaming the streets late at night, and was caught shoplifting as a result of his caregivers' cravings.

"The child often has no lunch and has reported waking up in the night to find adults eating a lunch that he had made [for himself]."

The potential for children to view those behaviours as normal, with money being spent on substances and not the necessities of life, was of concern, Punler said.

Freyberg High School acting principal Craig Steed said "like all schools across our community", some students may have tried them.

"The issue with legal highs is that in the very name is some perverse endorsement of them as a legal form of a recreational buzz or high," he said.

"Until now, the law wasn't able to prevent the production and distribution of these drugs to our young people and for that reason I have no doubt there will be students who have tried legal highs who would likely have never tried any other form of illegal drug."

More stringent rules surrounding the substances would be a good thing for youth, Steed said.

"I know the effect of legal high use has been far-reaching and impacted on families' lives in devastating ways," he said.

"They can be addictive and destructive, result in irrational behaviours and can ruin a student's chance to remain in mainstream education."

Awatapu College principal Gary Yeatman said labelling psychoactives substances "legal highs" in some way sanctioned their usage. "There will always be a small group who push boundaries [and] the use of legal highs had meant that for some their time with us has come to an end," he said.

"I'm hopeful by changing that law, as a country there'll be less students involved in it and the fact that it's no longer seen as legal will prevent them from doing it."

Palmerston North Boys' High School rector David Bovey said: "The perils of synthetic cannabis use have been well-documented and the recent decision was not before time."

Manawatu Standard