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Could cannabis decriminalisation have positive outcome in New Zealand (Photo: Getty Images)
Could cannabis decriminalisation have positive outcome in New Zealand (Photo: Getty Images)

PartnersSeptember 7, 2019

Rebuilding from the rubble of the failed war on drugs

Could cannabis decriminalisation have positive outcome in New Zealand (Photo: Getty Images)
Could cannabis decriminalisation have positive outcome in New Zealand (Photo: Getty Images)

After more than 40 years the war on drugs has had brutal consequences for justice in New Zealand. The movement to end the war is gathering momentum. 

Like most wars started by the United States, the war on drugs was launched for spurious and racially-motivated reasons by cynical political hawks. And like most wars started by the United States, it was also an unmitigated failure, destroying countless lives and compounding intergenerational trauma for political capital. 

But the effects weren’t experienced only in the US. Nixonian drug policy has informed our own laws here in New Zealand, with identical results for our people. Because the war on drugs is also a war on the poor, and a war on indigenous people the world over. The evidence for that is clear. And the consequences are devastating for our society. 

There’s hope. The tide of policy and public opinion is slowly starting to turn against the failed war. Important voices are being added to the chorus calling for a new approach to drug policy. With the referendum to legalise cannabis at next year’s general election this moment is a once in a generation opportunity to change the way we control, police and manage drugs in New Zealand. Because the facts speak for themselves. 


The war on drugs is racist. Although an estimated 50% of New Zealanders will use cannabis in their lifetime according to the ministry of health, Māori are almost twice as likely as Pākehā to report encounters with the law for cannabis use. And the consequences are consistently far more severe for Māori.

Around 40% of Māori in jail are there because of minor drug possession or supply charges. As Professor Khylee Quince, Director of Māori and Pacific Advancement in the AUT law school, says, Māori are far less likely to be granted the benefit of their convictions being clean slated. “If you have two defendants convicted of the same cannabis offending and the Māori one goes to prison and the Pākehā one doesn’t, one is able to be clean slated after seven years, the person who goes to prison cannot have that clean slate. That is a lifetime consequence from exactly the same offending.”

Between 2010 and 2014, Māori made up only 30% of those who received pre-charge warnings – essentially being let off – as opposed to 57% of Pākehā. Despite being much more likely to encounter the law for cannabis use, Māori made up only 20% of those who are offered diversion.

The war on drugs has also criminalised the unwell, caging people with crippling addictions rather than treating them with humanity. Addiction is often a symptom rather than a cause, and a compassionate, holistic and health-based approach to treating it is wholly incompatible with a punitive, penal approach. Māori are more than twice as likely to suffer a substance use disorder in their lifetime compared to the general population.

The war on drugs has also been economically disastrous, burning through millions of dollars in police budget pursuing these crimes. Their prosecution has suffocated our justice system and flooded our prisons. In 2014/15, $268 million was spent enforcing our drug laws, but only $78.3 million on drug-related health interventions.


There is hope. Both academia and the legal profession have long declared that the war on drugs was lost. In 2011 a Law Commission review recommended the government repeal the Misuse of Drugs Act and create a new act under the ministry of health. The commission argued in favour of a health-based approach, particularly in cases with a strong element of addiction. These recommendations were ignored by parliament, however, the report set a foundation for legal opinion moving forward. 

The movement against the war on drugs in New Zealand gathered momentum. In 2016, Tuari Potiki, director of Māori development at Otago University, a recovering addict and the chair of the New Zealand Drug Foundation’s board, said at the UN General Assembly’s special session on the world drug problem: “If there is a war to be fought — and I believe that there is — it should be a war on poverty, on disparity, on dispossession, on the multitude of political and historical factors that have left — and continue to leave — so many people vulnerable and in jeopardy.”

In 2017 the NZ Drug Foundation released its model drug law – Whakawātea te Huarahi. Stepping in where politicians were afraid to, the foundation proposed policy based on the Law Commissions recommendations, removing criminal penalties for the possession, use and social supply of all drugs and is designed to minimise the harms caused by drug use, while promoting human rights and improving equity for Māori.

In June this year, former prime minister Helen Clark attended the Global Commission on Drugs in Portugal. The outcome was the report Classification of Psychoactive Substances: when science was left behind. It argues for a rescheduling of drugs based on real, measurable potential for harm, and lays clear the lack of relation the status quo has with scientific reality. 

Then, last month, the Misuse of Drugs Amendment Act was passed. “The most significant drug reform in 40 years” the amendment codified the police right to exercise discretion when it comes to prosecuting drug-related crimes will become law for the first time. Police are now required to avoid prosecution in cases where a health-based or therapeutic approach would prove more beneficial.

Police were previously empowered to exercise their discretion, operating under a system of decriminalisation de jure. However, while politically convenient, “unconscious bias” led to a disproportionate rate of Māori convictions.

In an impassioned speech during the bill’s debate, Green MP Chlöe Swarbrick, who has led her party’s reform efforts, called the bill “a triumph for compassion and a triumph for common sense”.

“The arc of moral history is long but today it bends towards justice,” she told the house. 

Last week, the Helen Clark Foundation released The Case for Yes, a report calling on New Zealanders to vote yes in next year’s referendum, and offering several different models for how a legal market could look. 

Clark pointed to the deprivation of Māori at the hands of the state as a key motivator for urging New Zealanders to vote “yes”, arguing decriminalisation and police discretion simply didn’t go far enough. Clark also argued for the wiping of minor convictions for drug use and possession, freeing users from the snowball of suffering that can come with interaction with the law and a criminal conviction. It is the just thing to do, she said. 

“There has now been expunging of convictions under the old indecent behaviour legislation which restricted men having sex with men because that was just so unjust. So I think the same principle applies here that people should have their records expunged. Convictions like this end up on people’s records, they can stop you entering other countries, you have to disclose them to employers in many cases – it is a blight on your record.” 

Forner Prime Minister Helen Clark speaking at the launch of the Helen Clark Foundation (Photo: Supplied)


For all intents and purposes, the war on drugs is lost, but Potiki’s words ring true – there are battles still to be fought, and every war needs soldiers. Polling on the 2020 referendum indicates the vote hangs in the balance, and groups like Family First are campaigning on what Helen Clark says ‘you wouldn’t even call evidence.’

So next week, the movement for drug law reform seeks to rally its allies. The Unify Rally, “for justice to end our drug war”, will gather its troops on 16 September at the Auckland Town Hall. The event features speakers from the Black Lives Matter movement, former prime minister Helen Clark, lawyer Kingi Snelgar and community advocates for justice. The rally wants to unify New Zealanders to vote yes in the 2020 referendum.

It’s an opportunity to hear the traumatic facts again from those that have witnessed their consequences first hand. It is an opportunity to learn the lessons from the Black Lives Matter movement – the frontline of the war on drugs. It’s an opportunity to see the arc of history bend a little closer to justice.

This content was created in paid partnership with the NZ Drug Foundation. Learn more about our partnerships here.

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