Despite a law change in 2019 to allow more police discretion, many people are still ending up in front of judges for low-level drug offending. Alex Braae reports.
Between August and October last year, more than 300 New Zealanders faced court for possession of cannabis.
Campaigners say this reflects a lack of change in how police handle low-level drug offending, despite an amendment in the Misuse of Drugs Act in 2019 that gave police more discretion over whether to prosecute. But police say the stats don’t show the full picture of their current approach to the issue.
Statistics compiled by the Drug Foundation from police data show that in September, 127 people ended up in court for possessing or procuring cannabis for personal use. That was marginally higher than the number of people who faced court in the same month for possession of methamphetamine.
The figures also showed that while more low-level drug offenders were being put through non-court actions since the law change, overall the number of drug offences police are processing is increasing.
Sarah Helm from the Drug Foundation said both the prosecutions of drug users – and police warnings given instead of prosecutions – were counterproductive, and can cause long-term harm. She is concerned that a ‘net-widening’ effect is taking place with how drug use is policed.
“It makes no sense that there are more people being picked up for minor drug offences given we know convictions do nothing to deter use and the majority of the public don’t think cannabis use in particular should be a crime,” said Helm, referring to recent polling conducted by the Helen Clark Foundation that showed a clear majority of support for decriminalisation of cannabis.
“The 40-80 New Zealanders every month prosecuted for being caught with a cannabis utensil, such as a pipe, really does show we have a long way to go,” said Helm.
In an interview with The Spinoff, police commissioner Andrew Coster said sometimes the stats about who went before the courts didn’t show the full picture of their potential offending.
“The charges aren’t always laid by themselves. If you have a cannabis charge laid with, say, a burglary charge, it might just be that we arrested them for burglary and they had cannabis with them and we included a cannabis charge as part of the picture. In reality, the court is going to focus on the serious offence of burglary and the other charge is context.”
Māori people are still being impacted by drug laws at disproportionate rates. The percentage of low-level drug offenders who are Māori has stayed basically static since 2017, between 37% and 39% of the total.
“The unwaveringly high percentage of Māori facing convictions for minor drug offences also speaks to the failing of the amendment to the Misuse of Drugs Act,” said Helm.
Jackie Burrows from Canterbury-based social services provider He Waka Tapu said the organisation has seen high arrest rates for Māori, which concerns them.
“We still see a large amount of our Māori arrested, and not given that diversion option, or other options. It’s straight to the courtroom and then the judge makes a decision on whether they should be doing a programme or whether it’s straight to jail.”
Burrows said her organisation sees many people ending up in the justice system for their drug use, when different approaches would be much more beneficial. However, she believes some aspects of policing are changing for the better – for example, their work on reducing harm from cycles of family violence using non-court approaches.
“But there’s still a lot to happen – your stats are showing that. People are being prosecuted when perhaps there are other options, but they’re not being looked at. Because it takes a bit of work to look at them, it’s quicker to just stamp the thing, go to jail, done.”
Commissioner Coster partially agreed with this sentiment, and denied that there was widespread resistance within the police to taking a more health-based approach.
“By and large, that has landed fine with our people. Of course, a health-led approach has a number of things that need to flow from it and sometimes the challenge is ensuring we get the right connections through to the right people,” said Coster.
He said the question of discretion didn’t sit only with police – it was also a question for Crown prosecutors and judges to consider.
“At every step along the way there’s an opportunity for a bit of a sense check, about whether we’re doing the right thing. It’s the best system we’ve got. It’s not perfect, but it’s better than the alternative.”