Impact of 2019 'police discretion' law change on cannabis possession revealed

In 2019, New Zealand police were given greater discretion when it came to prosecuting for illegal drug use and possession, including for cannabis. 

But three years on from the amendment to the Misuse of Drugs Act, data obtained by Newshub under the Official Information Act shows little has changed. 

The law change specified police should consider a health approach over prosecution for illegal drug use and possession.

Justice Minister Kiri Allan told Newshub last week it led to a "radical reduction" in terms of how police treat cannabis possession.

But the data shows since that law change, court action for cannabis possession has reduced, but still remains high. There've been 142 court proceedings in the first seven months of this year.

Impact of 2019 'police discretion' law change on cannabis possession revealed
Photo credit: Newshub

Shane Timothy Hedges, 30, spent two years behind bars on cannabis charges. Prison led him down a dark path. 

"I was deeply immersed inside in gangs and heavy drugs and when I got out I developed a methamphetamine addiction," Hedges told Newshub.

He's clean now, thanks to the Puwhakamua rehab programme, run by Billy McFarlane, a reformed former drug dealer. 

Joseph Matiu Martin, 48, also spent time in prison. He was caught growing cannabis plants. 

"That criminal conviction hanging over me has stopped me from leaving the country and applying for certain jobs that I wanted to do," Matiu Martin told Newshub.

In 2020, New Zealanders voted against cannabis legalisation. But the New Zealand Drug Foundation says it's now time to follow America's lead.

US President Joe Biden last week pardoned thousands of people in the United States convicted of marijuana possession under federal law.

NZ Drug Foundation executive director Sarah Helm told Newshub reform in New Zealand should start with "decriminalising cannabis, and it is also time to pardon those people". 

Labour Minister Michael Wood told AM on Friday: "Police have got discretion to prosecute. That's actually brought down the number of prosecutions for use and possession."

But Green MP Chloe Swarbrick said it shouldn't be a discretionary choice by police and decriminalisation should be written into law.

"It's definitely something the Government can do really easily to start to address some of the injustices of the War on Drugs," Swarbrick told Newshub. 

It's a war that's yet to display the "radical reduction" the Justice Minister spoke of.