Cannabis advocates frustrated as drug dominates use, possession offences

It's been three years since a law change gave police discretion over illegal drugs and new police data shows there has been an increase in alternative actions like referrals to addiction services.

But cannabis advocates are disappointed the drug still dominates use and possession offences and are renewing calls to ease restrictions on personal growing for medicinal use. 

In 2019, police were given discretion to consider a health approach, over prosecution, for illegal drug use and possession, via changes to the Misuse of Drugs Act. 

The latest police data shows prosecutions have dropped from an average of 776 per month to 520, while health referrals have risen from zero a month to 32.

But cannabis still makes up 63 percent of possession and use offences. It hasn't changed since the law was amended.

"It's put in the hands of the individual police in the area, and so yeah, there's inconsistency," Chris Hansen, an Auckland man who has multiple cannabis possession convictions, told Newshub. 

All of his convictions relate to his homemade medicinal cannabis products. 

"They were trying to put me inside for six months - that's what the prosecutor was going for - and I managed to get enough letters from people who I helped, to help my cause."

Hansen said the convictions have held him back, costing him job opportunities.

"The harshest one, I think, was nine months' home detention with 400 hours' community service."

Police told Newshub: "Due to the increase in alternative actions, there has been a drop in prosecutions, particularly for cannabis-related offences."

But critics say it's a waste of time going after cannabis at all. 

"What harm are cannabis users?" asks Porou Tawhirirangi, who used to grow cannabis illegally on the East Coast.

"What do they say? Five alcoholics will start a fight, five stoners will start a band."

Tawhirirangi is now a consultant for a legitimate medicinal cannabis company, but has a lot of sympathy for illegal growers.

"I feel proud of them in the sense that they're still growing in a time where medicinal cannabis still isn't easily accessed by everybody," he told Newshub. 

Breaking down the post-law change police data, it's clear that certain demographics have benefitted more than others. 

Ninety-nine percent of youth with no prior offences were referred to youth services or an alternative action.

But Māori are still hugely over-represented, making up 40 percent of drug use and possession offences.

"Our Māori people are getting caught up in way more charges than just simple cannabis possession or cultivation," Tawhirirangi said. 

Chris Wilkins, from Massey University's SHORE & Whariki Research Centre, said the data is not surprising. 

"Often cannabis charges are part of another offence... like a disorder offence or a traffic offence, where the police have been able to search the person or their vehicle," he told Newshub. 

In April 2020, the Medicinal Cannabis Scheme came into effect in New Zealand. But legal products can be expensive and are only available to patients on prescription from a doctor. Later in 2020, New Zealanders narrowly voted against legalising recreational cannabis

Chris Hansen acknowledges that, but is continuing to call for legalisation, because of the positive impact his cannabis products had on his clients. 

He believes "that we need to allow for people to grow a few plants". 

He's hopeful that in time, others will climb the fence, and see the benefits of cannabis from his point of view.