New drug law forces police to be social workers - Judith Collins

A former Minister of Police says it's not their job to be social workers, after the Government said they'll now have to send drug users to rehab, not prison.

The Government announced a major crackdown on synthetic drug dealers on Thursday, after a spike in deaths and hospitalisations. But users won't be targeted, with new legislation on the way which will prevent prosecution when a therapeutic approach would be more beneficial, or there is no public interest in prosecuting.

Judith Collins, who was Minister of Police between 2008 and 2011 and again in 2015-2016, says police already have discretion.

"You'll remember a couple of years ago there was that big cocaine bust in Newmarket - they called it the celebrity hairdresser bust," she told The AM Show on Friday.

"Those people were not prosecuted. They were sent into rehab, they were given help. So the police have always been exercising it."

She said changing the law will create "big legal arguments" about under what circumstances police can and can't prosecute.

"Smoking P on the side of the road - is that something the police will just walk by? What about heroin? What about all sorts of other things?"

Finance Minister Grant Robertson, appearing earlier on The AM Show, said the Government wanted to put into law what the police have already been doing "in practise".

"What we're saying now is that is the right approach. Let's get people treatment for what they need, but let's not give any space whatsoever to the dealers."

National has accused the Government of effectively decriminalising drug use. Pakuranga MP Simeon Brown claimed on Twitter it "will now be legal to smoke loose leaf cannabis outside a mental health and addiction service centre".

Mr Robertson rejected this.

"The police under law still have the ability to arrest... if they believe it is in the public interest to arrest somebody, put them in jail as a result of their use, that's their judgment. But we're now saying in law, actually your first port of call should be a therapeutic or a health [clinic]."

Grant Robertson.
Grant Robertson. Photo credit: The AM Show

Ms Collins questioned whether that was even possible.

"How do you force people to take up rehab unless they want to do it, and are prepared to actually say 'I've got a problem'?"

She also said casual users who weren't addicted wouldn't willingly hand themselves in.

"What are you supposed to do there? I suppose what, give them a little pamphlet? What if they say, 'I'm not going to the police station, I don't have to go. I don't need to take your pamphlet, you can't arrest me.' These are some of the issues.

"It's all very well to expect police to be the social workers and the mental health workers, but that's not their job. They are the police."

Before the new guidelines become law, Mr Robertson says the public will get to have their say on the proposal.

Labour MP Michael Wood, appearing alongside Ms Collins on The AM Show, said they didn't want to take away the police's ability to prosecute "at this stage".

"If the circumstances are appropriate they can take criminal action - but the first approach that we're asking police to take is to ensure that we look after that person, we take a health-based approach to them."

He said the only alternative was to "chuck" people in prison.

"Most of us would agree that's a waste of time."