Government accused of appeasing Greens' 'incessant desire' to decriminalise drugs

Paula Bennett has asked the Government if proposed drug law reforms are to appease the Green Party's "incessant desire" for decriminalisation. 

Bennett, the deputy National Party leader and spokesperson for drug reform, took aim at the Government in Parliament on Thursday over submissions made at select committee.  

MPs were told on Wednesday that changes proposed in the Misuse of Drugs Amendment Bill would essentially decriminalise all drugs and make it difficult for police to prosecute for drug possession. 

Bennett asked the Government why the Bill "codifies police discretion", and suggested that it may have been included to appease the Green Party's "incessant desire to decriminalise drugs". 

The Green Party has shown strong support for drug decriminalisation. The party's spokesperson on drug law reform, Chlöe Swarbrick, has said it's time for "evidence-based policy" that "prioritises compassion". 

Filling in for Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, Winston Peters told Bennett police discretion can be found "in a great number" of our laws, and said "we don't want to dispute with a bunch of Philadelphia lawyers on the other side". 

Police discretion in law has been contentious, particularly when it was included in former Green MP Sue Bradford's controversial child discipline bill which was passed in Parliament in 2007. 

Police have been accused of too often referring child abuse cases through to the court to decide, rather than applying the discretion available, because of the sensitivity around family violence cases. 

New Zealand lawyer Mai Chen has pointed out in a legal analysis that the police discretion section of the 2007 anti-smacking law provides "little to no guidance as to how police should exercise its discretion". 

Similar concerns were raised at the select committee on drug law reform, with Police Association President Chris Cahill saying there needed to be wider debate within the public. 

Chris Cahill speaking at select committee.
Chris Cahill speaking at select committee. Photo credit: Newshub

Under the law change, the Government would classify the two main synthetic drugs (5F-ADB and AMB-FUBINACA) as Class A, giving police the search and seizure powers they need to crackdown on suppliers and manufacturers. 

But those caught possessing and using drugs would face lighter charges; police would not prosecute for possession, and personal use would merit a health-based approach. 

But Cahill was sceptical, telling MPs: "You're actually directing police officers not to prosecute, in a general sense, for all drugs - and if that's what the Parliament wants, then that should be debated more widely with the public." 

Bennett asked Peters if he agreed with the submissions. He replied: "What's going to happen is a closer focus on the misuse of drugs and those that supply them. That's why we've given the police the discretion to act hitherto which hasn't been the case."

The law reforms were proposed by the Government in December, when Health Minister Dr David Clark and Police Minister Stuart Nash revealed their plans to tackle the growing synthetics problem.

So far synthetic drugs have claimed the lives of an estimated 60 to 65 people since June 2017.