MPs urged to reconsider allowing police 'discretion' over drugs

MPs have been pleaded to rethink a clause in proposed drug law reforms that would allow discretion for police to prosecute for possession and use of drugs. 

The Misuse of Drugs Amendment Bill intends to address the harm caused by synthetic drugs, and others, by ensuring that those who import, manufacture, and supply the drug are targeted - not those who use them.

But some submitters to select committee on Wednesday said they're concerned about "discretion" not being clear enough. They also said the "therapeutic" approach might encourage young people to try drugs. 

Ross McCook, chief executive of Auckland charity group Heart for Youth Trust, said while he had no arguments about cracking down on synthetic drugs, he was concerned about the health-based approach expected of police. 

"How can police make that decision? What does that even mean?" he asked. "Police are going to throw their hands up and say it's too difficult." 

McCook added: "Criminal conviction is the only thing stopping children from trying drugs. We need compassion but we also need a bar that's going to be preventative."

National MPs Paula Bennett and Michael Woodhouse listening to submitters at select committee.
National MPs Paula Bennett and Michael Woodhouse listening to submitters at select committee. Photo credit: Newshub / Zane Small

Under the proposed law changes, people caught possessing and using illegal drugs would face lighter charges. Police would not prosecute for possession, and personal use would merit an approach where users would be considered for rehab.  

Bob McCosckrie, national director of conservative Christian lobby group Family First New Zealand, told MPs it's important that young people fear prosecution of using illegal drugs because it's a "deterrent from use". 

McCosckrie said: "We support the intent of the Bill to allow [police] consideration [of a health-based approach], but not requirement of a health-based approach for low-level or first-time drug use and possession."

Last week concerns around police taking a health-based approach were raised by Police Association President Chris Cahill who told MPs there needed to be wider debate within the public.  

"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." 

Family First's Bob McCosckrie speaking at select committee.
Family First's Bob McCosckrie speaking at select committee. Photo credit: Newshub / Zane Small

But Shane Le Brun, coordinator for Medical Cannabis Awareness New Zealand, said he would prefer to see the police discretion clause go further to other drug-related offences. 

He said people using drugs for therapeutic means "need to feel safe", and suggested that magic mushrooms should be reclassified as Class B or C - "not A". 

Research has shown that mushrooms are one of the substances with the least harm to users and the community, while they could provide extraordinary medical benefits.

"In the Bill we have de facto therapeutic approach for possession - but that should be extended to low level cultivation and other areas," he said. 

If the legislation becomes law, it would reclassify the two main synthetic drugs (5F-ADB and AMB-FUBINACA) as Class A. That would give police the search and seizure powers they need to crackdown on suppliers and manufacturers. 

Otamatea Grey Power's Beverly Aldridge told MPs the only way to crackdown on synthetics is to make recreational natural-grown cannabis legal - which is up for New Zealanders to vote on in 2020