Cannabis dominates drug offences and Māori still over-represented despite police discretion law change

Cannabis dominates drug offences in New Zealand and Māori are still over-represented, despite a 2019 law change giving police discretion over drug-related arrests

A new report published by police canvasses changes to policing since the amendments to the Misuse of Drugs Act in 2019. It shows a significant increase in warnings, with a median of 221 prior to changes, to 537. 

But cannabis - a drug 48.4 percent of Kiwis voted in favour of legalising in 2020 - is still the most common drug involved in personal drug possession and use offences, making up 58 percent, followed by methamphetamine at 37 percent. 

Māori are also still significantly over-represented in the statistics, making up 37 percent of drug possession and use offences, despite comprising about 17 percent of the population. 

"The good news is these changes have led to a decrease in prosecutions in favour of warnings and other referrals. But overall, the key takeaway for me is that we still haven't got it right," says NZ Drug Foundation executive director Sarah Helm. 

"Discretion is by its nature inconsistent, with the highest burden of that inconsistency falling on Māori and young people. We can do a lot better than this. It's time to replace our outdated drug laws and replace them with a system that helps us to reduce drug harm."

Helm expressed concern about the consistency of police discretion. 

"As further evidence of the inconsistency of discretion, 51 percent of methamphetamine cases were prosecuted where there was little or no prior offending, 65 percent for LSD, but only 12 percent for cannabis. There is no logic applied here."

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern earlier this year expressed hope for bipartisanship on drug law reform, but National leader Judith Collins said her party could not take a "soft on drugs" approach

Ardern, who voted in favour of legalising cannabis, said at the time she "shares the view of many" that possessing cannabis should not be a crime, after a poll found that most Kiwis supported decriminalisation. 

Pictured: Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Police Commissioner Andrew Coster.
Pictured: Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Police Commissioner Andrew Coster. Photo credit: Getty Images

But Ardern said Labour had an "obligation" to respect the outcome of the cannabis referendum in 2020, in which 50.7 percent of New Zealanders voted against legalisation. 

"There is already a very strong health approach when it comes to people who are addicted or use particular drugs. In fact when we were in Government, I put an enormous amount of effort into rehabilitation in our prison system," Collins said at the time. 

"But ultimately, we cannot take a soft on drugs approach."

A 2020 Cabinet paper prepared for the Government ahead of the cannabis referendum said decriminalising use, possession and private cultivation of cannabis would be "particularly significant" for Māori, who have borne the brunt of prosecutions. 

But Newshub revealed in May that since 2019, the only material the Ministry of Justice has provided the Government regarding decriminalising cannabis amounted to just five bullet-points in a Cabinet paper. 

"We had a referendum last year; it gave a very clear signal that New Zealanders were not ready for a greater level of liberalisation," Health Minister Andrew Little told Newshub at the time. 

"We are, however, working to make sure the way our recreational drugs regime operates is on a health-basis, not a criminalising basis, and we are striving to achieve that." 

Green MP Chlöe Swarbrick, who led the campaign to legalise cannabis in the lead-up to the election, said it was disappointing there was not more discussion about amending the Misuse of Drugs Act. 

She said it was "something that was suggested by two reports that the Government commissioned", referring to Turuki! Turuki! Moving Together, a report which recommended regulation of personal use of cannabis.

It came off the back of the 2018 Mental Health and Addictions Inquiry, which endorsed liberalisation, noting that "personal use of cannabis should be legalised and regulated".