Green MP Chlöe Swarbrick's 'huge disappointment' after police confirm revival of aerial cannabis blitzes

Green MP Chlöe Swarbrick says it's "hugely disappointing" that police have decided to return to "wasteful and ineffective" aerial cannabis blitzes. 

Despite scrapping the operations early last year, police confirmed in a statement to Newshub that "a number of districts are including an annual aerial cannabis flying phase as part of their campaigns to target these illicit operations". 

It comes after a report published by police in November showed cannabis dominated drug offences in New Zealand and Māori were still over-represented, despite a 2019 law change giving police discretion over drug-related arrests.

The police spokesperson said the illicit supply of cannabis "remains a focus for police and we continue to investigate and prosecute people engaged in the commercial cultivation of cannabis".

The spokesperson said despite the decision to scrap the aerial cannabis operation, it's been decided that districts should make their own choice, though for operational purposes, police cannot identify when or which districts are taking part.

"Last year, it was decided that a one-size-fits-all annual national aerial cannabis operation didn't represent the most appropriate deployment of police resources across districts. We wanted to enable districts to use their resources to target whichever drugs were causing the most harm in their area. 

"This recognises that districts are best placed to make these operational decisions, while continuing to work with the National Organised Crime Group to target both outdoor and indoor commercial cannabis growing.

"Police target large-scale commercial growers who supply gangs, which then on-sell cannabis into our communities for profit. Drugs are known drivers of crime and revenue streams for organised crime groups and police's focus is to reduce the impacts of drug use and organised crime in our communities by stopping this supply."

Thousands of cannabis plants have been seized as part of an annual police operation supported by the New Zealand Defence Force.
Thousands of cannabis plants have been seized as part of an annual police operation supported by the New Zealand Defence Force. Photo credit: NZ Defence Force

Police Minister Poto Williams wasn't aware of the decision to scrap the operation in November 2020. The Labour MP has been contacted for a response to the latest decision. 

Swarbrick, the Green Party's drug law reform spokesperson, said it's a waste of resources. 

"If it turns out these are funded by the Proceeds of Crime, as they had been in years prior to 2021, they're using resources that should be going towards helping people with substance addictions and abuse," she told Newshub. 

"These helicopter operations have been happening since the 1970s, without a notable dent on cannabis consumption."

She said where police claim to be successful, it simply results in short periods with less supply, which could lead some users to turn to harder and far more harmful substances like synthetics. 

"Half a million New Zealanders continue to use cannabis, regardless, on an annual basis."

Swarbrick, MP for Auckland Central, said the outdoor plantations police target also "tend to be the realm of medicinal cannabis producers or 'green fairies', resulting in all the more pain and hardship for patients across Aotearoa".

"With the police flagging consistently through last year that they're under-resourced and short staffed, I can't imagine a less important thing for them to do than flying around in choppers to cut off someone's medicinal cannabis supply."

Green MP Chlöe Swarbrick.
Green MP Chlöe Swarbrick. Photo credit: Getty Images

Swarbrick's push to grant amnesty for green fairies, those who illegally supply cannabis to people with health issues who cannot afford the expensive products available legally, was quashed last year by Labour.

The Green MP, who led the campaign to legalise cannabis so that it could be regulated like alcohol, criticised Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in 2020 for keeping her views on legalisation hidden until the results of the referendum had been announced. 

Ardern, who later revealed she voted in favour of legalising cannabis, said last year she "shares the view of many" that possessing cannabis should not be a crime. Her comments came after a poll found most Kiwis supported decriminalisation. 

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. 

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 had provided the Government regarding decriminalising cannabis amounted to just five bullet-points in a Cabinet paper.