Green MP Chlöe Swarbrick fumes at police allocating resources to aerial cannabis blitz

Green MP Chlöe Swarbrick is fuming at police allocating resources to seize more than 34,000 cannabis plants during this summer's aerial blitz. 

Director of the National Organised Crime Group Detective Superintendent Greg Williams said in an update on Friday that more than 34,000 cannabis plants and 79kg of dried cannabis with a combined street value of $95 million had been seized

The nationally coordinated operation, confirmed in January, was conducted across several regions of New Zealand as part of what the police described as a "wider cannabis investigation and prevention operation". 

"The aim of the operation was squarely on commercial-scale cannabis growing and the organised crime groups behind them," Det Sup Williams said. 

"This was not about personal cannabis use or low-level offending. There were 123 searches executed which resulted in 80 firearms being seized, showing the very concerning link between illicit firearms and drug dealing."

Swarbrick, a prominent supporter of cannabis legalisation, spoke out against the decision in January to revive the cannabis aerial blitzes after police announced a plan to scrap the operation in early 2021. 

A spokesperson in January said it had been decided that police districts should make their own decision about it, though for operational purposes, police could not identify when or which districts were taking part.

Swarbrick said the operation is a waste of police resources. 

"I invite anyone involved in this operation, any politician or commentator to tell the public how this operation will stop cannabis - or worse, far more harmful substances, on the black market," she told Newshub. 

"The high level, months-late decision making against a majority of police district's wishes to see cannabis choppers go ahead as always begs the question of where resources could be better allocated.

"If this better part of a million-dollar cannabis operation was going to yield success in reducing consumption and drug harm, you'd think that would've happened at some point already in its more than 20 years of operation.

"Drugs are winning this war on drugs. The mature thing any politician can do is ask how it is that we can evidentially go about reducing the harm drugs cause. 

"All signs say that is sensible regulation - ironically, that's the only way to meaningfully start squeezing out the very criminal organisation of supply the police are concerned with."

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

Swarbrick has previously pointed out that 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".

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.

Det Sup Williams said during the operation, 81 offenders were spoken to, mostly about cultivation of cannabis, possession for supply of cannabis, and firearms offences, while many warnings were issued for cultivation of small-scale plots.

There were 24 indoor commercial cannabis grows discovered and dismantled during the operation and four kilograms of amphetamine and 19 grams of methamphetamine were seized.

"Police will continue to focus on the distributors of more harmful drugs, such as methamphetamine and synthetics. But it is important we continue to put pressure on those who profit from running any commercial illicit drug operations," Det Sup Williams said. 

"The primary focus of this operation was on cannabis eradication of large-scale growing operations from the air, in areas of New Zealand where we know they are likely to be, and at the same time ensuring we are deploying our resources where we can make the biggest impact."

Some investigations into those involved in the cultivation of the seized cannabis are ongoing, and further arrests are expected in the coming weeks.

Police seized more than 34,000 cannabis plants and 79kg of dried cannabis with a combined street value of $95 million during this summer's aerial blitz.
Police seized more than 34,000 cannabis plants and 79kg of dried cannabis with a combined street value of $95 million during this summer's aerial blitz. Photo credit: NZDF

Det Sup Williams said it aligned with the nationally coordinated Operation Tauwhiro launched in February. As of March 1, it had resulted in 1531 firearms seized, along with 53.74 kg of methamphetamine and 1255 arrests. The operation was extended until June. 

Earlier this week police also went public with a new gang crackdown operation called Cobalt, involving a ring-fenced group of officers from certain districts who will work specifically on disrupting gang activity.  

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.

Swarbrick led the campaign in the leadup to the 2020 election to legalise cannabis so that it could be regulated like alcohol, but New Zealanders narrowly voted down legalising cannabis 50.7 against 48.4.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, who revealed she voted in favour of legalising cannabis, said last year she "shares the view of many" that possessing the plant 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.