Newshub Nation: Discretionary prosecutions for cannabis possession impacting Māori at alarming rate

Clinton, South Otago, is a classically conservative small New Zealand town - not exactly where you'd expect a drug bust. 

Mel and Garry, who don't want to share their surnames for fear of further personal and professional repercussions, found themselves on the wrong end of the law last September when the police knocked at their door.

Mel is Ngāti Tūwharetoa and Ngāi Tahu; Garry has lost connection with his whakapapa but believes he is Ngāi Tahu.

They told the story of the raid to Newshub Nation's Laura Walters.

"We weren't dressed, so they waited at the door and we put some clothes on," Garry recalled. 

"They took Mel straight away to the police station, seized both our cell phones."

"I sat here for hours while they went through the house."

Garry’s teenage daughter was staying there at the time. They searched her room, but Garry said he wasn’t allowed to comfort her throughout the process.

The raid has left a massive mark on their lives.

Garry said "It's just broken me a bit. I haven't slept very well for almost a year since this actually happened,” he added.

"I feel violated, emotionally just destroyed inside."

Mel has lost her job because of the raid. 

"What the police have done is ruined careers," she said. 

The raid was targeting an illicit cannabis operation. 

There was cannabis being grown on the property but there is more to Mel and Garry's story than meets the eye. 

Mel said she was growing it for herself and to supply it to friends with health issues and she is now facing multiple drug charges. 

Garry has previous cannabis-related convictions - he said the first was for possession of less than a gram, back in the 1990s. 

He believes his previous drug-related offending has made him a target - something that is consistent with aggravating factors in the police operating guidelines.

Garry has also been charged for the plants on the property, though he said that none of them were his and he also has a perscription to access medicinal cannabis legimiately. 

On hearing he would be facing the charges, Garry felt "full of grief, just at my wit's end".

Police discretion

In 2019, law changes formalising police discretion were introduced, essentially decriminalising low-level drug use. 

The goal was to tackle the synthetic cannabis crisis by introducing a health based approach

David Clark, who headed the change, said at the time "These dangerous drugs are killing people and fuelling crime. The current approach has not been keeping Kiwis safe, so we’re not going to continue with it."

Labour MP David Clark
Labour MP David Clark Photo credit: Newshub

Criminalising drug users was seemingly relegated to the past, but even back then, experts warned that the indeterminate nature of police discretion could lead to it being applied unequally. 

"This reform that’s going to be put in place - we have to make sure it’s evenly applied and that everyone can benefit," said New Zealand Drug Foundation executive director Ross Bell at the time. 

“The arrests; the prosecutions are just so out of whack with the way they should be. In fact, I’ve started to look at it as a form of racism,” said Newshub's National Correspondent at the time, Patrick Gower. 

Who's getting charged?

Four years on and those fears have played out. 

New figures show that last year more than a thousand people were convicted for cannabis posession - 49 percent of them Māori.

One hundred and eighty people were sent to prison with a cannabis possession charge in 2022. 

Newshub Nation: Discretionary prosecutions for cannabis possession impacting Māori at alarming rate

While the overall number of people prosecuted for cannabis possession has been dropping, the proportion of Māori is on the rise.

For the first time, in 2022 the actual number of Māori convicted overtook Pākehā.

Newshub Nation: Discretionary prosecutions for cannabis possession impacting Māori at alarming rate

The charges Garry and Mel face go beyond just possession and use, but they question why they were raided when others - some with larger operations - had been passed over by police. 

"There's a huge inequity of justice going on here and it needs to be sorted," Mel said. 

"They seem to just have this idea that we are going to be in that kind of world where drugs are part of our culture."

Garry said that cannabis charges have been used worldwide to target minority communities.

"As we already know from history all around the world, it was cannabis or drugs that have been targeted at minority communities to make them more criminal than they actually are.

"That's the real truth to it, and it's not just New Zealand, that is worldwide statistics."

The increasing inequity is due to people's bias, said Sarah Helm, the executive director of the NZ Drug Foundation, who believes blame sits with all parts of the justice system, not just police. 

Helm, who is Ngāi Tahu, said that the statistics depress her.

"We work with indigenous people around the world and this is the same story in pretty much every country," she said. 

"So we're getting it wrong. 

"We're getting it wrong for Māori in particular, we're getting it wrong for everyone. 

"If we try and do better for Māori, we will end up doing better for everyone, essentially," Helm said. 

Who's responsible?

It's hard to imagine that giving police discretion over whether or not to charge for drug cannabis possession is intended result in such disproportionate convictions for Māori, but no facet of government seemed willing to comment on the disparity. 

Justice Minister Kiri Allan said responsibility for this law sits with the Health Minister. 

Health Minister Ayesha Verrall said it was a matter for the Police Minister. 

Police Minister Ginny Andersen said she couldn't comment on operational matters. 

While police refused interview requests with both the commissioner and subject matter experts, they did provide a generic written response, saying they were committed to improving outcomes for Māori.

Since the 2019 law change, police had changed how they responded to personal drug use and possession, they said in the statement.

There had been an overall increase in warnings (verbal and written) in relation to these offences, a decrease in the overall number of prosecutions (leading to fewer convictions in court), and increases in referrals to health and addiction services.

They acknowledged Māori are over-represented across the justice system, as both offenders and victims.

“Police actions in relation to personal possession and use are proportionately similar across all ethnic groups, and there is no evidence to suggest tat Māori receive a higher proportion of prosecutions than other ethnic groups,” police said.

However, this is contradicted by government data that shows in 2022 Māori accounted for 45 percent of cannabis possession charges and 49 percent of convictions, while accounting for just 17 percent of the general population.

While police officers who spoke to Newshub Nation said they did not get to choose which jobs to turn up for, they did get to choose how to apply their discretion once they arrived. 

While some officers favoured informal or formal warnings, others were more likely to charge and prosecute.

Police operational guidelines listed previous drug-related offending and a refusal to access treatment as aggravating factors when deciding whether to charge someone.

Helm said these guidelines perpetuated the problem, making those with more severe addiction issues more likely to remain caught within the justice system, when they are often the ones who need help the most.

Helm’s concerns have been echoed in a series of recent government work programmes, including reports from the Mental Health and Addictions Inquiry, the Safe and Effective Justice Summit, and the Office of the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor.


Garry and Mel also believe their location has something to do with their situation. 

Clinton - a place they describe as a conservative, rural town - has less tolerance for cannabis use and growing.

While justice data does not drill down to such a granular level, it does show that there is a degree of postcode lottery when it comes to who gets picked up for drug use and possession.

Overall, convictions for the Otago justice service area remained low in 2022, with 32 people being convicted for cannabis use.

But the figures were significantly higher - and disproportionate to the population - in Canterbury (178), East Coast (122) and Waiariki (103).

Both Helm and the Greens’ Chloe Swarbrick say the geographic inconsistencies suggestd there was a varied approach to - and tolerance of - cannabis use across different police districts.

Swarbrick also noted this trend came through when looking at which districts supported rebooting aerial cannabis eradication operations, and which believed this was not a good use of public money, particularly when helicopters and planes were being used throughout the Cyclone Gabrielle response.

Districts that had a track-record of treating drug and addiction as a health issue, and had established relationships with treatment services - such as Northland and Waitakere - tended to have a lower number of charges and convictions on a per capita basis.

What now?

Since the cannabis referendum failed in the 2020 election, politicians have been dragging their heels on drug reform. 

Green MP Chlöe Swarbrick was one of the main politicians who fronted the push for greater discretion, but said she "was really clear in 2019 that what the Greens were fighting for was decriminalisation".

"I have said for the past five years that the Misuse of Drugs Act is abhorrent. It is a Frankenstein piece of law that is demonstrably unfit for purpose and it hurts both people and communities."

Green MP Chlöe Swarbrick
Green MP Chlöe Swarbrick Photo credit: Newshub

Swarbrick said discriminatory application of discretion was a predictable outcome; "if you are enabling discretion, you are potentially going to open the door to the human element of potential discrimination".

She said "Many politicians, on the record, admit to using illicit substances back in the mists of time, but they now oversee laws which penalize, prosecute and ruin the lives of people who are doing exactly the same things that they once did.

"That is both the height of hypocrisy, but also the abdication of responsibility." 

Meanwhile, people like Mel and Garry are suffering, which is the opposite of what the law change intended. 

“We’ve put our faces on national TV to expose what’s happening to small guys like us," Mel said. 

"It’s gonna impact in terms of employment, because now people know who I am, will see this face and immediately, if they’re not educated in cannabis, they’re going to judge.”

Watch the full video for more. 

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