The Northland Age
Up in smoke
The debate for pardoning NZ cannabis convictions
Two years ago cannabis legalisation was narrowly rejected by New Zealand voters, as 50.7 per cent opposed the legislation compared to 48.4 per cent who supported the change.
Regardless, cannabis is the country’s most widely used illicit drug and the fourthmost-consumed recreational drug after caffeine, alcohol and tobacco.
District health board data showed Northland’s average cannabis use was 16.4 per cent compared to 14.3 per cent nationally.
While its usage is similar to other regions, Northland’s conviction rate stands apart.
The region has the thirdhighest conviction rate per 10,000 people out of the 13 police districts.
Only the Eastern (Hawke’s Bay and Tairawhiti) and Bay of Plenty districts rank higher.
Overall 124,344 Kiwis have been convicted of cannabis possession and/or use between 1980 and 2022, Ministry of Justice figures showed.
Whangā rei criminal defence lawyer Arthur Fairley thinks he’s seen fewer charges for the possession of dope because police are focusing resources on methamphetamine.
“When I started 40 years ago, in terms of the drug law, all the cases were around cannabis cultivation, supply, and possession. Now I can’t remember [how long it is] since I’ve done a cannabis case.”
The National Drug Intelligence Bureau — made up of Police, New Zealand Customs and the Ministry of Health — said while recent law changes had reduced prosecutions for cannabis use, police seizures of the drug had increased.
Among those pressing the Government to mirror their American counterpart is the New Zealand Drug
The foundation’s executive director Sarah Helm said cannabis convictions ruin lives.
”[ . . . ] people with convictions are often denied housing, employment opportunities or the ability to travel internationally.”
However, from an addiction perspective, pardoning cannabis convictions won’t prevent the negative impact the drug can have on people’s lives.
Whangā rei Salvation Army Bridge director Richard Dick said psychological harms and neurological changes are one of the big risks of cannabis addictions, including shortterm memory loss, anxiety and reduced motivation.
Not to mention the financial pressures buying cannabis places on families, he said.
Helm maintained providing pardons to people who have low-level convictions for cannabis possession and use “would change lives”.
“On a per capita basis, Ministry of Justice figures show that Northland has had more than twice the number of convictions for cannabis use as Auckland over the past five years, and one and a half times the national average,” she said.
Helm said a contributing factor was that a third of Northland’s population identified as Mā ori.
According to the New Zealand Health Survey 2020-21, Mā ori were twice as likely to use cannabis as nonMā ori based on self-reported data.
Helm said police data showed Mā ori made up nearly half of all cannabis convictions in 2021 despite forming 17 per cent of the population.
The Herald reported in
2020 that a strong bias against Mā ori when it came to policing cannabis use was revealed by police data released under the Official Information Act.
Green MP speaks out
Green MP Chlo¨ e Swarbrick, who opposed police cannabis aerial raids and supports pardons for cannabis convictions, believed if laws were to be applied equally to everyone, frontline police shouldn’t pick and choose when to pursue prosecution.
However, a Herald investigation last year detailed how exclusive police data showed officers were making more of an effort to treat Mā ori and non-Mā ori the same.
Swarbrick claimed New Zealand spent four times as much money on policing “drug prohibition” than on healthbased interventions.
“Meanwhile, we’ve continued to see that consumption of illicit substances, particularly of cannabis, has increased.”
Swarbrick said one of the many arguments made for continued criminal drug prohibition was about “saving young people”.
“[...]butwhatweseeis... that pulling into the criminal justice system, particularly for young Mā ori men, a harm in and of itself.”
She heard frequently from people in “very regional areas” risking arrest by operating cannabis cultivations often for medicinal purposes, she said.
Helm said prosecutions for cannabis offences were a “gross waste of police resources” when law enforcement had “much more important issues to deal with”.
A police spokesperson told NZME police were concerned about anyone obtaining any drugs illegally.
They said while police focused largely on enforcement, they also partnered with communities and other agencies to reduce the harm illicit drugs cause.
Questions about what policing efforts have contributed to Northland’s high conviction rate for cannabis offences; the effectiveness of drug laws on minimising cannabis harm; and the prominence of cannabis in Northland were diverted by police to the Ministry of Justice.
However, police earlier this year told the Advocate in response to queries about the cannabis aerial operation that the illicit supply of the drug remained a focus for them.
“[ . . . ] and we continue to investigate and prosecute people engaged in the commercial cultivation of cannabis,” they said at the time.