Have the Police decriminalised cannabis?



Chris Fowlie is the head of the National Organisation for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) and he really doesn’t like the way the enforce the Misuse of Drugs Act. In a recent post on The Daily Blog, he argued that the authorities maliciously target harmless dope smokers, causing them far more harm than a joint ever could.

The statistics he cites appear to back up his argument: since 1994 there have been nearly half a million drug arrests, accounting for 11 per cent of all recorded crime. 85 per cent of the arrests were for , and 87 per cent of those were for personal amounts. On average, that equates to the police arresting 15,800 users a year for possession of personal amounts of pot. That’s 43 a day, or one every 33 minutes.

Fowlie says these statistics “are illustrative of how drug policing in New Zealand has gone off the rails”. But actually, the opposite is true: a closer look at the data shows that in fact there has been a huge decline in police arrests for possession and use over time. In averaging out arrests over two decades, Fowlie focusses on the noise and misses the signal.

You can see the trend above.

In the period between 1994 and 2014, annual recorded offences for possession of all illicit drugs halved. Offences for cannabis possession specifically did likewise. More interestingly, recorded offences for using illicit drugs fell from 1,307 down to 260, which was largely driven by 1,046 fewer cannabis use offences. The Police prosecute significantly fewer people for possession and use of drugs than they did two decades ago.

And this has occurred at a time when Ministry of Health figures suggest that the prevalence of drugs in New Zealand has remained stable and, particularly in the case of cannabis, relatively high. The data shows that 42 per cent of Kiwis aged 15 and over have smoked pot at some point in their lives, and 11 per cent have smoked pot in the past year. That’s 397,000 past-year tokers. The same survey showed that only two per cent of past year cannabis smokers reported experiencing legal problems as a result of their use.

So why have arrests halved if use has remained the same? There’s a simple answer: the Police are decriminalising cannabis in New Zealand.

I wouldn’t go that far. I would say that the Police are sensibly prioritising crimes that actually have victims.

Another explanation for the decline is that there has been a wider shift in the way that police approach low-level criminal offending. Wilkins says that “it would be a mistake to say it is a change that is specific to drugs. It reflects a wider change in police philosophy.” He believes the trend extends to other low-level crime, such as petty theft, and says the decline in arrests is a case of better allocation of police resources. “There’s a desire to be more effective and efficient, so that means reprioritising low-level offending.”

This is supported by the data. At the same time as possession and use charges for cannabis have come down, the number of manufacture and import charges have increased. The last 20 years have also seen the rise of meth, which Wilkins says has taken up more policing resources.

“If you’re a policeman and you have two markets—meth and cannabis—you have to ask yourself, ‘which is the best use of my time?’”

And I’m for prioritising meth over cannabis.

Encouragingly, Police Commissioner Mike Bush agrees that alternative approaches to prosecution can lead to better outcomes for users. Last month he heaped praise on Auckland Constable Scott Wolfe, “whose empathy for a methamphetamine addict helped turn her life around”.

In a post on his “Commissioner’s Blog”, Bush explained that Constable Wolfe “arrested the woman for possession of a cannabis pipe and, recognising the signs of methamphetamine use, discovered she had a heavy addiction and was living in a car”. Instead of prosecuting the woman through the traditional court system, Constable Wolfe referred her instead to Te Kooti o Timatanga Hou—The New Beginnings Court, which is focussed on homeless and disadvantaged people.

“She’s now in rehabilitation, has reconnected with her child and made huge improvements in her life,” said the Commissioner. “This is a superb example of the difference we can all make by showing a little understanding and using our initiative.” Indeed.

Yep, a good call.

Yes, there is. Professor Mark Bennett, a lecturer at Victoria University’s Law School, says that “if a certain offence will not be followed up on and there is little danger of detection and/or prosecution, there are questions around the legitimacy of this from both a rule of law and democratic perspective.”

The police can’t just decide to stop enforcing the laws of the land without there being repercussions. Dr. Dean Knight, another law lecturer at Victoria, says that one of the roles of the police is to follow the democratic will of the people and enforce the laws they voted for. “The Police probably shouldn’t effectively repudiate laws through non-enforcement,” he says.

We might think it’s fine for the Police to decriminalise pot, but what happens if one day they decided to stop prosecuting theft, say? Or assault? Or corruption? This is particularly concerning given the fact that the public is largely unaware of changes in police policy.

We already have this with electoral offences. Over many years the Police have shown no inclination to prosecute electoral law breaches.

But there is always going to be a degree of Police discretion over how actively they enforce some laws. Otherwise they’d be arresting jaywalkers or the like.

Comments (26)

Login to comment or vote