With a punitive system dating back 40 years, calls are mounting to decriminalise drug use. But the government says it’s not on the cards.
As a teenager, Anahera* and her friends smoked a lot of weed. At the time she wasn’t thinking about institutional racism or identity politics - topics she has spent the last few years exploring - but she was noticing stark differences between how her Māori and non-Māori friends were being treated.
“When we were 17, a Māori friend of mine was strip-searched, punched in the face and arrested in her underwear as she was charged for holding $20 worth of marijuana.”
She also remembers a non-Māori friend who was caught with 14 marijuana plants growing in her bedroom. “She was let off with diversion so that it would not be on her permanent record based on the fact that it would harm her ability to travel overseas to see her grandparents,” Anahera says.
Her anecdotes aren’t scientific evidence, but do mirror worrying statistics: Māori are more likely to be stopped, searched, arrested and convicted for minor drug offences than other New Zealanders - and less likely to benefit from police discretion.
“Most of the Māori youth I spoke to and asked didn't actually know what any of the punitive drug laws are. I think there is a total disparity between the attitudes of many youth and the laws themselves.”
New Zealanders have some of the highest drug use rates in the developed world, but it’s Māori ﹘ especially young Māori ﹘ who bear the brunt of our drug laws. While they make up just 15 percent of the national population, Māori aged 17–25 account for 37 percent of those convicted of possession and/or use of an illicit drug.
These figures don’t always lead people to the same conclusions. Some accuse the New Zealand criminal justice system of being systemically racist while others believe Māori are criminally inclined with misconduct in their genes.
But is anyone well-served by government drug policy? Ross Bell, executive director of NZ Drug Foundation, says our criminal justice approach can cause more harm than being caught up in drug use itself.
“There should be no place for a criminal justice system in dealing with drug problems do with use and possession,” he says. “A criminal conviction screws up someone’s life forever. And not just them but the shame and stigma for their family too.”
New Zealand drug laws, passed more than 40 years ago, have created huge barriers for people seeking help with drugs, says Bell. So much of the funding goes to law enforcement that very little left for support services.
While it’s difficult to say exactly how much is spent, this year’s Drug Harm Index estimated the amount put toward education, treatment, counselling and hospital admissions at $78 million. The cost of police, customs, courts and prisons is three and a half times more at $273 million.
And with higher drug use rates, young people are especially expensive. Between 2007 and 2011, we spent more than $59 million imprisoning under 25s convicted of minor drug offences – that's not including costs to police, the courts, treatment or probation.
“If it’s true that our drug problem is, as our government says, first and foremost a health issue, then why are we expecting a punitive criminal justice response to fix it?”
Recently a panel of 22 world leaders ﹘ including nine former presidents and prime ministers ﹘ called for all governments to urgently decriminalise drug use.
In a 44-page report, the Global Commission on Drug Policy (GCDP) called the war against the drug market and people who use drugs, “disproportionate, unjust and wholly unnecessary”.
Chair of the commission and former Swiss president, Ruth Dreifuss, argues that blanket prohibition of drugs justifies punishing those who are likely already marginalised.
“Prohibition makes societies and governments blind to the great variety of reasons why people use drugs,” she says. “… criminalisation is particularly cruel and degrading for people who became addicted to drugs and those who use them to self-medicate physical or mental sufferings.”
Martin Kaipo, chief executive of Otangarei Trust, has spent 20 years working with at-risk Māori youth and sees them continuously bouncing in and out of the criminal justice system.
“[Young people] don’t fully understand the repercussions of being involved in the scene of drug abuse,” he says. “With drugs come crime and with crime comes a whole breakdown of the family structure, so who wins in the end? No one.”
Last year, the Drug Harm Index estimated the pain and suffering endured by family and friends at $438 million. This was the single largest cost estimate in the report.
While changes to drug law may be a step in the right direction, Kaipo believes the problem runs far deeper than law enforcement tactics.
“We’re talking about a generation who has learnt the best way to survive in an environment that hasn’t nurtured them, that hasn’t educated them. It’s just an endless cycle.”
“You can’t just change the law and expect the problems to vanish.”
He agrees and not enough resource is being directed to treatment and education, however, believes the success of the Māori community boils down to whanau.
“You’ve got to understand the family structure. There are Māori families who have managed to fight against these things because they’ve gone back to basics; nurturing, caring.”
“Everyone knows that it takes a village to raise a child. But the villages aren’t there, they’re not working.”
Associate Minister of Health, Peter Dunne, says decriminalisation of drug use in New Zealand is not on the cards.
“The National Drug Policy clearly treats drug abuse as a health issue, taking a compassionate and proportionate approach to the issue. However, it is the government’s view that the potential for harm from drug use presents enough of a risk that maintaining the status of illegality for certain substances is an appropriate deterrent.”
However, he says making sure the “legal balance is right” is something the government is working on.
“Consultation on the appropriate regulation of drug utensils has just been completed by the Ministry of Health and work examining the Misuse of Drugs Act’s offence and penalty regime is proposed for next year.”