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Māori are significantly more likely to be arrested and convicted for cannabis offences because drug laws are enforced in a discriminatory way, a Cannabis and Health Symposium heard in Auckland today.

Khylee Quince, Associate Dean (Māori) at the University of Auckland’s Faculty of Law, said while less than five percent of personal cannabis possession cases result in prosecution, 34 percent of the prosecutions that do occur are of Māori.

“While the Misuse of Drugs Act itself is not racially discriminatory, the way it is applied and enforced clearly is. Māori are more likely to be stopped, searched, arrested and convicted, and are much less likely to benefit from police discretion,” Ms Quince said.

“Māori and Police share a mutual distrust which means they tend to act towards each other in ways that are more likely to lead to arrests.”

She said this results in a fundamental injustice for Māori whose financial, travel and employment prospects are disrupted due to convictions more often than others.

“This is something that should concern all New Zealanders because it breaches the Human Rights Act and the Treaty of Waitangi which promises equal citizenship for Māori and equal treatment under the law.

“Instead, what we are seeing is the reinforced marginalisation of Māori into a form of ‘submerged citizenship’ where conviction and punishment cease to be deterrents and the potential to fully develop capabilities and participate in society is reduced.”

Ms Quince said decriminalisation of cannabis would only address the immediate issues of discriminatory enforcement for Māori.

“That’s only one aspect of the problem. What we also need is more open discussion and Māori presentation at a justice system level.”

She said she thought New Zealand’s use of the law to identify and solve problems, for example youth and drug courts, was encouraging, but that she was sceptical about the current role of tikanga and kaupapa Māori in those processes.

“We need to be more involved and have a voice at the table so we can help ensure we retain our unique position as Māori.”

The Cannabis and Health Symposium runs from 27-29 November and seeks to broaden New Zealand’s discussion of issues around cannabis such as recent research about its effects, whether there is a need for cannabis law reform and the best ways of addressing cannabis-related harm.

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