The latest figures from the Ministry of Justice show New Zealand is still arresting, charging and convicting thousands of people every year for drug-related offences. Many of these are low-level offences.
Criminalising drug use does not work. The Drug Foundation thinks New Zealand can do much better. We need to start treating drug use as a health issue, not a criminal one. This will not only save money in the justice and prison system - it will allow those who are struggling with their drug use to get the help they need.
Drug conviction rates are falling, but far too slowly. The year ended 30 June 2021 saw the lowest number of charges and convictions for drug offences in the past 10 years.
However, several thousand people are still convicted of possession offences each year.
A significant portion of all drug convictions are for what we would define as low-level drug offences. These offences include possessing or using drugs or drug utensils.
In 2020/21, 3,111 people received a low-level drugs conviction, and 59% of all people convicted of a drugs offence had a low-level offence as their most serious drug offence (2,482 people).
Of those convicted of low-level possession offences in 2020/21, 48% were European, 48% Māori, 6.8% Pacific peoples, 2.7% Asian, and 2.6% other/unknown.
81% of them were men.
These convictions continue despite mounting evidence that shows punishing and threatening people does not stop drug use.
The vast majority – 90% - of drug-related proceedings brought against young people are for possession and use of drugs or drug utensils.
The good news is that during the six years prior to and culminating in the 2019 discretion amendment, warnings and prosecutions of young people aged 17 and under for drug-related offences fell dramatically in favour of youth referrals. However, it is concerning that the overall numbers of young people entering the youth justice system due to drug offences remain high – 913 young people in 2020.
Young people with a conviction find it harder to travel, get credit and get a job. Generally, the more contact someone has with the justice system, the more likely they are to return. So, it is best not bring them into the system unnecessarily, especially if they are young.
Māori continue to be hugely over-represented in drug possession statistics. Māori make up 48% of those convicted of drug possession, despite making up only 17 percent of the population. They are are charged nearly four times more often than Europeans, as a percentage of the population.
0.17% of the Māori population received a conviction for a low-level drug offence in 2020/21, compared to 0.04% of the European population.
It's clear Māori are disproportionately harmed by our drug laws.
According to the Safe and Effective Justice Advisory Group, Māori are 5.7 times more likely than other New Zealanders to have contact with Police. This is where the disproportionate outcome appears to stem from, with significantly more Māori being ‘policed’ than non-Māori.
If more Māori come into contact with the system than non-Māori, this will lead to disproportionate outcomes. The over-representation of Māori in the statistics compounds as they move through the justice system - 61.9% of those sentenced to prison with drug possession offences are Māori.
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