Conviction rates for low-level drug offences are inconsistent between regions, the New Zealand Drug Foundation says in its State of the Nation 2019 report.
Statistics in the report show that the Bay of Plenty has a very high rate of people convicted of low-level drug offences, with 13.1 people per 10,000, while the Southern, Waitematā and Counties Manuaku districts had less than half this rate in 2018.
The report says 3,969 people were charged with a cannabis offence in 2018, but there were significant regional differences. Bay of Plenty and Northland Police had the highest charge rates, while Police in the Auckland region (Waitematā, Auckland and Counties Manukau) had the lowest.
Of those charged with a cannabis offence in 2018, 3,099 were convicted. Cannabis convictions have remained steady in the past five years. Of all people convicted of a cannabis offence, people aged 30 to 39 made up 65%, 82% were male, and Māori made up 41%.
In 2018, 2,710 people were charged with a low-level cannabis offence, and 2,111 were convicted. Of those convicted, 540 people had a low-level cannabis conviction alone and no other convictions. In 2018, 499 people were sent to prison for cannabis offences, with 24 of these having committed cannabis offences alone.
The report says it is encouraging to see an increase in the percentage of people with illicit drugs charges diverted into non-court action, from 43% in 2017/18 to 51% in 2018/19.
However, it notes that there is a "huge difference" in diversions into non-court action for illicit drug crimes across Police districts. "Southern and Auckland City Police districts are doing well, diverting over 60% of those with drug charges. Positively, all Police Districts have seen an increase in the percentage of illicit drug offences receiving noncourt action compared with last year."
Significant room for improvement in some areas
In an introduction to the report, which is described as a stocktake of how New Zealand is dealing with the issue of drugs, Foundation Policy and Advocacy Manager Kali Mercier says while the country is doing well in some areas, in others there is significant room for improvement.
"More than 70 deaths have been linked with synthetic cannabinoids since mid-2017. The death rate has dropped in recent months, but there is no room for complacency. Synthetic cannabinoids continue to cause significant harm across the country, and dangerous new substances still regularly enter the market," she says.
"Alcohol is still the most harmful drug in New Zealand. Twenty percent of New Zealanders drink hazardously, and it’s the substance most people seek help for. Alarmingly, alcohol is more affordable now than in the 1980s. The Government must prioritise minimum prices, and phase out alcohol advertising and sponsorship.
"Methamphetamine use is an ongoing issue: August 2019 saw the biggest methamphetamine seizure on record. While overall use remains low, across the total population methamphetamine causes huge amounts of harm in some communities.
"Māori continue to suffer disproportionately from the harms caused by alcohol and other drugs, bearing the brunt of our criminal justice approach to drug use, with high rates of arrest and conviction."
Ms Mercier says the Foundation would like to see a massive overhaul of New Zealand's outdated drug laws.
"Next year’s cannabis referendum is a great opportunity: people are still being arrested and convicted for cannabis. In the past decade 45,665 people were convicted of a cannabis offence, and 6,583 of those were sent to prison. We look forward to moving towards health-focused legal regulation," she says.