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Should We Legalise All Drugs?

08 February 2019

Methamphetamines are not the problem, the gangs are.

I have been working and living in the Wellington region as a family lawyer for the past 17 years. Up until around 2013, illicit drugs were not really an issue in any of my cases. Marijuana use featured in some cases, but that was never really a major concern for Family Court judges.

However, since 2013, the number of cases where methamphetamine use by at least one of the parties, has steadily risen until now around half of my cases include issues over methamphetamine use.

Consequently, I am seeing children suffering with addictive parents and I am feeling the pain of my clients, when the Family Court has to separate families as a result of it.

Through talking to my clients, I understand that my cases involving methamphetamine use are so many, because I live and work in an area that is central to gang locations and widespread methamphetamine dealing and use.

I also understand that local gang members are at the forefront of the importing, manufacturing and distribution of methamphetamines around our community.

Local gang members are making no secret of the fact that they are reaching all levels of our community.

They are getting children aged 12 or younger hooked and dealing to other children for them.

They are driving men into huge drug debts to them and women prostituting themselves to them because of their debts.

Violence in our neighbourhoods has increased due to desperate drug addicts as a result of gang involvement.

The drug itself is being disseminated with cheap unregulated substances, so that the gangs can make more money.

Gang members now have a stranglehold over our community like never before.

Isn’t it now time to legalise or decriminalise illicit drugs so that the criminal element can be removed and the whole industry can be regulated?

We could then move the whole issue away from the criminal justice system and into the health system, for drug addiction treatment.

Of course, there should be age restrictions, and the supply of Methamphetamines should also be controlled in other ways.”

- [Name provided]

The author of the letter, who provided their name, wished to remain anonymous out of concern for retaliation by local gang members. This has been respected.

Following the receipt of this letter LawTalk asked other lawyers for their opinions on whether they had noticed an increase in drug-related issues in their practice and if they thought that illicit drugs should be legalised. Locations and areas of practice are given. We have also gathered other information on drug use in New Zealand.

Christchurch – Family law and criminal defence

It’s a balancing issue but I suspect, like Family Harm, it’s not an area that we can arrest our way to a resolution. Biggest drivers of crime and family harm are:

  • Alcohol,
  • Drugs,
  • Mental health,
  • Addiction (see the first two).

Cannabis is pervasive and frankly the prohibition battle is probably lost and it may well be time to treat it was a health issue rather than criminal one. Sends a terrible message but might be the lesser of two evils.

Synthetics and P are on a par. The former is possibly worse and seems to be de rigour with, particularly, youth offenders. Also, unlike cannabis which generally makes people a bit useless, synthetics can have all sorts of behavioural nastiness. They are similar to P and a big deal cash-wise. Police have told me they are bigger than P but certainly on a par and penalties are far less, so any sensible criminal is likely to be pushing synthetics.

There’s no panacea and I would be reluctant to see wholesale legalisation without significant evidence but claiming solutions are as simple as prohibition (or mass legalisation for that matter) is dream world. It would not surprise me if there is evidence to support dialling back the criminality of cannabis though, with resource better used in the health sector than the policing of it. I could live with that – just don’t smoke that stinky shit near me!

Regional South Island – Family law

My current position is I am happy for all drugs to be decriminalised, by which I mean there should be no penalty attached that requires loss of job or imprisonment, but maybe a referral to a counselling service or to an anti-drug service. I do not consider it is sensible to prosecute drug users, or to refer them to prison.

I am not sure whether this is a “medical problem”, but I do not think it is sensible to continue to make it a criminal offence to use “illegal drugs”.

I remain open to advice about my position, but I cannot think it has been effective to continue to devote so many resources to prosecuting offenders who use “drugs”, and then imprisoning them. It is the purveyors and dealers who need to be pursued, not the users.

Years and years of “War on Drugs” does not seem to have reduced the problem and seems to provide the criminal world with a constant income. However, I am keeping an open mind on the problem, and trying to assess whether my current position is an appropriate one, given all the harm illegal drugs cause to people and to society.

Regional Wellington – Family law

I have noticed that over the past few years meth has become more prevalent in many sectors of society. I have seen it feature in family law cases, but then marijuana features often also.

I do not agree that it should be legalised, but I do feel that there should be greater awareness of it and greater education could have a major role in combating it. It is ruining families and yes, gangs do appear to be driving it. However, legalising it would just make it more readily available to the community.

If it were legal, you couldn’t stop or prosecute gangs from supplying it even though it is destroying lives. In effect the government would be allowing a deadly drug to be distributed.

Wellington central – Criminal and family law

There is an important difference between legalisation and decriminalisation of a drug. Broadly speaking, decriminalisation means that although a drug is still illegal, it would no longer be a criminal offence to possess small quantities for personal use. Legalisation means that a drug is no longer on the list of banned substances. It could be that a legalised drug is widely available and even commercialised, regulated and taxed.

New Zealand is currently debating law reform around cannabis. According to the New Zealand Drug Foundation’s annual poll on drug use, the percentage of people that support legal or decriminalised access to medicinal cannabis is growing: in 2018, 89% say it should be legal or decriminalised for those with a terminal illness, 87% said it should be available for pain relief and 67% said it should be available for personal possession.

Prohibition and the “War on Drugs” have proved to be ineffective in controlling drug use. Prohibition has led to the growth of the black market for drugs and gang involvement in the supply of drugs leads to more crime.

Many advocates are proposing a health-based approach to drug reform which treats drug addiction as a medical issue where a person found in possession of a drug would be dealt with through a rehab process rather than the justice system. Many advocates also say that cannabis use should be a personal choice, like drinking alcohol, and only needs a rehabilitative approach if it leads to problems in an individual’s life.

However, there is a significant difference between cannabis and methamphetamine. Cannabis has proven health benefits and its recreational use is arguably less harmful than alcohol. Methamphetamine does not appear to have any benefits, it is more expensive than cannabis and leads to more crime to support an addict’s habit, and extended use can lead to extreme violence.

There is a compelling argument that methamphetamine users should be decriminalised for personal use. Users could be dealt with by a rehabilitative approach and not end up with criminal convictions, which only lead to other problems in their lives. But New Zealanders would not support the legalisation and commercial distribution of methamphetamine. Decriminalisation would not stop the gang involvement with methamphetamine, but it would lead to better outcomes for users.

Police Investigations – Gangs and Methamphetamine

A Bay of Plenty community contacted the police in 2017 with concerns that mirrored those of the lawyers above. This resulted in a six-month long investigation, Operation Notus, that identified that members of the Kawerau Mongrel Mob were involved in the commercial distribution of methamphetamine and cannabis to the community. Three hundred staff were involved in the investigation with firearms, methamphetamine, cannabis and cash being found at various addresses. The investigation resulted in 25 people being arrested who faced charges including possession for supply and supplying methamphetamine and cannabis.

A similar operation in Rotorua targeting an organised crime group, including patched members of the Head Hunters gang, resulted in four arrests, including a 40-year old man who was a patched member of the Head Hunters gang.

In November 2018 11 people were arrested in Auckland – including a senior Head Hunters West Chapter gang member – and charged with supplying and conspiring to manufacture methamphetamine. Detective Inspector Greg Cramer said that the arrests demonstrate “…our message to those involved in the manufacture or distribution of methamphetamine is that you will be held to account.”

Methamphetamine use data

There is information collected about drug use in New Zealand, but unfortunately not in much detail. The New Zealand Drug Foundation says the most recent New Zealand Health Survey (2016/17) showed that at least 11.6% of NZ adults (aged 15+ years) had used illicit drugs (cannabis in the past 12 months). This has climbed a bit in the last few years from 8% in 2012.

The survey also found that 0.8% of adults had used amphetamines (including methamphetamine) in the past 12 months. This hasn’t really changed in the past 5 years.

But these official surveys may fail to reach a large portion of populations that have higher rates of drug use, such as the homeless and those in prison. It is fair to say that while overall usage remains low, methamphetamine use has become a serious concern in some communities.

Portugal: A case for decriminalisation?

Portugal decriminalised the use and possession of all drugs in 2001, so that the focus went from criminal punishment to treatment. However, the manufacture, importation and sale of drugs is still illegal. People caught with drugs (for personal use) face civil consequences. They are assessed by a Commission comprising a social worker, a psychiatrist and a lawyer and if found to have an addiction problem they will be offered treatment. Since 2001 there has been a decline in drug use, a decrease in drug-induced deaths and a decrease in imprisonment on drug-related charges.

Cases in the courts

People charged with methamphetamine offences (year to 30 June)

People charged with methampetamine offences

Charges outcome2009201620172018
Convicted1,1301,7592,2022,414
Not proved583508653607
Other proved53465363
Other0233
Total1,7662,3152,9113,087

People convicted of methamphetamine offences by age (year to 30 June)

People convicted of methamphetamine offences by age

Age group2009201620172018
19 years and under54676076
20-24 years190256368338
25-29 years217378485553
30-34 years200336472507
35-39 years207276312387
40-49 years219325386403
50-59 years41112109139
60 years and over281010
Unknown0101
Total1,1301,7592,2022,414

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Last updated on the 8th February 2019