This Friday 26 June is global “Support, don’t punish” day, which aims to focus attention on the harmful aspects of criminal drug laws while calling for more support for those drug users who need it. In the Auckland District Court this week I saw a cannabis activist persecuted by an out of control police force.
Dakta Green was sadly just one of many who need to be supported, not punished, but the circumstances around his case deserve wider scrutiny and are illustrative of how drug policing in New Zealand has gone off the rails.
Back in court again, Dakta was raided while on trial for charges relating to The Daktory. He believes the raid was in retaliation for exposing what he says is perjury and corruption by the officer in charge during his previous trial. Their search had been ruled unlawful and police were forced to give back the infamous Daktory cannabis vending machine. Police pursued additional charges from another raid, and during that trial they raided his Auckland motel room.
Police knew the address he had been bailed to, and while the jury retired to ponder his innocence, they claimed to have received an anonymous tip off that Dakta was selling cannabis to a teenager. While there was no evidence of dealing they found what I consider a small amount of cannabis and arrested Dakta for it.
A small band of supporters gathered at the Auckland District Court on Tuesday only to have the trial delayed then postponed. Four police officers got the day off real work while they waited for the court to get on with it. Then they announced that because Dakta had the audacity to lay complaints with the Independent Police Complaints Authority, the officers needed to “take advice” and the trial was postponed at their request. Dakta Green, the four police officers, the Judge, the court workers, the prosecutor, the defense lawyer and Dakta’s supporters will all need to reconvene at the same court on 21 July.
If the police want any advice from me, it would be to stop wasting everyone’s time and money and just drop the charges. Dakta has been punished enough. He’s already in jail! Their insistence that the letter of the law be followed, and Dakta be prosecuted for every charge they can find against him, is just taking up their finite resources – at the expense of solving crimes that really matter – while making no difference to whether or not Dakta chooses to consume cannabis (I’m told it’s just as easy to find inside prison). It seems ludicrous to persecute Dakta in this way. Over the years the police have wasted an obscene amount of time and money harassing him.
But Dakta is sadly not the only one. In fact he is one of over 10,000 people who will be prosecuted by police for cannabis this year.
The Misuse of Drugs Act 1975 was passed forty years ago. It’s obvious this law has failed miserably. Use rates remain among the highest in the world, despite draconian search powers, heavily punitive sanctions, one of the highest arrest rates in the world and even the involvement of our military.
In 2011 the Misuse of Drugs Act was reviewed by the NZ Law Commission. They recommended scrapping it completely and passing new drugs laws that among other things allow the regulated availability of low risk substances, provide for warnings rather than arrests for cannabis possession, legalising social dealing, and repealing the ban on drug utensils.
The Government hasn’t even bothered formally responding to most of the report other than to say it will respond one day.
This is despite the Government’s own research confirming that 42% of all cannabis users are medical patients (ie, they use it for health benefits), and that “most cannabis users (87%) did not report any concerns from others about their use” (ie most people do not care if you or I choose to partake).
Given all this, I recently attempted to work out how many people had been arrested in the forty years since this law based on hatred and punishment was passed.
It turns out that despite assurances this law is needed because they care about our welfare, the Government doesn’t bother to keep comprehensive records about how many people it arrests and whether those arrests make any difference for problematic drug users (or whether those arrests actually cause great harm to drug users).
I did manage to find on the Statistics NZ website figures for cannabis apprehensions since 1994, or half the four decades the Misuse of Drugs Act has been in force. They make for sobering reading.
- Over 449,000 people were arrested for drugs in that 20-year period, or eleven per cent of all recorded crime
- 85% of all drug arrests are for cannabis, contrary to Government assurances they concentrate on serious crime
- 87% of all cannabis arrests are for personal amounts, contrary to Police assurances they don’t arrest pot smokers
- That’s an average of 18,000 cannabis arrests per year, or fifty per day, every single day. Another every 29 minutes!
- Counting just people arrested for small personal cannabis gives an average of 15,800 per year or 43 people arrested every single day (one every 33 minutes).
While police arrest fewer people for cannabis these days than they did ten years ago, this year they will still aim to busting over ten thousand cannabis consumers and providers, maintaining New Zealand’s dubious record of having one of the highest cannabis arrests rates in the world.
Our police choose to waste the equivalent of over 150 full time police officers spent chasing and prosecuting people for small amounts of cannabis.
An arrest for even the most minor cannabis charge takes a police officer (or several) off the streets for a few hours, plus time spent preparing for court and then spent in court during the prosecution. That’s time that would be better spent solving real crime.
And it’s important to remember that every one of these arrests involves a real person.
Even if we assume they are all repeat “offenders” who have been arrested, let’s say, four times each, that still means over one hundred thousand different people have been arrested for cannabis over the last twenty years. Double that for the previous twenty years.
Being arrested can also have a disproportionately harmful effect on the consumer, who is burdened with a criminal record that could result in loss of employment, curtailing of career opportunities, loss of housing or accommodation, restricted travel and educational opportunities, and even the abduction and relocation of their children by the State.
Yet it’s not a big deterrent. We have around half a million regular cannabis consumers in New Zealand and the Ministry of Health says there is only a 2% chance of being caught.
If you are Maori you are up to eight times more likely to be arrested for cannabis. Maori are also more likely to be prosecuted, convicted and imprisoned than non-Maori. Same goes if you are young, male or otherwise fit the “type”.
Why is this? Because of the attitudes of the Police, who act on stereotypes and who are stuck in a rigid mindset of arresting their way out of the ‘drug problem’. This same attitude is why they are pursuing Dakta Green with such menace, rather than pausing to think about what they are actually achieving.