The cancellation of the cannabis eradication programme is another sign that New Zealand Police have been the quiet achievers of cannabis law reform.
The cannabis eradication programme was an expensive failure that over 40 years has not stopped anyone from using cannabis, but instead made cannabis more lucrative and drove production into the hands of organised crime.
Police began using aircraft and helicopters to search for cannabis way back in the 1970s. The effort intensified in the 80s and 90s, with police finding and destroying hundreds of thousands of plants every year.
Their efforts were counterproductive: hauling out plants by air spread cannabis seeds over vast areas of the country; burning the crops provided social occasions for nearby residents; poisoning the plants created more harm as the toxic plants were often sold regardless; and increasing the risk for growing outdoors simply transferred production into factories and industrial estates.
It was also dangerous work with at least four deaths associated with the programme, and the aircraft became targets for community anger.
I’ve seen the blue cannabis sprayed with Round Up® and sold anyway to unsuspecting youngsters. I’ve seen the blue poison sprayed in rural gardens, splashed onto their homes. I’ve assisted in cases where police have attempted to seize farms held by a family for generations simply because their helicopter crew spotted a patch grown by someone.
I’ve had the military helicopters hover over my own house, with their poison-dispensing hose hanging over my head. They would target all the stereotypical areas, and in Auckland that meant hovering over every home in the Waitakere Ranges and the West Coast beaches.
Yet there are no large grows in the Auckland bush or beaches. At most, they might snag a few alternative types, old hippies or medical patients trying to grow a few plants for themselves.
Despite all this our politicians, while forever promising reviews, commissions and even a referendum, refused to stop the eradication programme. It was an operational matter, they said. It was for police to decide.
Our police, who once held the record for the highest rate of cannabis arrests in the world, took the hint. In recent years our police have done more to reduce arrests than any government or politician.
When cannabis arrests peaked in the 1990s at over twenty five thousand people every year, Police introduced their Diversion scheme to help keep people out of the criminal justice system.
When the Law Commission recommended in 2011 to change the law the response of the National government was to do nothing, but Police responded by introducing pre-charge warnings and dramatically reducing arrests to their lowest ever level, even though the law still has not changed.
When the referendum delivered a split, almost 50-50 result and Andrew Little proclaimed law reform was off the table, police have responded by quietly dropping the eradication programme – and didn’t even bother to tell the politicians.
Police know that with half the country voting for full legalisation – and many Nopers saying they would have supported something else – the current law is simply unenforceable.
Enforcement programmes like the helicopter flyovers, in particular, are only possible with widespread community acceptance and agreement.
That social contract does not exist now, and police should be commended for recognising this.
Times have changed. New Zealand is not the same country as it was in 1975, when our archaic drug law was passed. Cassette tapes, CDs and VHS video have come and gone since then.
The Misuse of Drugs Act should also be consigned to the past, repealed and replaced with a new law that is fit for the modern world.
The cannabis referendum narrowly did not pass, but all the issues and problems remain. And although we commend police for taking this initiative, it’s not good enough to leave it up to them.
Police discretion can be applied unfairly or not at all, diversions can be granted or not at their whim, and likewise a decision to halt the eradication programme could be reversed under a new commander.
Our elected representatives must find a way to change the law that recognises the referendum result while also recognising the immense failure of the current law and the widespread agreement for making cannabis a health issue, not a crime.
Chris Fowlie is the president of the National Organisation for the Reform of Marijuana Laws NZ Inc; developer of the CHOISE model for cannabis social equity; CEO of Zeacann Limited, a cannabis science company; co-founder of the New Zealand Medical Cannabis Council; co-founder of The Hempstore Aotearoa; resident expert for Marijuana Media on 95bFM; cannabis blogger for The Daily Blog, and court-recognised independent expert witness for cannabis. The opinions expressed here are his own.