Rejoice fellow citizens, your skies will no longer be darkened by military and police surveilling your herb gardens!


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.

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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.


  1. Well said, Chris.

    Politicians have a long-standing tradition of failure, and will undoubtedly continue to fail in the future. Indeed, failure has become the default response and outcome of our political system.

  2. only through money sometimes can lessons be learnt . having to budget can force an institution to terms with their own unaccountability , what is important and what’s not –

    point in case the discontinued air search for marijuana

    and the appointment of Andrew Coster hasn’t been a bad thing , i think he’s been genuine about wanting to make a difference which is also part of the reason for this going the way it has .

    unaware of these events Poto & government should now be inspired to do better for drug policy in NZ

  3. “Police discretion can be applied unfairly or not at all, diversions can be granted or not at their whim…”

    This is the main problem and if the USA experience is anything to go by, contributes hugely to the over representation of non white people in jails.

    I guess that Andrew Little just couldn’t be bothered with following through on his rhetoric regarding positive action to change Maori over representation in prison statistics. Police should not ever be the arbiters of general principals on who should or should not be charged. We only need to look at the photographing of young male Maori to see that there is still obvious racial stereotyping by police.

    • @Spikeyboy – I totally agree with you because as recently as this morning a friend of mine was stopped by the cops, accused of smoking cannabis and searched and they also grabbed his phone. He wasn’t and doesn’t smoke cannabis. They intimidated him but did not arrest him although they made it very clear that they did not believe him and that if he had cannabis on him for his own personal use they would have arrested and charged him. So, the bully-boys are still at it.

      • I’m very sorry to hear that youngsuffrajet though I’m not surprised. In general its only the well healed that get the benefit of the doubt. The rest of us have to suffer all the indignities of our class and race.

  4. I agree its a good thing that drug squad police do not get their annual end of summer lark in helicopters ,,,, but without law change we are still far from free the seed.

    There is both wiggle room and a entrenched War on Drugs attitude complete with war propaganda from some sectors of the police.

    The wiggle room is ,,,””The illicit supply of cannabis remains a focus for police, and funding is still available to districts that wish to prioritise the use of tactical support for the detection of cannabis plantations.”

    Police National headquarters contributed $700,000 to the cops in copters so scrapping it was / is good PR ,,,especially if it was a minority of 12 district area commanders who wanted to be in on and spend part of their areas strained policing budgets on this highly visible waste of money.

    Combined with almost 50% of the community not supporting cannabis policing ,,, softly softly by the police is in their best interests ,,, an effective police force requires the support of its community or clearance rates decline.

    BUT Technology is at the point where aerial Cannabis operations are more effective, far less visible to the public and far cheaper than humans in helicopters,, it’s also part of policing the Govt could privatize or contract out,,,

    Some cops with attitudes from 30 years ago would embrace modern technology ,,, the faction of the police that still pump the same bullshit press releases ,,, ” to target Cannabis ‘”…..” as these drugs are all known drivers of crime and revenue streams for organised crime groups.”

    Getting on to 30 years ago Wanganui police district commander Alec Waugh opted out of spending part of his budget on what has now finally been cancelled,,,, he directed his funding towards community constables / policing ,,,, he was drummed out of the police in short order on trumped up charges and threats ,,,, later he won 1 million dollars compensation from the police.

    The fact he didn’t take to cracking down hard on protesters also had some sections of the police dislike him as well ,,, “Mr Waugh was appointed Wanganui district commander in 1994 and gained a national reputation for his calm handling of the 1995 Maori occupation of Moutoa Gardens.”

    But if he had remained and advanced through the police it is likely the police would have had far more sensible Cannabis policy far earlier ,,,, The police took the Clint Rickard , mike sabin fast track for drug squad cops instead ,,,,

    Getting rid of helicopters is as easily an opportunity to modernize drug policy abuse as much as it is to end it.,,, Govt PR is sneaky shit,,,, there are still authoritarian factions and anti-left culture in the NZ police.

    Without actual Law changes its just budgetary bullshit and high grade PR ,,,

    • I spoke to the old retired detective who is my father’s friend about Mr Waugh and yes, you are right @reason. Mr Waugh is a very good man and was a good leader but one of the other reasons the Police wanted to get rid of him was because his wife is Asian and the management did not agree with that and yes, the Police did have to pay him $1M compensation for the trumped up charges which they said they would lay against him if he did not resign. The management treated him appallingly but that’s corruption for you – the type of corruption Ross Meurant has spoken about.

  5. We must treat all drug use as a health issue, not a criminal one.

    Time to rethink our whole approach to drugs including alcohol and prescription drugs.

  6. What taught the police the police to change their attitude to cannabis use was the grief the Prohibition Implementing Goons got enforcing the laws. If the NZ police had wanted cannabis law changes we would have had them years ago. That they have changed is due to a belated acceptance of reality and the knowledge that a 40* year old daughter of a 40 year veteran of the NZ police is in her second term as a very popular PM.

    reason January 21, 2021 at 1:03 pm – very true.

    *Remember those precocious 16 year old stoner chicks that used to be at Norml/ALCP events in 1996, Chris?

  7. Well written Chris. It is great to read such a coherent and well constructed commentary. Like you I applaud the moves of those in law enforcement.
    Now it is time for our lawmakers to do likewise.

  8. The police are also aware that there are now foreign organised crime actors (mostly Vietnamese in origin) quietly taking over the commercial cannabis cultivation scene up and down the country. The fellas growing in the bush at least spent the money here in NZ rather than sending it back to some General back in Vietnam

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