Police are resuming their futile aerial hunts for cannabis grows, according to reports, and NORML wants your help tracking what they are up to.
The sound of an Air Force chopper was deafening and made the house shake.
I went outside to see what was going on, and looked up to see two defence personnel staring back at me, the pilot hovering his war machine near a power line, with the poison snorkel dangling just meters over my head as the operator fingered the trigger.
I could see their faces and count the rivets in the chassis. They surveilled my home and garden for what seemed an eternity, as I gestured my displeasure to them.
They ambled off to look at my neighbours place, then the next home after that.
I live in Auckland’s Waitakere Ranges, and until last summer this was a regular experience all local residents had to suffer.
Every summer Police and Air Force crews would hover over homes in the Ranges, the west coast beaches and the Hauraki Gulf islands like Waikeke and Great Barrier, ready to dispense poison on any hooch plants they spot.
They only targetted the stereotypical ‘dope growing’ areas in Auckland, never the leafy suburbs like Epsom. Yet there are no large cannabis grows in the Auckland bush or beaches.
So last summer residents rejoiced as it was revealed police had quietly scrapped their annual cannabis ‘eradication’ programme in the wake of the dead-even referendum result, and a changing landscape where drugs such as methamphetamine and alcohol were recognised as causing much more harm.
Most of the harm attributed to cannabis is actually caused by police. Every dollar they spend chasing cannabis users or flying around looking for grows is chalked up in the Drug Harm Index as a harm caused by cannabis.
The last count, by the NZ Law Commission, pegged the police’s annual spend enforcing cannabis prohibition at over $300 million.
The aerial operation involves police ground crews, hired spotter planes, and Air Force helicopters and personnel.
They typically fly and hover lower than CAA regulations allow, and spray blue-dyed poison from the air onto plants and land they believe contains cannabis.
The results speak for themselves: their ‘eradication’ programme has barely made a dent in Aotearoa’s supply of cannabis, which continues to be as popular as ever.
And rather than busting organised crime, the helicopter operations tend to pick up home growers and medicinal producers. Two summers ago, they even poisoned a legal hemp crop and had to pay compensation to the grower.
Their efforts were also counterproductive to their own goals:
- 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.
Given the 2020 cannabis referendum dead-even result – which ended the police’s social contract to enforce prohibition – and their recent track record of reducing arrests and being the ‘quiet achievers’ of NZ drug law reform, it came as little surprise to me that they had dropped the helicopter programme.
But as usual, the devil is in the details. While police HQ scrapped the national eradication programme in 2021, it still allowed police districts to apply for funding to run local programmes if that’s what they wanted.
That funding comes from assets seized under the Criminal Proceeds Recovery Act. Every dollar taken for helicopter joy rides is one less dollar available for drug education or treatment, which come from the same fund.
Last year it appears no police districts applied. But this summer, some areas may experience the sound of choppers hovering over their homes, with a poison bucket dangling over their heads.
After questioning by Green MP Chlöe Swarbrick, police have confirmed that districts may still run their own cannabis aerial operations, even though police HQ have canned the national operation.
But they’re not saying where, or when. It could be lots of places, or nowhere. They could even just be saying it so fewer people grow.
So we want to track them, and shine a light on what NZ police are really up to. Keep and eye and ear out for cannabis-related police misbehaviour or inappropriate police activity, and log your reports here – it’s Crimebusters for our side
Your tip offs could be confirmed sightings of cannabis aerial operations in action (look for the snorkel hanging below the helicopter to dispense their poison), breaches of your peace or your rights, witnessing illegal searches, courtroom shenanigans, and so on. By letting us know, we can raise public awareness and help more people.
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.