Rethinking New Zealand’s Racist Drug Laws

A disproportionate number of Māori are being locked up for cannabis crimes. The Drug Foundation says the system is inconsistent and unjust so we asked their senior advisor Gilbert Taurua what can be done about it.
November 23, 2016, 8:48pm
Image via Flickr user Brett Levin

Our stale drug laws aren't working for Maori. Around 40 percent of Māori in jail are there because of minor drug possession or supply charges. This is in spite of the fact that police arrests for drug use have in general decreased by about 40 percent from 2011 to 2015; that police are giving more pre-charge warnings for minor offences; and that the Police have the discretion to give diversions for minor offences like cannabis possession and possessing the tools needed for small-scale growth. It's also in spite of the fact that these factors have heavily influenced a general trend towards more non-Māori people being let off for cannabis use and growth. Which means that Maori have just been left behind.


The way the Misuse of Drugs Act 1975 and the Police's discretion are currently set up and interacting forms institutional discrimination against Māori. The NZ Drug Foundation have recognised this issue and are championing it. They're currently embarking on a series of huis throughout the country, starting with their first in Te Taitokerau last weekend in order to get iwi involved in drug reform advocacy and to have Māori voices heard.

VICE talked to Gilbert Taurua, the Drug Foundation's senior advisor about why drug laws aren't working for Māori.

Gilbert Taurua. Image supplied.

VICE: Hi Gilbert. What are the issues with the current system?
Gilbert Taurua: In a nutshell, it's unconscious bias. You know, that fact that system is racist and a disproportionate amount of Māori end up in the criminal justice system and often it doesn't really reduce harm – it doesn't stop people from taking drugs.

We also know that the imposed programmes we have such as the prison system doesn't really work. There's also so much stigma—people are hardly going to put their hand up and say they're doing drugs. Under the welfare system, for example, you would potentially lose your children. You're hardly going to say to your GP you're doing drugs just because of the legal component of that too.

About 45 percent of Māori are in jail for minor drug offences. You've already mentioned unconscious bias as part of the issue—do you think there are any other contributing factors?
Drug use is just a symptom of a whole [lot of] socio-economic issues—poverty, health and wellbeing issues. It probably spans back to issues of colonisation. There's quite a bit of stuff coming through about intergenerational trauma, there's almost a suggestion that there's a genetic connection with this stuff, I'm not so sure, but obviously abuse, neglect, violence, sexual abuse, unemployment, poverty, lack of educational attainment—they're all factors, I think. Not in all cases though—there's a lot of middle class people being impacted as well. It's a tricky flippin' question to answer really.


You'll be having a few huis around New Zealand in the next while to talk about drug law reform. What role do you think iwi can have in changing those laws?
I think iwi previously haven't necessarily had a particular focus on the issue—for obvious reasons, they're looking at building infrastructure in a post-settlement development stage. I definitely think that there is opportunity for iwi to now start to recognise that it is an issue for their people, to try and politically leverage more support and resources for those who need help—and if not, potentially looking to put some investment back into that sector as well.

What would a drug law change do?
Law change will absolutely change the environment we're in. I was up north over the weekend and I heard some stories about P dealers trying to shut down cannabis production to get more people to turn to methamphetamine. The police [are also] shutting down cannabis, in the Northland especially, is leaving people to turn to harder drugs. That in itself is part of the rational to change the current laws in relation to cannabis.

There's a different level of collaboration [happening between gangs right now too]. I'm in Christchurch and we've never had a Hell's Angels, we never had a Head Hunters kind of group—but they're coming to Christchurch and they're collaborating kind of well—they're not trying to take each other out like they did in the past, [but] it's with the specific aim and focus to try and sell more drugs. As long as it's going to be illegal, someone's going to see an opportunity and try capitalise on that and make money.


Gangs are part of the problem, I think, but probably also part of the solution—if you can get gangs to have these conversations and try and eradicate it out of their gang members and families. I've seen some of it happen already.

How do you think the law should be changed?
It's a tricky question—[the answer's] still evolving. I think we'll get firmer as the days go by as an organisation in regards to what we see at what needs to change… My thinking's still evolving. I've just been to South Australia where they've decriminalised outdoor [growing], what we call bush work, but it's still illegal for high grow to be made available. But you won't necessarily get convicted if you have one plant type of scenario. But no one's actually been able to tell me whether that's had a successful impact in regards to reducing harm.

So we definitely need to consider that. The Portugal model that everyone seems to bang on about does seem to be an appropriate way forward—you know to basically decriminalise everything, but where [drug users] come to the attention of the authorities, they're placed in front of a dissuasion panel where they include a doctor, lawyer and social worker and they really try to get to the crux of the issue for that individual and why they're using drugs.

Do you think changing drug laws will be enough?
Of course the law is not going to address all the issues. But you know, our current law [the Misuse of Drugs Act 1975] which is over 40 years old now, was passed based on the premise that there was going to be more resources put into prevention, education and treatment. It's just crazy that our current system's looking at building more prisons and that we're not really interested in increasing opportunities for people to seek help. This is a crisis, I think.

Next week our TV channel VICELAND is coming to New Zealand on SKY. From December 1 you can check out all our great shows, including WEEDIQUETTE the show that goes deep into the politics and ethics of cannabis.