Native Affairs - Too high for prison

Cannabis use is one of the reasons why Māori are overpopulated in our prisons and decriminalising the drug could bring the rates down, says an adviser from the NZ Drug Foundation.

Māori make up 51 percent of New Zealand’s total prison population of 10,035.

“We know that probably about 40 percent of those currently sitting in prisons are there for what we’re calling a minor drug related offence,” says NZ Drug Foundation Principal Adviser Gilbert Taurua.

Decriminalisation, he says, is a part of the solution to lowering the rates, but the issue is much more complex.

“Well, you know, it’s a challenging kind of subject isn’t it? Māori are more likely to end up in the criminal system particularly for cannabis than any other ethnicity in this country.”

Native Affairs spoke to Matiu Brockenshire, a recovering drug and alcohol addict from Christchurch. He says the problem is an addiction issue not a criminal one.

“I don’t know if incarceration is the answer to drug addiction in general. Addiction is an illness, something to be treated and we punish it. We give it a punishment.”

Christchurch woman Irene Whittaker spent 30 years in and out of jail for shoplifting and possession of marijuana. She is now an Alcohol and Drug practitioner who helps rehabilitate inmates at Christchurch Women’s Prison.

“I think it should be decriminalised,” she said. “I don’t see how putting someone in a cell where you get no education and no support…fixes or changes anything. It did nothing for me.”

The New Zealand Drug Foundation is pushing for a reform to our current drug laws, which they say are obsolete and a key reason for people being imprisoned, particularly for marijuana use.  

The controversial topic will be tabled at their 2017 Parliamentary Drug Policy Symposium in Wellington from 5-6 July.