Almost 40 per cent of drug offences in the Bay never get to the courts.

Police statistics reveal 411 of the 1065 illicit drug offences in 2015 resulted in no court action, and 396 offenders received only a warning.

"It's good that police are shifting their priorities onto more important things, but what that means is the Government is being irresponsible. It's letting the police do what should be done through policy and enforcement practices, rather than it become a government policy and ultimately a change in the law."

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Tauranga lawyer Viv Winiata said there were positives and negatives to issuing warnings for low-level crime.

"It's obviously a good thing to reduce the amount of low level offending the court is having its time occupied with. But you could argue socially, it's not a good thing if people feel they can get off scot-free even with say, possessing a small quantity of cannabis."

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Sensible Sentencing Trust Tauranga spokesman Ken Evans said the system of warnings sounded as if the system was "going a bit soft on drugs".

Mr Evans said the criteria for being able to get off without being charged should be made clear.

Ken Evans. Photo/File
Ken Evans. Photo/File

"The old adage that if you catch somebody when they do something small and really throw the book at them, they don't usually go on to bigger things. If you have a system where it's open to 'we'll see if the cops catch us and if they do I'll get off a warning', it's not really the deterrent that we would want the law to be.

"They are letting off what they see are not serious drug offences, but drugs are drugs. They've created a grey area there and that's always dangerous in law." A Tauranga professional and member of cannabis reform organisation Norml, who the Bay of Plenty Times has agreed not to name, said it seemed the police and the judiciary did not want to give people a criminal record for what he said was close to a victimless crime.

"It's a sad reality that we have a situation where people get something on their record that prevents them travelling to some destinations because they can't get visas, or they've got something against them in terms of future employment.

"I imagine what's happening here is that they are thinking this is going to be a punishment that far outweighs the crime."

Drug Foundation executive director Ross Bell said fewer convictions for low level drug offences was the right direction but the Government needed to make clearer policy changes into law.

"It's good that police are shifting their priorities onto more important things, but what that means is the Government is being irresponsible. It's letting the police do what should be done through policy and enforcement practices, rather than it become a government policy and ultimately a change in the law."

Police introduced a formal pre-charge warning in 2010.

A pre-charge warning resulted in an offender being arrested and processed at a police station, but the warning did not appear on an individual's criminal record. However, more than a third of the warnings issued for drug offences were informal warnings.

Mr Bell said there had been a change in police response to drug offences, and many drug users knew it. "It's the worst kept secret - that low-level drug offending shouldn't receive a whole lot of attention from police - but the Government never actually wants to admit that in public. They're quite happy for the police to change their practices without the Government having to own up and say we should actually change the law."

Mr Winiata did not agree the warnings system was a loosening of the law.

"It's a long stretch of the bow to say this is evidence that the Government thinks it's not worth prosecuting minor drug offending," he said.

"If a person continues to offend in that way, they will ultimately be prosecuted through the court."

Police spokesman Tim Anderson said: "Our officers have discretion to warn for offences and police deal with these on a case by case basis.

"In terms of an arrest, every case is judged on its merits and sometimes an arrest is made to enable that individual to get some treatment for the drug problem they may have at the time."