More than 40 per cent of drug offences detected in Hawke's Bay never go to court.
Statistics revealed by police show 129 of the 306 drug offences in the region last year resulted in no court action, including 108 which led to a warning.
Senior Napier barrister Jonathan Krebs said he was surprised how frequently warnings were used. He supported the policing tool as long as officers used it correctly.
"I think it's appropriate that police exercise discretion in appropriate cases, but what it does do is it runs counter to a zero tolerance mentality. People often hark back to the good old days where a school kid pinching an apple would get a boot in the backside from a local police sergeant and sent home to dad - that's the modern equivalent of that sort of philosophy."
Sensible Sentencing Trust founder and Hawke's Bay resident Garth McVicar said he had been horrified by the trend of criminals not facing court action in order to meet government targets.
"I don't think that's the way to beat the problem, if they have committed a crime they need to be held accountable.
"Just diverting them from the courts doesn't mean they won't commit crimes, they will because they haven't been held accountable."
He said drugs were a massive issue which gangs were usually behind.
"The push to get more people away from the courts is driving them into gangs' hands, and they will be laughing all the way to the bank."
Drug Foundation executive director Ross Bell said fewer convictions for low level drug offences is the right direction but the Government needs to make clearer policy changes into law.
"It's good police are shifting their priorities on to more important things, but what that means is the Government is being irresponsible." Police introduced a formal pre-charge warning in 2010 aiming to reduce the number of low-level offences going through court. A pre-charge warning results in an offender being arrested and processed at a police station, but the warning does not appear on an individual's criminal record.
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."
Mr Krebs thought the intent of issuing warnings for minor offending was to reduce the burden on the justice system.
"The important point is what structures are in place to make these warnings consistent; are there any policy guidelines for the circumstances for which a warning may be issued and when it may not."
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."