Almost a third of drug offences in Rotorua never go to court.
Statistics revealed by police show 60 of the 195 drug offences in Rotorua during 2015 resulted in no court action - including 36 cases in which an informal warning was issued. Rotorua's Sensible Sentencing Trust spokesman said it seemed the situation was "dumbing down the justice system" and was "seemingly decriminalising" drug use.
But Rotorua lawyer Rob Vigor-Brown said the use of warnings for first-time offenders could save them from a future marred with a criminal record.
"It enables young people in particular to avoid the consequences of a conviction for what may be - and often is - a momentary lapse in judgment or inappropriate experimentation that can scar a person's clean record for life," he said. "It's a continuing clog on that person's career prospects."
Mr Vigor-Brown said education on the consequences of drug use would be a preferable approach rather than punishment.
Police introduced a formal pre-charge warning in 2010 aimed at reducing 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 Vigor-Brown thought the warning system worked well.
For young people, often a warning from the police is enough to reinforce the seriousness of their predicament. Rob Vigor-Brown
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"The mere fact of a warning for the greater percentage of people is just enough to say, 'I'm not going near that again'."
In a statement, 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."
Sensible Sentencing Trust Rotorua spokesman Peter Bentley said society should be wary. "It's seemingly decriminalising drug use and is devaluing the justice system. If there was something like a 90 per cent conviction rate they just wouldn't do it.
"If they get caught and there is absolutely no consequences they think they will get away with it. A verbal dressing-down does not have the same effect as a conviction," he said.
Te Utuhina Manaakitanga addiction service manager Donna Blair said the best thing for low-level offending was to provide education and counselling.
"We consider the possible consequences and work towards positive change and healthier lifestyles. While having a conviction stifles people's potential, it is not the end of the world if supported to address addiction issues and seek healthier lifestyles," she said.
Drug Foundation executive director Ross Bell said fewer convictions for low-level drug offences was the right direction.
* 195 drug-related offences in 2015.
* 60 cases resulted in no court action.
* 36 cases resulted in informal warnings.