A late change to a bill described as de facto decriminalisation of drug use is likely to swing the balance more towards police prosecutions and away from health referrals, the Police Association says.
But association president Chris Cahill said he still expected the Misuse of Drugs Amendment bill, which passed its third reading today, to lead to a "significant" drop in prosecutions for drug use.
The change to the bill means that the test for prosecuting drug users will be whether a therapeutic approach would be more beneficial "to the public interest" rather than for the individual involved.
It was championed by New Zealand First and agreed to by Labour and the Greens, and accepted during the committee stage of the bill last night.
The Police Association, the Drug Foundation, the Law Society and the Green Party have all called the original bill effective decriminalisation for drug use because it meant police should only prosecute drug users if that was a better outcome than a therapeutic approach.
Cahill said the new change will swing the pendulum back towards the status quo.
"I wouldn't say it's a game changer, but it evens things up more towards the ability to prosecute than not.
"It still leaves a hell of a lot of room for legal argument about what the public interest is."
Under the original bill, he said police would consider health and addiction issues if they came across a group of people smoking methamphetamine at a kids' playground.
Under the changed bill, he said the officers would consider the environment and whether the activity was harming the community.
He still expected police prosecutions for drug use to drop significantly, though not as dramatically as they would have.
In 2017/18, 1351 people were charged with drug use/possession where that was their most serious charge; about 1000 people were convicted and 52 were imprisoned, mostly from charges relating to methamphetamine and cannabis.
Health Minister David Clark said the aim of the bill had not changed.
"Generally I would expect in the public interest it would be more sensible to apply a therapeutic approach."
New Zealand First law and order spokesman Darroch Ball said the change would align the bill more closely with current police practice.
"This will mean that prosecution remains available to police if the offence is serious enough, ensuring police can continue to prevent harm and keep New Zealanders safe."
Drug Foundation executive director Ross Bell said the change was more or less meaningless.
"Whether the test is for the public interest or the individual, the practical outcome should be the same. It is always to the benefit of a person's family and the wider public when someone with a drug problem is given help and support, rather than a punitive response."
Green Party drug law reform spokeswoman Chloe Swarbrick agreed.
"No individual is an island and every person and the response to them should be considered within the scope of the public interest anyway."
Asked if the change was then redundant, Swarbrick said: "I'll leave that for you to decide."
During the third reading, National's drug reform spokeswoman Paula Bennett said she was on the same page as the Government in wanting a broad, community approach to help people who used substances problematically.
But she said the bill would set up addicts "stuck in a cycle of despair" to expect a response that communities are not resourced to deliver.
Budget 2019 put $455 million to widening the reach of mental health and addiction services, though how that will be spent is still being decided.
The bill passed with the support of Labour, New Zealand First and the Greens, with National, Act and Jami-Lee Ross opposing.
Swarbrick made a touching tribute to an old flatmate who had killed himself after becoming addicted to synthetic drugs.
The flatmate, who she did not name, had moved to Auckland to look or work but had become isolated, and spent more and more time in online chatrooms looking for tinny houses.
"He found one but he didn't find cannabis. Where cannabis wasn't available, he found that synthetics were. It was cheaper and it didn't come up in drug tests."
She said the bill would save lives.
"Tonight is for my flatmate."
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