More than a 40 per cent of people caught committing drug offences in Northland never set foot in court for it.

Statistics released by police reveal 231 of last year's 549 drug offences in the region resulted in no court action and warnings were issued in 225 cases.

Lawyer Wayne McKean said reducing the number of convictions for smaller drug offences is an "excellent policy".

"A conviction is effectively a life-long black mark against you that impacts you in so many ways," he said. "It's such a negative thing. It can often be the beginning of a downward spiral just having one black mark against your name."


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 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 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 has 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 McKean said a law change would make the issue clearer for police and offenders.

"Some people are getting the benefit of police discretion and other people aren't. If it's small scale and it's someone's first offence, why not just have an across the board position, instead of relying on the particular discretion of an officer or prosecutor?"

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."