Public health groups and drug educators are welcoming a police decision to end nationwide aerial cannabis operations, saying it will free up resources to tackle Northland's methamphetamine epidemic.
For decades police have mounted large-scale cannabis search and destroy missions by helicopter and light plane.
The choppers are a regular sight over Northland — said to be New Zealand's cannabis capital — in late summer just before harvest season begins.
As well as spotting hidden plantations they can be used to spray plants with dye and herbicide.
Yesterday, however, a police spokesperson said, due to increased harm caused by other drugs, particularly methamphetamine, ''a one-size-fits-all annual aerial national cannabis operation no longer represents the most appropriate deployment of police resources''.
Axing the nationwide operation did not, however, mean police would stop targeting the production and supply of cannabis.
Funding was still available to individual police districts if they decided aerial searches were the best way to combat the drug.
''The decision to spread resources throughout the year, and increase surveillance focus on the drugs causing the greatest harm in the community, does not mean that police across the country will not investigate and prosecute people engaged in the commercial cultivation of cannabis.''
Northland police did not respond by edition time yesterday so it wasn't clear if they planned to continue aerial operations.
The decision to dial back on cannabis nationally comes after last year's referendum in which only a narrow majority voted against legalisation, though that was not cited by police as a reason.
Sarah Helm, executive director of the New Zealand Drug Foundation, welcomed what seemed to be a shift of police resources away from cannabis to more harmful substances.
''A lot of money goes into those helicopters. It could be spent on things like controlling methamphetamine, which is wreaking havoc on communities like Northland.
''Cannabis continues to be illegal and harmful but nowhere as harmful as methamphetamine. This seems to be an operational decision by police to reorient their budget to address the biggest drug issues facing New Zealand and allow a regional response to cannabis and other drugs. That makes sense,'' Helm said.
Recently a new approach to methamphetamine by Northland police, with a greater emphasis on treatment, had been showing some success.
''We hope this represents a shift to a more effective and well-rounded approach to drugs.''
Selah Hart, chief executive of Māori public health provider Te Hāpai Hauora, said past approaches to policing cannabis had disproportionately affected Māori.
While she didn't condone growing or selling illicit substances, an ability to harvest the land was an ''ancestral gift'' and for some struggling whānau it was a financial lifeline.
''We need to move the resources to where the epidemic is. We need to stop the tsunami of intergenerational harm and suffering caused by methamphetamine. There is a huge rate of addiction in the North, yet we don't have the health services or education to address it.''
The Drug Foundation has previously said methamphetamine use in Northland is higher than anywhere else in New Zealand, due to easy availability and social factors such as poverty, unemployment and lack of housing.
That was backed up by an study in 2019 which found Northland wastewater had the nation's highest concentration of meth.
In some parts of the country Defence Force NH90 helicopters assist police with aerial cannabis searches. In Northland, however, police generally hire private helicopters.
It is not known how much Northland police spend each year on aerial operations but just hiring a single chopper costs thousands of dollars an hour.