But attitudes towards wacky tobacky are softening with medicinal cannabis already given the okay and New Zealanders getting the chance to vote to legalise recreational use of the drug next year. Journalist Kristin Edge takes a ride with police on their drug operation and looks at the changes to medicinal use and at the referendum.
It's a picture-perfect day at Northland's Tokerau Beach as gannets dive bomb schools of fish behind the waves rolling ashore.
There is no one on this beautiful strip of white sand. The hordes of summer visitors have returned home, plus it's a Wednesday.
What is noticeable against the blue sky is the outline of a small white Cesna 172 plane that circles the beach repeatedly, its shadow zipping across the sand.
A police spotter in the light plane radios to ground crews in a convoy of utes that he can see a large cannabis plot in behind the sand dunes.
The officers are keen to get their hands on some of the illegal plants as it has been an untraditionally slow day on the final phase of the Northland operation - just 10 plants from a property a few kilometres north of Kaitaia early in the day.
Their luck is about to change.
The utes file on to the beach. Sand flicks up into the air as the team head towards a narrow break in the dunes where, with some skilful driving, the utes rocket through and are parked out of sight.
Officers kitted out in protective vests take a machete in hand and guided by the team in the air, walk towards the plot.
At first it looks like a raupo swamp with the tall slender leaves creating a swath of green in the otherwise barren sandy landscape.
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As the officers push through green plants of an illegal kind are revealed.
But just as quick comes a warning: "Look out gin traps everywhere, watch your step."
Brand new traps are placed along the edge of the plot to catch either possums or people alike.
At the police briefing earlier in the morning the senior officer, who has been part of the cannabis operations in the region for many years, warned of booby traps growers might set to protect their crops.
The cannabis plants in this sun-drenched plot are chest high and the buds are developing well.
Being in a swamp the plants don't lack moisture and each plant is potted individually in a black polythene bag.
As the machetes swing into action a tally of plants is kept - 243 in this plot.
Huge bundles of the green stuff are carried out and jammed into the back of the utes.
The keen-eyed spotter has again come up trumps and the team are directed back along the beach, up a rural road and through a pipe gate on to a farmer's property.
It's another plot in a raupo swamp.
Given it's similarity to the first plot it must be the same grower, the officers reckon.
These plants are well tended and not far from being harvested. The distinctive cannabis smell lingers on the late afternoon breeze.
But soon the 278 plants with pretty purple flowers are razed and stuffed into the police utes.
It's a scene that happens every year in Northland and around New Zealand: sightings by plane, ground crews move in or a helicopter dousing inaccessible plants with blue-dyed Roundup.
Rain hampered the operation in Northland this year but the destruction of 21,531 cannabis plants was still a significant amount of illegal drugs to take out of circulation, says the officer in charge of Northland's Organised Crime Squad, Detective Sergeant Stephen Chamberlain.
"There are still large commercial crops being grown and we know from experience the bulk of cannabis grown in Northland is generally tied into organised crime like gangs," Chamberlain said.
"Any amount of illegal drug we can take out of circulation and reduce its availability to find its way into the community has an impact."
Police suspected a bulk of the crop they were unable to destroy would be shipped out of the region and go to markets such as Auckland and further south.
Although the statistics were well down on a record haul in the 2015/16 season when 68,499 plants were destroyed and 124 people were charged, the numbers were up on last season when 16,307 cannabis plants were destroyed.
During the latest operation police involved carried out 24 search warrants, made 24 arrests, seized $14,000 cash, and recovered $5000 worth of stolen property, which was mainly tools.
Four indoor cannabis growing units were discovered and dismantled along with three labs producing cannabis oil.
During the summer-time operation there was 3.6kg of dried cannabis plant found, eight firearms seized along with 5g of methamphetamine. And during Operation Piano two properties were restrained under the Proceeds of Crimes Act.
A couple's house and surrounding property had been seized and they have been charged with cultivating cannabis after police discovered the biggest plot of the operation with 1267 plants.
Chamberlain said another plot of 800 plants was found near Rawene and a house and land had been restrained.
There were 23 warnings given out to people police did not consider needed to be charged given a variety of circumstances.
"It's a discretion we use with lesser amounts and depends on the circumstances. We weigh up a number of factors and whether it's appropriate to deal with it by alternative resolutions."
The warning was noted against the person in the police system. The introduction of warnings and the liberal use of diversion means that small-scale possession is unlikely to result in any serious punishment the first time you're caught.
But it seems the police relaxing their hard line against cannabis is something that is happening around the world and comes as New Zealand has changed laws around medicinal cannabis and prepares for a recreational cannabis referendum at next year's general election.
MEDICINAL CANNABIS USE
In December last year the Government passed its medicinal cannabis bill, which will establish a regulated scheme within a year and give those close to death a legal defence before then.
The Misuse of Drugs (Medicinal Cannabis) Amendment Bill, was introduced by Health Minister David Clark in December 2017 under the Government's 100-day plan and after a third reading the bill passed with the support of Labour, the Greens, and NZ First.
The bill sets up a statutory defence which allows those close to death in palliative care to consume illicit marijuana with a legal defence if prosecuted.
The new law allows much broader use of medical marijuana, which was previously highly restricted and subject to approval by the health minister.
This is intended as a bridging mechanism until the full Medicinal Cannabis Scheme is set up, which will make the process much more simple, likely by allowing pharmacies to sell regulated medicinal marijuana products.
New Zealand's Medicinal Cannabis Scheme is set to be operational in the first quarter of 2020, with regulations made by December this year, according to the Ministry of Health.
Patients seeking pain relief from cannabis-based medicines currently have legal access to only one product, Sativex, which costs about $1000 a month.
A patient can seek a prescription from a doctor for a medicinal cannabis product.
Medicines containing only cannabidiol (CBD), a non-psychoactive cannabinoid, can be prescribed by a doctor and, if the product is approved by Medsafe, also by a nurse practitioner.
Medicines with 2 per cent or more of the psychoactive cannabinoid THC would be a controlled drug and, if Medsafe-approved, could be prescribed by a doctor.
A new body, the Medicinal Cannabis Agency, would oversee the scheme and have the power to impose penalties for non-compliance, and order products to be seized and destroyed.
"It will be a relief to people who can benefit from cannabis medicines that these will be more easily available over time. The new scheme paves the way for tens of thousands of patients to access high quality medicines for a wide range of illnesses," said Ross Bell, executive director of the New Zealand Drug Foundation.
"Having a robust framework for cannabis medicines means GPs can have the confidence to prescribe cannabis as a medicine."
The new regulated approach to medicinal cannabis proposes:
• A wider range of medicinal cannabis products be made available. This would include products that are both imported and manufactured locally.
• Medical practitioners would not be restricted by a list of conditions for which they can prescribe medicinal cannabis. However, specialist sign-off would be required for most prescriptions.
• Helping to build an economy for the industry is also one of the major aims of the framework.
Health Minister David Clark has said the global market for medicinal cannabis is estimated to grow to $80 billion by 2025.
The framework has an emphasis on Treaty of Waitangi issues and equity of access, not only to medicines, but to make medicines.
Those wanting a licence to grow cannabis or make medicines would be declined if they had any drug-related or dishonesty convictions in the past seven years, whether in New Zealand or overseas.
But those wanting to work in the industry would have no such restrictions, meaning people who had illegally grown cannabis could put their skills to use in a legal market.
READ MORE: Government releases cannabis referendum details
But the biggest change to cannabis use in New Zealand will come when voters have their say at next year's election over a potential legal cannabis market; which would allow for special bars for consumption, special outlets and sales and strict rules for home-grown cannabis.
Currently the use of cannabis in New Zealand is regulated by the Misuse of Drugs Act 1975, which makes unauthorised possession of any amount of cannabis a crime.
Cannabis is the fourth-most widely used recreational drug in New Zealand, after caffeine, alcohol and tobacco, and the most widely available and used illicit drug.
Although police won't be drawn on their approach towards cannabis and whether it is softening given their focus may have shifted with the proliferation of methamphetamine.
On the police website they present a tough line: "Police are committed to reducing the demand for cannabis and disrupting the supply chain. Each year police target the people who grow and supply cannabis, through aerial searches throughout New Zealand. Crops are seized and destroyed. Police can also seize assets and cash that have been obtained through the supply of cannabis."
Penalties associated with cannabis range from a $500 fine for possession to a 14-year jail term for its supply or manufacture.
Cultivation of cannabis, including to sow or plant it, can result in a seven-year jail term or an immediate two-year jail term and/or $2000 fine — depending on the amount.
New Zealanders will vote on legislation to legalise recreational cannabis at the 2020 election.
Justice Minister Andrew Little has revealed that voters will be presented with draft legislation that will include a minimum age of 20 to use and purchase recreational cannabis.
It will also include regulations and commercial supply controls, limited home-growing options, a public education programme, and stakeholder engagement.
"There will be a clear choice for New Zealanders in a referendum at the 2020 General Election. Cabinet has agreed there will be a simple Yes/No question on the basis of a draft piece of legislation," Little said.
And those at the pointy end of drug issues - the NZ Drug Foundation said public health needs to be at the heart of the cannabis legalisation referendum too.
The foundation supports legalisation as the best way to restrict access, promote low-risk use and remove the injustices associated with convicting people for cannabis use.
Ross Bell, NZ Drug Foundation executive director, points to Canada's landmark decision to introduce a strictly regulated legal cannabis market, as something the New Zealand government should look to emulate.
"Canada's Parliament has rightly accepted that legalising cannabis is the best way to protect public health and safety," Bell said.
"It may seem counter-intuitive to many, but this bold move to legalise cannabis use and sales in Canada is a better way to pursue public health goals than leaving it to the black market."
He said New Zealand could learn a lot from Canada's legalisation process. Each of the 13 provinces and territories will choose how to implement the federal law, which means retail licensing, age restrictions and store locations will vary from state to state.
The law was designed within a public health framework, to reduce the likelihood of negative health outcomes and the downstream effects of criminalisation.
"When you hand out a conviction for a cannabis use offence, it can set off a downward spiral of events. Treating drug use as a health issue not a criminal one means better results for individuals and society as a whole.
"The sky hasn't fallen since cannabis was legalised in several neighbouring US states. And since Canada is taking a more cautious approach to legalisation than they have in the States, we should expect similar or better outcomes."
The public health principles are borne out in advertising restrictions, regulations around packaging, taxation to control retail prices, and more funding for treatment and education.
There will be plenty more debate before the election but the referendum will be one step towards deciding whether New Zealanders wish to allow people a degree of regulated freedom, free from the threat of criminality if they choose to use recreational cannabis.
The referendum at the 2020 election will ask about support for a bill that would include:
• Allowing products to be bought only in a licensed premises from a licensed and registered retailer, and banning online or remote sales
• Banning the use of cannabis publicly, allowing it only in a special licensed premises or on private property
• Controlling the potency of cannabis in available products
• Introducing a legal purchase age of 20
• Banning advertising of cannabis products, and requiring products to carry health messages