Drug offences and prosecution

The great thing about statistics is that they can challenge your beliefs. I’ve shown this graph to a number of people and they’ve all been surprised. Before showing the image I ask:

Do you think that, if you were a young person caught with drugs, you are more or less likely to be prosecuted now or in 1994?

Everyone I’ve shown this to has said Police are probably more likely to give you a warning now. The data show a different story. You are more likely to be prosecuted now.

The proportion of young people caught by Police with drugs leading to prosecution has almost doubled from 5.5% in 1994 to 10.5% in 20111. This is an additional 55 young people being prosecuted each year for drug possession or use. Meanwhile, Police warnings have decreased as a proportion of apprehensions.

This is a story of young teenagers being prosecuted for possessing or using cannabis. Of the 1019 drug possession and/or use offences in 2011 for 10- to 16-year-olds, 989 were for cannabis-related offences. That’s 97% cannabis-related.

While underlying offender behaviour will explain some of this, the data points towards Police discretion changing.

The Law Commission, in its report, Controlling and Regulating Drugs: A Review of the Misuse of Drugs Act 19752, said:

While the exercise of police discretion might increase the likelihood of a proportionate and appropriate response to minor drug offences in practice, the existence of this discretion also provides an opportunity for unfairness, discrimination and uncertainty.

These data reinforce this uncertainty in how discretion may be exercised: your chance of a warning or a prosecution may depend on the year in which you’re apprehended for minor drug offences.


Questions and answers

Is the increase in methamphetamine (P) offences responsible for the increase in prosecutions?

Methamphetamine apprehensions among 10- to 16-year-olds is so rare that it doesn’t change the rates when methamphetamine apprehensions are excluded. In 2011 there were three methamphetamine possession apprehensions among this age group, versus 827 apprehensions for other drugs. Drug possession offences for this age group are largely the same in both years: 99% cannabis-related in 1994 and 97% cannabis-related in 2011.

Are 1994 and 2011 typical years?

Yes. The proportion of children and young people prosecuted for drug possession or use after being apprehended has risen steadily since a low of 4.8% in 1996 to a high of 12.4% in 2006. The increase really ramped up between 2003 and 2006 and has since slowly decreased. We chose 1994 and 2011 as they are the start and end points of available Statistics New Zealand data.

 Are Police choosing to apprehend fewer offenders for drug possession in the first place, leaving only hard-core offenders?

Police apprehended a similar proportion of young people for drug offences in 2011 as in 1994. 25.7 young people per 10,000 were apprehended for drug possession and/or use in 1994. In 2011 this was 24.5, by no means a significant explanatory shift in policing.

What if more serious offending is connected to these possession offences? For example, someone could be prosecuted for aggravated robbery and may have been caught while possessing cannabis.

While overall offending is down for young people, it is true that for some groups violent offences have increased. In particular, violent offending per capita for 14- to 16-year-olds has increased by 18.5% from 1995 to 2008. This increase in violent offending may be part of the story, and is a limitation of the apprehension data which can’t show whether the offences had associated charges. A question remains, regardless: do we as a society want to prosecute violent offences directly, or add on additional charges depending on whether the offender happened to be carrying cannabis at the time of the offence?

The Youth Policing Plan 2012 – 2015 explicitly states that it aims to “wherever possible and appropriate, divert children and young people away from the formal youth justice system.”3 Increasing the use of Alternative Actions for drug offences is one way to achieve this.



1Statistics New Zealand, Police apprehension data

2Law Commission, 2011: Controlling and Regulating Drugs: A Review of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1975. Accessed from: http://www.lawcom.govt.nz/project/review-misuse-drugs-act-1975.

3Police, 2012: Youth Policing Plan 2012 – 2015. Accessed from http://www.police.govt.nz/sites/default/files/resources/strategic/youth-policing-plan-2012-2015.pdf


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  1. […] The recent release of the latest New Zealand Police Statistics make for some interesting reading. Our Youth Justice stream has been using information from these data sets to expose some interesting trends (see last week’s post on youth drug offence prosecution). […]

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