Aotearoa’s criminal justice system preys on the vulnerable and sustains the powerful.
I was recently asked a pretty tough question: “what is the most important issue in the criminal justice system?”. For every issue that came to my mind, there was a common thread which interwove these spaces: the overrepresentation of Indigenous people in prisons. Something I will draw on in the following paragraphs is the criminalisation of cannabis use and how this, too, ties in with decolonising the criminal justice system.
You don’t need to look far to recognise recent instances in which conversations around ‘power’ – particularly how this is vested in the state and their institutions – have caused a renewed global discussion on systemic racism and police brutality. The motivations for the “Black Lives Matter” (BLM) movement are no exception. While it is tempting for those living outside of America to justify a ‘social distancing’ from the issue, the realities of these power distributions in New Zealand would suggest we aren’t so ‘lucky’ after all.
To understand how Māori are overrepresented in prisons but underrepresented in, say, politics, we have to understand the social and historical movements which contribute to such negative outcomes. An exploration around the effects of colonisation following the signing of Te Tiriti o Waitangi in 1840 is particularly important. Aotearoa’s history of land loss, denial of rights, and confiscation of language has led to severe socio-economic vulnerability and deprivation for Māori people. In addition to the constant denial of sovereignty, Aotearoa has no recognised Indigenous laws. Instead, the current criminal justice system privileges the rule of law, which assumes that the law is universal and neutral. Racist attitudes, therefore, see Indigenous notions of ‘laws’ as inferior, savage, and uneducated. This means that legal processes build on systemic racism, framing Indigenous rights as defined by the state. Not upholding Te Tiriti set the precedent for the systematic discrimination of Māori – particularly when decision making was concerned.
The unjust treatment of Māori through Te Tiriti was further entrenched by Eurocentric laws which continue to disproportionately affect Māori (as well as other ethnic groups, such as those of Pacifika descent). The legalisation of Cannabis is an example of laws that further perpetrate this injustice. Cannabis is currently illegal in Aotearoa under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1975. On October 17th, Kiwis voted on whether they want to legalise cannabis or not. Currently, growing, smoking, possessing or selling cannabis (not for medicinal purposes) is illegal in Aotearoa. However, cannabis use has still always been very prevalent. Studies focusing on Christchurch and Dunedin have found that about 80% of people have used cannabis on at least one occasion. In fact, the prohibition of cannabis doesn’t stop people from using it, and those who are arrested/convicted for cannabis use don’t stop using either. This suggests that cannabis laws are a weak deterrent. Cannabis is here to stay, but we have no regulations for it other than punishment.
The racist nature of cannabis laws has to do with the way groups are charged, convicted and punished. Despite Māori and non-Māori having the same usage of cannabis, Māori are more vulnerable to be stopped and searched, and are three times more likely to be arrested or convicted for a cannabis offence. This fact alone should be reason enough to consider decriminalisation of cannabis. Problematic racial bias in this regard leads Māori to being more vulnerable to long-term negative impacts, such as disruption to education, a higher chance of unemployment, and less chance of receiving healthcare and support. Once you get into the justice system, it is pretty tricky to get out, and the stigma associated with criminal conviction can last a lifetime.
For too long, there have been biased laws in Aotearoa that contribute to the overrepresentation of Māori in prisons. For too long, we have ignored the sociological underpinnings of ‘criminal’ activity. Rather than supporting vulnerable peoples, we punish, and punish hard. The use of drugs like cannabis can be a normal response to abnormal situations, such as the intergenerational trauma caused by colonisation. As a nation, we must come together to make a difference. We can honour Te Tiriti o Waitangi, and we can support our whanau and community to better understand cannabis and health impacts associated with it. We can start this conversation and deal with problems associated with cannabis in a holistic and rehabilitative way that promotes health, equity and justice, rather than putting vulnerable people in jail.