New Zealand Police National Headquarters recently brought back its cannabis eradication program, which was cancelled in January 2021. According to Stuff.co.nz, the program was costing the department more than $700,000 annually to send out helicopters and airplanes, and the program has been running for approximately 20 years. However, the department recently set aside $635,000 to fund this effort once again, which began in January 2022 and will be conducted through March. The cannabis eradication program utilizes flight vehicles to scan for large-scale illegal grow operations.
A briefing was originally published by the police department in December 2021 detailing this decision, but was only recently released to Stuff.co.nz through the Official Information Act of New Zealand. Until now, all information was withheld until the police minister had approved it. In the briefing, it states that although the program had been stopped in all 12 districts last year, the funding was still available.
With the revival of the program, now called Operation Emerald, six out of the 12 districts have opted in. “Running a nationally coordinated operation provides efficiencies in terms of negotiating a fixed-wing plane and helicopter contracts, deploying staff, provision of training for staff, and administration of the budget,” the briefing states.
However, there has been one report of an incident that involved three cannabis plants, rather than a large cultivation operation. In early February, a police helicopter flew over one couple’s property to remove three cannabis plants. “It got closer and closer and then just zoomed in on this little hill about 80 metres from our house and sprayed three small cannabis plants that were in pots up on the hills,” the individual said. “We could see the pilot, he could see us, we waved to them, and he was just sitting there above the hills spraying the plants and then just buggered off.” The individual noted that he had recently received an operation to remove cancer, and invested in a $150 cannabis oil bottle to treat the pain, instead of the tramadol and codeine he was prescribed. (His wife also suffers from an autoimmune disease, and medical cannabis helps her sleep.) As a result, he and his partner believed it would be easier and more cost effective to grow their own cannabis plants for medical use.
“The spraying of our plants seems like overkill, we would’ve been happy if someone had knocked on our door and said ‘hey we’ve had a complaint’ or something … we would’ve destroyed them if they asked us to,” he continued. “We’re just a mother and father … good community jobs, we work in the community, we help the community with sports, we’re both in community groups and are working for non-profit organizations. We don’t understand why we got targeted in a distressing manner.”
Chlöe Swarbrick, a Green Party MP and previous advocate of cannabis legalization, criticized how the plant eradication was handled. “This situation underlines yet again how these police chopper operations are not only a waste of time and money but literally cutting off some people’s medicinal cannabis supplies,” she said. “New Zealanders going about their business harming nobody have had a police chopper drop into their family dinner simply because parliament continues to prefer and enable people to get legally fully blackout drunk with all the social harms that come with that instead of moderately using an evidentially less-harmful substance that 80 percent of us will already have used by the time that we’re out of our teens.”
The focus of Operation Emerald is to target large-scale grow operations in New Zealand, but a spokesperson confirmed that it is common for smaller plants and grows to be targeted in this manner. “However, as this work is often conducted in remote or rural areas, and from the air, smaller cannabis plots can naturally be sprayed during the discovery phase of flying operations,” the spokesperson said.