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PoliticsJuly 6, 2017

Who’s going to fix our drug laws?

Photo: iStock
Photo: iStock

Our politicians agree we need to reform our drug laws. But is anyone going to do anything about it? Simon Day reports.

When the six political panellists at the New Zealand Drug Foundation’s symposium were asked if they believed prohibition of cannabis was not working, they all raised their hand. Asked if they agreed New Zealand’s drug law needed reform they raised their hands in unison again. But only one party wants to do anything about it right now, the Greens, and they’re handcuffed to the Labour Party.

New Zealand needs to legalise cannabis immediately, Greens’ co-leader Metiria Turei told the symposium, to stop the damage being done by New Zealand’s current laws that impose harsh penalties on drug users.

“We can’t as legislators let the harm that is happening continue. We are here to do what is right, even if it is hard. And that means bringing the people with us,” she said.

The rest of the panel refused to commit to actually reforming anything at all.

L-R: Metiria Turei, Chris Bishop, David Seymour, Marama Fox, David Clark, Peter Dunne.

Representing the National Party, Chris Bishop said the government won’t move on reform without more political desire from voters. Labour’s David Clark said he supports the Law Commission’s review of the Misuse of Drugs Act, but never specified how that would be part of any policy and “a conversation needs to be had with society” before any action is taken. Marama Fox said the Māori Party are not ready to support legalislation because Māori leadership is strongly opposed. Act’s David Seymour wants to wait and see what happens when Canada legalises cannabis next year. Even the great reformer himself, Peter Dunne, says he needs a mandate before he can lead any law change.

But for Turei, the time for observation and pondering is over, and after decades of discussion something needs to be done now.

“We have been talking about this for 15 years. It is time we took the step and legalised cannabis. It is making what is being done illegally now, legal.”

One problem: they’re attached to the Labour party who, despite endorsing the medical use of cannabis, are far from ready to change the law around recreational use. David Clark waved his support for the Law Commission’s review in front of the audience but didn’t say a thing of substance about what it would mean for Labour’s policy. How the Law Commission recommendations to repeal the Misuse of Drugs Act and the regulation of drugs fits with Andrew Little’s extreme caution to the decriminalisation of cannabis was unclear.

If elected to power Turei hopes the legalisation of medical cannabis would help drag Labour’s policy forward. It would be essential that steps towards legalisation are made within the first term, she says. This seems a significant distance from Labour’s current position.

And the Green Party’s role as the leader of progressive drug reform appears to have been overtaken by Gareth Morgan and The Opportunities Party (TOP). Turei acknowledged this is frustrating but put the traction down to TOP being new and shiny. It would be more than a little frustrating for the Greens if TOP got 4% of the vote in September.

The Opportunities Party isn’t the only one after the drug reform vote. Dunne made a pitch for United Future to be the party to lead the changes to our drug laws.

“We have all the evidence we need. We need a process for action. I need a mandate. We have a chance in September to get the numbers to lead the change,” he said.

With the momentum around drug reform and in the face of an ambivalent Labour party, the Greens need to consider making this a priority policy for the election campaign. Is it important enough to Turei that legalisation of cannabis could be a bottom line of going into coalition?

Greens co-leader Metiria Turei says we need drug law reform immediately. Photo: Adrian Malloch

But maybe our MPs are more progressive than we give them credit for. After watching the panel, the symposium’s guest international drug reform experts were relatively flattering of New Zealand’s politicians’ approach to changing the law. Compared to Australian politicians ours are “intelligent and informed” on drug law, according to Alison Ritter, professor of drug policy at the University of New South Wales. Had a panel of Australian MPs been asked the same question on whether they believed prohibition had failed no hands would have gone up, she said.

Alison Holcomb, the architect of Washington state’s legalisation of cannabis in 2012, said New Zealand was inevitably a step behind the US and Canada, where medical marijuana was a long part of their history – a history that has helped move the public towards the possibility of legalisation.

Anne McLellan, former Canadian deputy prime minister and current chair of Canada’s Task Force on Cannabis Legalisation and Regulation, said she sympathised with political parties that felt obliged to wait for public endorsement of drug reform. The legalisation of cannabis in Canada was an explicit part of Justin Trudeau’s election campaign. Only now are the Canadian public starting to get their minds around what this means as they progress to legalisation in July 2018.

“As a former politician, I can tell you are about to have an election,” McLellan said.

NB: A previous version of this story represented Marama Fox’s comment on Māori leadership’s opposition to the legalisation of cannabis as “iwi leadership”.

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