Simon Bridges and Paula Bennett. Photo: RNZ / Brooke Jenner

As National’s drug czar, will Paula Bennett show good faith, or scaremonger?

The National Party has underscored the importance of the drug law reform debate by appointing its deputy leader to a new role devoted to the issue. Is there any reason for hope, or should we prepare for wedge politics, asks Russell Brown

The charitable view of Paula Bennett’s appointment to the new role of National party spokesperson on drug reform would be that it’s notable that leader Simon Bridges has given the position to such a senior member of his caucus. More so given that in government the party spent so much time promising there would be absolutely no drug law reform whatsoever.

The less charitable view is that she’s a terrible, politically-tainted choice and her appointment signals a combative, oppositional approach to the various reforms promised by the current government.

But let’s look at the positives. Bennett, as social housing minister, was directly responsible for the Housing First scheme, a project that requires the suspension of judgement about drug use. She took over responsibility for Methamphetamine Action Plan in 2017, after it had drifted badly under the management of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet and promised a fresh, “broader” approach in response to a surge in meth availability – one we didn’t get to see before that year’s general election. She did have time to make a commitment to continue funding Northland’s innovative Te Ara Oranga Methamphetamine Demand Reduction strategy pilot should her government be returned, and to promise around $40 million on 1500 new treatment places and new educational initiatives.

On the other hand, that commitment was made in the context of a hugely punitive raft of measures that she admitted would “stretch” human rights laws. In announcing the plan at a drug treatment centre she expressed the view that some gang members had “fewer” human rights than other people, a view that ran counter to the government’s own commitment to the United Nations in 2016. She came up with the stigmatising waste of time and money that was beneficiary drug-testing. She had to backtrack after baselessly accusing a West Auckland school of allowing the Headhunters to sell drugs to its students. She nonsensically told the country that “One hit, and you are hooked” on meth.

But most of all, Bennett was the champion of Housing New Zealand’s “zero tolerance” approach to drugs. She bears responsibility for the needless stigmatising of state tenants, for disseminating false information about the alleged health risks of meth traces in housing and for the policy that put hundreds of tenants out of their homes and needlessly cost the taxpayer nearly $100 million. The damage dwarfed any good she’d done with Housing First.

It’s a record that makes it a bit rich for Bennett, in her opening statement in her new role, to accuse the current government of a “confused, contradictory” approach to drug policy. It was widely supposed that New Zealand First’s conservatism would stymie any attempt at reform by Labour ministers, but the reality is that the real conflict over drug reform is within the National caucus. Every single drug policy stance is a matter for negotiation between younger, more reform-minded members and a large, intensely conservative rump.

Sometimes, that negotiation has worked out. Shane Reti’s private members bill on medicinal cannabis bill certainly had its merits, and was in some ways a reasonable response to Louisa Wall’s indifferent stewardship of the select committee that scrutinised the government’s bill.

But its more liberal elements were a quid pro quo for a blanket ban on “loose leaf” cannabis. (Ministry of Health officials admitted some time ago they could be open to approving whole-flower medical products that met standards. Ironically, the products the bill proposed to licence are, as “cannabis preparations” rather more illegal under current law than plain weed.) And after the inevitable failure of Reti’s bill, Bridges and other National MPs made execrable speeches at the third reading of the (somewhat improved) government bill, with Bridges fantasising that the bill’s statutory defence for people in palliative care – officially a transitional measure until new regulations for approved cannabis are written this year – would somehow mean terminally ill people blazing up outside primary schools.

On the forthcoming cannabis referendum, Bennett has a lot of questions:

“When it comes to legalising marijuana, there are serious questions around drug driving, the effects of younger people accessing and using, youth mental health, and how this fits with our ambitions to be smoke free.

“What would a regulated industry look like? Will gangs be able to grow and sell marijuana? Will THC levels be regulated? Will drug testing be done on the roadside? What will the legal age be?

She knows very well that’s a feature rather than a bug. There will be a national consultative process and then a worked-up law – or something very close to it – and it’s something all parties will need to engage with. Perhaps the strident oppositional politics of this first statement is to be expected, but at some point National needs to show some good faith.

It might not be easy – Judith Collins in particular has shown a willingness to use drug policy as a wedge issue. But Collins was shut down almost as soon as she began to attack Police minister Stuart Nash’s public support for festival drug-checking. Her caucus, anxious about opposing something that may be popular with the public, is apparently considering whether to come up with its own festival drug-checking policy, whatever that might consist of.

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The fact is, several historic drug law reforms are on the table for the next two years. National has the choice of honestly bring its principles to the table and contributing to those reforms, or continuing to accuse the government of deception and “stealth” in the hope of chipping off electoral support.

In a perfect world, Paula Bennett would be the one to get her party there. The Greens’ ace networker Chloe Swarbrick has already challenged Bennett to a debate on the meaning of evidence-based drug policy. Bennett might not want to do that – she’d get creamed – but she could meet in good faith with Swarbrick, the way other MPs have. She could make herself an influential member of the fledgling cross-party group on drug reform. She could act with the seriousness these issues deserve.

At any rate, Bennett on day one performed the classic politician set-piece: revealing that back in the day she used a bit of cannabis, but of course it wasn’t for her. Of course, this week the bar’s been raised a bit on that one


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