Swarbrick and Bennett debate legalisation of personal use of cannabis

On NZ Q&A last night Chlöe Swarbrick and Paula Bennett debated the legalisation of cannabis for personal use. This will be put to the public next year in a referendum.

Bennett seems to have changed her mind. In May she refused to debate Swarbrick – Cannabis referendum: Paula Bennett on why she won’t debate Chlöe Swarbrick

Last night:

Green MP Chloe Swarbrick argues it’s time to reduce the harm caused by a drug market controlled by criminals. National MP Paula Bennett says there isn’t enough evidence to support legalisation.

The Spinoff:  A play-by-play of Paula Bennett and Chlöe Swarbrick’s cannabis referendum debate on Q&A

…they’ve come head-to-head on the cannabis referendum, with heated exchanges on social media about the issue, and Paula’s reluctance/refusal (choose applicable given your generosity) to debate Swarbrick, the Green Party spokesperson for the issue.

I’ll be perfectly honest: I came into this expecting, and kind of wanting, an utter shitfight. Two politicians, on relatively opposing sides of an issue, on the television?

What I got was instead… an informed, low heat, debate about an issue that two politicians are informed about, are passionate about, and happen to be on opposite sides of. Which is really nice, and comforting to watch.

Sounds promising. I will watch the debate and read the Talking points at The Spinoff, who quote the final statements:

Chlöe Swarbrick:

“The point that I want to leave people with is that right now we have the worst possible situation. We are empowering the criminal underground and we know for a fact that 400,000 New Zealanders are using cannabis on an annual basis and 10% of New Zealanders will have tried cannabis by the time they’re 21. The majority of people will have been exposed to it while they’re at high school.

“We have the opportunity to have some kind of control over what is currently chaos and the best way to do that is to legally regulate cannabis and to ensure that we’re providing those wrap-around supports and that potential for the disruption in the supply chain with that duty of care imposed on those who are purchasing.”

Paula Bennett:

“We’re kidding ourselves if we think that our teens are all of a sudden going to stop consuming cannabis because we legalise it. They’ll still get it from the black market because they won’t be able to get it legally because they’ll be underage, and the harms and the dangers will still be there with them. There are real issues around impairment, drug driving, what it’ll mean.

“What I saw in Canada was that the 25 stores that were in one province were not enough, they were estimating going to 1000 within eight years because actually people have a right to have access to it. I’m not sure if I want that in New Zealand, I think we should wait, get more evidence from places like Canada and then debate it and decide as a country.”

Addressing the Hosking anti-cannabis reform activism

Mike Hosking haas caused a stir in the cannabis debate with Mike’s Minute: Cannabis reform goes up in smoke

Russell Brown responds: Experts want an end to legal sanctions on cannabis use and possession

In a Mike’s Minute commentary this week, Mike Hosking told his listeners and readers that the government’s Wellbeing Budget “subscribed $1.9 billion to mental health, and yet the next move is to decriminalise a substance directly linked to psychosis.

“How mad is that?” he demanded. “How many health professionals do you need to hear from to make up your mind about the madness?”

The answer to these questions can best be found in He Ara Oranga: the Report of the Government Inquiry into Mental Health and Addiction, which, as the NZ Herald observedon its release in December, is the most comprehensive report of its kind in a generation.

The expert panel that delivered the report did not rail against decriminalisation of drugs. It did the opposite. Its list of recommendations called for the replacement of criminal sanctions for use and possession of drugs with civil and health responses.

There has been a lot of disinformation and ignorance in this debate.

And some more informed and reasoned discussion.

What has been proposed in the Cabinet paper foreshadowing the referendum question is closer to Canada than Colorado and more conservative than either. The Ministry of Justice team working on the details is seeking to learn from what has worked best in other jurisdictions, not only in banning advertising and imposing age restrictions and product safety rules, but in the best ways to take the market away from organised crime.

It may also regulate potency, which is another key area for reducing harm. Under prohibition, since the 1970s, THC levels in cannabis have risen sharply – and the ratio of THC to CBD, the cannabinoid with anti-psychotic properties, has fallen far out of balance. A good deal of the harm attributed to cannabis is related to that trend. It’s a trend the black market will never reverse – supply will be dominated by what medicinal cannabis campaigner Rose Renton calls “rocket fuel” weed. It is, however, a trend that regulation – and canny tax treatment of higher-CBD strains – could change.

Drug policy is already changing in New Zealand. In response to the recommendations of the Mental Health and Addictions Inquiry, a new amendment to the Misuse of Drugs Act will direct police discretion towards health-based, rather than criminal, responses. Next year, New Zealanders will get to choose whether to do more, and seek to exercise some control of the way cannabis is sold.

That decision should be informed by an attention to evidence, rather whatever we fancy “common sense” to be. And it would be better made without commentators purporting to speak for medical professionals but saying the polar opposite of what those professionals actually believe.

 

Two polls suggest a movement against cannabis law reform

While there are more options than legalisation of cannabis, nd we don’t know what we will be voting on in next year’s referendum, that’s the question asked by two polls.

Newshub/Reid Research: Should we legalise Cannabis?

  • No – 48%
  • Yes – 41.7%
  • Don’t know – 10.4%

1 News/Colmar Brunton: At this stage, do you think you will vote for cannabis to be legalised, or for cannabis to remain illegal?

  • Remain illegal – 52%
  • Legalise – 39%
  • Unsure/refused – 9%

These results are based on largely uninformed opinions. We don’t know what we will be voting on. One thing is certain – there won’t be total legalisation. Current proposals being considered by Parliament are for limiting legal use to 20 years of age and over, and very limited means of obtaining cannabis for use.

There is a lot of deciding still to happen in Parliament, and a lot of lobbying and campaigning. Some of the campaigning so far has been inaccurate and comes close to scaremongering misinformation.

When we know what we will be voting on we can make our choices.

Until the pollsters know what the vote will be on all they can do is give us a rough idea of possible outcomes.

 

 

Regulatory regime key to cannabis law reform

New Zealand has had a virtual illegal free-for-all for cannabis for decades. It has proven impossible to restrict use via policing and imprisonment. Being illegal it has also deterred people with drug problems from seeking help.

So the Government is looking at a different approach – removing the illegality in part, regulating it’s availability, and promoting a health care approach.

Newsroom:  Regulatory regime the key to cannabis reform

If Chris Wilkins has his way, New Zealanders will vote yes to legalising recreational cannabis in next year’s referendum – and the money raised from sales would go to local communities, sports and arts groups and drug treatment programmes.

Dr Wilkins is an associate professor at Massey University, heading the drug research unit. He’s been looking at the drug market, drug use and drug policy for 20 years.

“I think its pretty huge. Its a new wave of cannabis law reform and you can see it around the world. The United States, Canada, Uruguay and lots of other countries are having debates about how to better address the issue of cannabis use.”

What’s unique about New Zealand is that it will be decided by a national referendum. If the majority of voters say ‘no’ in the referendum that means the status quo and prohibition continues. ‘Yes’ means legalisation.

Wilkins says the current prohibition laws don’t work for many reasons, including a thriving black market, estimated to be worth hundreds of millions of dollars, the involvement of organised crime and the effect of arrest and conviction.

“We have this discrimination in terms of arrest and conviction, particularly for Maori but also questions about the lifetime impact of arrest and conviction for something that a lot of people think is fairly minor behaviours,” he says.

Because it’s a crime, it has stopped users from getting treatment and health services. Because it’s an unregulated market, there are also questions about the levels of pesticides, fungicides and fertilisers in cannabis.

Polls suggest there is popular support for cannabis law reform – a majority of people have used cannabis, and will see through the scaremongering on the ill effects of some occasional recreational use. As with any drug there are problem users, but they are a minority.

According to Te Ara, the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, people barely used or even knew about cannabis before the mid 1960s.

“The first significant smoking of the drug occurred among a few beats and jazz enthusiasts frequenting nightclubs and coffee lounges in Wellington and Auckland in the late 1950s and early 1960s. However, annual drug arrests did not reach 50 before 1964,” it says.

But things changed quickly after that and during the 1990s about 200,000 plants were seized each year, with the main areas of cultivation being in Northland, Bay of Plenty and Tasman.

By the 2000s surveys showed about half of those aged 15-45 had tried the drug, about a fifth had used it in the last year and about 15 percent were current users.

The Ministry of Health’s most recent 2017/2018 health survey shows that 11.9 percent of respondents had used cannabis that last year.

A significant but not a huge proportion of people are recent users. Will relaxing the laws increase the number of people using cannabis? Probably, in the short term at least.

Canada legalised cannabis on October 17 last year. Benedikt Fischer was in Vancouver with colleagues at the time.

“It was interesting how anti-climactic it was. We were sitting there and there was nothing discernibly different, no grandiose event, no smoke in the air because we had de-facto legalisation for a long time already.”

Dr Fischer, who worked with the Canadian government on the new legalisation framework, is now a professor at Auckland University’s faculty of medical and health sciences, specialising in addiction research.

He says there’ve been some early rollout hiccups in Canada such as a shortage of supply and users resorting to mail order in Ontario because cannabis shops haven’t yet opened.

The first survey since legalisation showing a rise in users is no surprise, he says.

The National Cannabis Survey says about 5.3 million or 18 percent of Canadians aged 15 years and older reported using cannabis in the last three months. This was higher than the 12-14 percent who reported using just one year earlier, before legalisation.

That doesn’t say what sort of use. It is likely that casual use increased, but problem cannabis users will already be getting what they want so are unlikely to be affected – except that if they can source their supplies legally that will reduce their contact with criminal pushers who seem intent on moving users onto more dangerous (and more profitable) drugs like P.

But Wilkins doesn’t support legalisation based on the Sale of Liquor model.

“The importance from now on is talking about the detail of what the regulatory regime is going to look like, because it isn’t just a binary choice between prohibition and an alcohol-style market. There are lots of different variations of a more controlled market, a more regulated market, a market that benefits communities and also takes care of vulnerable people.”

He proposes a not-for-profit public health model where cannabis would be sold by philanthropic societies and local communities, and drug treatment facilities would benefit.

“You’d have a community trust that has people elected from the communities – I’m thinking about the alcohol licensing trusts where people from the community are elected to these trusts and the trusts have obligations to return money back to the community for community purposes, like sports, arts, recreation centres.”

New Zealanders should look at Uruguay and Canada as legalisation models, rather than the United States, Wilkins says.

People are looking at what has happened in other countries, seeing what has worked and what hasn’t worked. They should also be looking at Portugal.

There is some strong opposition to relaxing drug laws – there is a small but determined conservative nanny state lobby.

We will no doubt keep debating the pros and cons of drug law reform, until we see what Parliament puts forwards for us to vote on. Then the real battle will begin.

 

Chlöe Swarbrick on the cannabis referendum (Q&A)

Green MP Chlöe Swarbrick was interviewed on Q&A last night on the cannabis referendum. (National’s Paula Bennett refused to take part alongside Swarbrick – see Bennett refuses to appear alongside Swarbrick in cannabis discussion).

Bennett refuses to appear alongside Swarbrick in cannabis discussion

National deputy leader Paula Bennett has refused to appear alongside Green MP Chlöe Swarbrick on Q&A last night to discuss the cannabis referendum. This is a continuation of Bennett, National’s ‘Spokesperson for Drug Reform’, refusing to take part in drug reform discussions.

This is extraordinary arrogance (that an opposition MP can ill afford), or fear of being shown up by Swabrick, who is very well informed on cannabis issues. Bennett has a habit of misrepresenting cannabis information, and scaremongering.

This isn’t the first time that Bennett has refused to discuss cannabis issues with Swarbrick. She has repeatedly  has refused to join a cross party group dealing with cannabis law reform.

 

I think that’s a fair response from Swarbrick.

It turns out that Andrew Little is going to lead the cross-party group, but National made a different excuse to not take part.

More on this from Stuff in National Party won’t commit to enacting result of 2020 cannabis referendum:

National Party leader Simon Bridges said his party cannot commit to enacting the result of the 2020 cannabis referendum if elected as he has not seen the draft bill yet.

Sort of fair enough on this. But…

“I would need to see the law and I would need to have answers to some basic questions like: What’s the tax rate going to be? Will gangs be able legally to sell drugs in New Zealand? Will edible gummy bears be legal?” Bridges said.

“Of course I trust the public, it’s the Government I don’t trust.”

This is nonsense. The public will vote on whatever the Government produces in their draft bill. Bridges is effectively saying he wouldn’t trust the decision made by voters who get a chance to judge the draft bill for themselves.

Bennett has rejected invitations from Green spokeswoman on drug reform Chloe Swarbrick to join this group in the past.

She said today she would be happy to join if it was led by a minister.

“I just don’t see how with all respect a junior member of Parliament that is not part of Government is the spokesperson on drug reform which could change the social fabric of this country,” Bennett said.

“If they are serious about cross-party, put a cabinet minister in there and I will happily sit with them and any other member of Parliament,” Bennett said.

If Bennett was serious about contributing to drug law reform she would have been contributing to the cross-party group already.  It sounds like excuses from her – and the excuses keep changing.

A spokeswoman for Justice Minister Andrew Little confirmed he would be leading the group.

Bennett still did not commit to joining the group.

“We will want to see terms of reference and what the group will be doing before deciding,” Bennett said.

This is a very disappointing attitude from Bennett and National. Their petty arrogance in Opposition, and their apparent determination to disrupt drug reform initiatives, is likely to hurt their support amongst the all important floating voters.

Dunne calls ‘sophistry and bollocks’ on party posturing on cannabis referendum

Peter Dunne has blasted the Government and the Opposition, calling their posturing on the proposed cannabis referendum sophistry and bollocks.

sohistry: The use of clever but false arguments, especially with the intention of deceiving.

bollocks: Nonsense; rubbish (used to express contempt or disagreement, or as an exclamation of annoyance)

So quite strong language from Dunne.

Newsroom:  Sophistry and bollocks on the referendum

Next year’s referendum on recreational cannabis will be the first Government-initiated referendum not to have an immediate definitive outcome. Despite being styled as a binding referendum, it will, in reality, be no more than an indicative vote whether or not people wish to change the legal status of cannabis used for recreational purposes along the lines to be set put in a proposed Bill to accompany the referendum.

But this Bill will not even be put before Parliament, let alone passed, until after the referendum has been held, so voters are being asked to take a great deal on trust.

The Justice Minister has given a commitment that the current three Government parties will treat the outcome of the referendum as binding, and that the Bill will come before the next Parliament. But he has given no assurances that the Bill will be the same as that to be released before the referendum, or that it will not be substantially strengthened or weakened by the select committee process to follow, or even when during the term it might be introduced and passed.

Meanwhile, the Leader of the Opposition says he cannot say what his party’s position will be until they see the proposed legislation. The Minister tries to justify his position by saying that no Parliament can bind its successor Parliaments.

This is, to put it politely, pure sophistic bollocks.

sophistic bollocks: deceitful nonsense

Every piece of legislation passed and regulation promulgated by every New Zealand Parliament since our first Parliament met in May 1854 has to some extent or another bound successor Parliaments. Indeed, if those successor Parliaments have not liked laws passed by their predecessors, they have either repealed or amended them.

That is the stuff of politics and political discourse is all about, and governments have always reserved the right to upend the legislation of an earlier government if they have not liked it, and to replace it with something more akin to their own way of thinking.

From the referendum on compulsory peacetime conscription in 1949, through to the 1967 and 1990 referenda on extending the Parliamentary term to four years, and those referred to earlier, governments of the day have used the process judiciously to allow the voters to determine controversial issues that either the politicians cannot decide upon, or, in the case of electoral law changes, should not decide upon.

And the prime example of the dangers of having a binding referendum with little defined, and then trusting politicians to follow the will of the majority, is Brexit. It is not just a mess on leaving the EU, it’s making a mess of the whole political system in the UK.

The notion of a government-initiated referendum that might or might not be binding, or implemented quite as people expect, has been completely foreign to all of those earlier examples. Yet that is precisely what New Zealand now faces with this Government’s, all things to all people, recreational cannabis referendum.

But it is actually worse than that, which could produce more uncertainty than it seeks to resolve.

On the assumption the referendum passes, the country faces a period of uncertainty while the legislation is considered and wends its way through the Parliamentary process, over at least most of 2021, and possibly the early part of 2022, assuming the Government decides to proceed with it as a priority, and that is by no means a given.

I can’t remember how many times I have heard the current Labour led Government say a promise or policy is ‘not a priority’, which is doublespeak for ‘get stuffed, we’re not doing it now’.

Trust politicians?

All this uncertainty creates a potentially extraordinarily confusing situation, which could have been avoided had the specific law been in place before the referendum, to be triggered by a positive vote.

Everyone would have known not only where things would stand once the law changed, but it will also occur immediately, removing instantly the uncertainty likely to accrue from the inevitable post referendum delay and confusion the government’s current approach will surely cause. However, without that, the current disgruntlement about the inconsistent way the current law on cannabis operates, is likely to give way to a new disgruntlement about its replacement.

The way this issue has turned out is another example of how this unwieldly administration seems at sixes and sevens when it comes to major policy development.

Nothing ever seems to be able to be implemented quite the way it was promoted two years ago when the Government took office. The compromises necessary to keep Labour, New Zealand First and the Greens may well be examples of MMP government in practice but they are increasingly looking like weak excuses for missed opportunities.

Is cannabis law reform therefore about to join welfare, tax reform, electoral reform and a raft of other things this Government says it would “love” to do properly, but, when the crunch comes, just cannot ever quite manage to bring together in a cohesive and comprehensive way?

The only think making the deceitful nonsense from the Government look so bad is the matching deceitful nonsense from the opposition.

 

 

 

Cannabis referendum announcement

Yesterday Jacinda Ardern advised the Cabinet had made a decision on how they will do the cannabis referendum that has to be held before or alongside next year’s general election.

She said that Minister of Justice Andrew Little will make an announcement on it today.

There’s been a lot of conjecture, lobbying, shonky polling, leaking, misleading claims and noise over cannabis law reform.

No one in Government denies there are health issues with cannabis use, especially for young people. The whole aim of law reform is to switch from a law and punishment approach (which has been unsuccessful if not disastrous), to a health and treatment approach.


UPDATE: the announcement:

New Zealanders to make the decision in cannabis referendum

The Government has announced details of how New Zealanders will choose whether or not to legalise and regulate cannabis, said Justice Minister Andrew Little.

The Coalition Government is committed to a health-based approach to drugs, to minimise harm and take control away from criminals. The referendum is a commitment in the Labour-Green Confidence and Supply Agreement, as well as a longstanding commitment from New Zealand First to hold a referendum on the issue.

“There will be a clear choice for New Zealanders in a referendum at the 2020 General Election. Cabinet has agreed there will be a simple Yes/No question on the basis of a draft piece of legislation.

“That draft legislation will include:

  • A minimum age of 20 to use and purchase recreational cannabis,
  • Regulations and commercial supply controls,
  • Limited home-growing options,
  • A public education programme,
  • Stakeholder engagement.

“Officials are now empowered to draft the legislation with stakeholder input, and the Electoral Commission will draft the referendum question to appear on the ballot.

“The voters’ choice will be binding because all of the parties that make up the current Government have committed to abide by the outcome.

“We hope and expect the National Party will also commit to respecting the voters’ decision.

“I have today released the actual paper considered by Cabinet,” said Andrew Little.

The Justice Minister also confirmed there will be no other government initiated referendums at the next election.


Initial reaction – Green quick off the mark.

Andrew Little guarantees binding referendum on cannabis law reform

Cabinet may be announcing how they will deal with the promised referendum on cannabis law reform today.

RNZ: Little guarantees binding cannabis referendum – but yet to define ‘binding’

Justice Minister Andrew Little has guaranteed that next year’s cannabis referendum will be binding, but says he will explain “what binding actually means” when the next details are announced.

Mr Little told RNZ the government stood by its commitment to hold a binding referendum alongside the 2020 election, but he suggested the word “binding” could have several interpretations.

“We made the decision at the end of last year for a binding referendum. That decision remains,” he said.

“[But] once Cabinet has made its decisions, and we’re in a position to announce the next phase … we’ll be able to explain what ‘binding’ actually means.”

Mr Little said the best time to offer that “clarity” would be after the final decision and announcement which he expected would be in “fairly short order”.

National MP Paula Bennett said anything less than the “full legislative process” would let down the public.

“We would like to see legislation that has gone through the House … through the scrutiny of a select committee, so experts can really be involved.

“I hear though there’s a lot of dissension amongst the Greens, New Zealand First and Labour … and I’m worried they’ll go with a watered-down version because it’s too difficult for them to agree.”

This looks quite different to what National were promoting with the leaked Cabinet paper yesterday.

Andrew Little vague on timing and form of cannabis referendum

I am seeing increasing uneasiness about what form the recreational cannabis referendum might take, in particular whether the vote is on confirming legislation already decided by Parliament.

The commitment from the Labour-Green Confidence and Supply Agreement:

19. Increase funding for alcohol and drug addiction services and ensure drug use is treated as a health issue, and have a referendum on legalising the personal use of cannabis at, or by, the 2020 general election.

That’s unfortunately quite vague, leaving the decision up to Labour and NZ First Ministers in Cabinet.

Yesterday on Newshub Nation:

Okay, let’s talk about the referendum on the personal use of cannabis. You confirm you’re taking a proposal to Cabinet next week?

No, look, we’re still going through a process with our coalition and confidence-and-supply partners. We will make announcements on the issue about that hopefully very soon.

So not happening next week?

Look, I’m not going to say exactly where we are in the process, but we have been in a process, negotiating this through. I think we’re at a pretty good point. Eventually, we’ll get to the point where Cabinet will make a decision, and once that happens, we’ll make announcements.

Could we have a timeline?

I would hope sooner rather than later. I would expect in the next few weeks as opposed to, you know, too much later than that.

And have you got all your coalition partners on board on this?

I’m very pleased with where things are at. In the end, what—

Is that a yes?

Well, in the end, what is most important is Cabinet gets to make a decision. Once Cabinet has made a decision, then we’re in a position to announce—

Have you decided the wording of the question?

Look, I don’t want to go into a whole lot of detail. This has been, obviously, the subject of discussion. it’s been very intense discussion; I think very constructive discussion. I’m pleased with where things are at. Cabinet will be poised to make a decision fairly soon, and once they do, then we’ll make those announcements.

Cabinet. NZ First. No Green MPs.

I think there is cause for concern.