Local Government Magazine
National Politics

Why I will vote yes to cannabis reform

By Peter Dunne.
I will be voting ‘Yes’ in the recreational cannabis reform referendum this month [2020], simply because I believe the current law is not working and that cannabis should be treated as a health issue, not a legal one, and regulated as such. 

This intention is consistent with the comments I made back in 2015 in the foreword to New Zealand’s National Drug Policy, 2015 to 2020, that; “when legislating to try and reduce harmful behaviour we need to ensure the rules and penalties we implement are both proportionate to the potential for harm and evidence-based.” 

Based on all the evidence amassed over the years, moving to a regulated market for the production and distribution of cannabis used for recreational purposes fits the above criteria completely. So, it makes sense to do so.

However, all the polls so far suggest that I will be in a minority, with more people likely to favour the status quo, than the move for change. But regardless of whether one supports or opposes cannabis being legally available for recreational use, there seems to be a near universal point of agreement that the current law, dating from 1975, is no longer fit for purpose. 

The problem that that gives rise to, in the likely event of the defeat of the referendum, is what happens next. Does the current unsatisfactory status quo remain unchecked, where production and distribution of cannabis stays in the control of criminal gangs, and where the Police (largely) turn a blind eye to its consumption?

Or, does the government start to take the outmoded law more seriously and try to enforce it, leading to more people, disproportionately Maori and Pasifika, being apprehended, imprisoned, and unnecessarily scarred for life?

Either outcome would be completely unsatisfactory, but both are completely possible in the event the referendum upholds the status quo. While all the political parties (bar National) have committed to upholding the outcome of the referendum, even though it is non-binding, none has stated what they would do if the referendum fails to pass. 

Yet, in weighing up the options between reform and the status quo, voters are entitled to know as best they can the implications of voting either for or against. This includes knowing what the politicians intend to do if the referendum does not support a change in the law.

This is especially so, given the general view that the current law has long since ceased to be workable. But to date no political party has committed to moving its emphasis to a more health and evidence-based approach, regardless of the outcome of the referendum.

But it is one of many key areas where voters have not been given full information that could be critical to their decision to support or oppose a change to the law.

One of the reasons so little information of this type is available to assist voters reach an informed choice (assuming that the policymakers even have the information in the first place) is because the campaign for change has been poorly led and organised at the government end. Normally, a responsible minister would be charged with overseeing the campaign and making sure all the relevant information was before voters, but this has not been the case in this instance. 

Neither the Ministers of Justice nor Health have shown any real interest in the referendum campaign, seemingly leaving it all to a well-intentioned junior MP from a government support party to front. This is as unreasonable as it is unfair. 

Without in any way casting a reflection upon the MP concerned, the lack of ministerial involvement sends a clear message that the government is not really all that interested, nor sees the referendum as a priority. 

It should hardly be surprised if voters draw a similar conclusion.

A cynic might suggest that this is all quite deliberate, that the government is not really all that committed to a change in the cannabis laws, and is just going through the motions, to keep a support party on side. What that ignores, however, is that whatever the outcome of the referendum, the current situation is unsatisfactory and requires attention.

Groups like the Drug Foundation and the Helen Clark Foundation are doing their best to educate and inform the public about the referendum, and to debunk some of the myths and lies being put around by those opposed to reform about what a vote for change will mean. But, because of the complete lack of leadership from the centre, they are being left to operate in a vacuum. 

Whether they like it or not, the relevant ministers need to step-up, and treat the referendum with the seriousness that it deserves, so that voters can make the best decisions.

Otherwise, nothing is going to change, which, given the current state of play, will leave us potentially worse off than we are today – a long way from the compassionate, proportionate, and innovative approach some of us have argued for. LG

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