The responses of New Zealand politicians to the recent NZ Drug Foundation cannabis survey are frustrating.

The survey commissioned by the NZ Drug Foundation, suggests that the majority of New Zealanders support some form of liberalisation of cannabis laws, though the majority still oppose allow growing for friends, or selling from stores.

poll

The response from the two major party leaders has been head-in-the-sand dogmatic.

Prime Minister John Key said: “My longstanding view, whether you like it or not has been that I think it sends the wrong message to youngsters.”

“I think there are potentially health implications from sustained use,”

 

Labour Leader Andrew Little’s response was similarly lukewarm – suggesting that it’s not a priority for Labour.

 

What’s frustrating is how dismissive the politicians are about the issue. It’s not like either hold strong opinions about the issue, like for example Labour did with asset sales, or the combined, though with some disent, enthusiasm both parties had legalising gay marriage.

 

Instead, because both parties are not deviating from the status quo, there’s no need to take a strong stance. Each party gives a luke warm dismissal of the subject, and there’s no need for a more robust response, because the opposition party is not challenging them on the issue.

 

It’s particularly frustrating that Labour, who see themselves as representing the common man are taking this stance. I wouldn’t suggest that Labour’s demographic* are any more likely to be cannabis smokers than Nationals, but I’m sure that Labour’s demographic are much more likely to be negatively affected by cannabis prohibition than National’s.

To me, refusal to budge on the cannabis issue is another symptom of Labour being out of touch with their voter base – not realising just how important the cannabis issue is to voters, or how dramatically it affects them. The impression I get about Labour’s attitude is that ‘the status of cannabis’s legality has little effect on the lives of people in low socio-economic groups. The real issues are child poverty, access to education, etc’.

Without suggesting that these other issues are not important, I think it’s important to recognise just what effect the illegality of cannabis has on people. One of the main concerns I have, is that causes otherwise law abiding citizens to have a distrust of police and ‘the system’. I think it’s likely that many families won’t report certain crimes, such as domestic violence, for fear of the being busted for the wafts of cannabis coming from the house.

Liberalisation of cannabis laws has been occurring around the world. In the US, according to this resource, four states (Alaska, Oregon, Washington, Colorado) have some form of legalisation for recreational use, almost half the states have legal medical marijuana.

In Australia cannabis is legal nationwide for medical use. In ACT and Western Australia cannabis is decriminalised for personal use/possession, and in other states though still a criminal offence, policy determines a non-criminal penalty.

The legalisation of cannabis in Colorado is generally seen as a success – or at least, the doomsday scenarios have not materialised yet. This article comprehensively covers to impacts of cannabis legalisation in Colorado.

Perhaps this is really what’s going on with the cannabis issue in New Zealand, New Zealand politicians are waiting to see how liberalisation plays out in other countries, before enacting it here.

This is of course, very conservative, and flies in the face of New Zealand’s identity as  an independent pioneer of progressive rights -being the first country in the world to give women the vote for example.

To me, announcing a policy to legalise seems like an obvious political boon for the Labour party – all of a sudden drawing in the non-voting New Zealand public, who now have a reason to get out and vote.

But perhaps this is where I’m naïve. Perhaps the Labour party, being more informed and experienced that me, have calculated that they’ll lose more of the voting elderly, than they’ll gain of the usually non-voting young and uneducated.

Perhaps the best way to make the cannabis issue and election issue, is with a citizens initiated referendum, requiring signatures of 10% of the population.

There are been two such referendums in recent history -the awfully worded one organised by the religious right in opposition to the anti-smacking bill (“Should a smack as part of good parental correction be a criminal offence in New Zealand?”), and the another in opposition to the assets sales proposed by National.

With so many people directly having a vested interest in cannabis law reform (ie. users, growers, and family members of those), and overall sentiment supporting law reform, it seems that getting willing signatories would be trivial.

Or is there some truth to the ‘useless stoner’ stereotype, reflecting a lack of ability to come together as a cohesive political force?


*Note I’m careful not to reference voters here. I would argue that Labour especially represents a group of people beyond those who vote. With one third of the eligible voting population not voting, it seems likely that these people’s (the uneducated) interests are more likely represented by Labour than National.

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