Drug reform: don’t take ‘yes’ for an answer

Government hardheads need to convene urgently to discuss their anaemic drug law reform programme.

They’re at imminent risk of losing a prime chance for a legacy reform in favour of baby steps that will leave the country behind as the global cannabis industry rapidly takes shape.

Laws aimed at the narrow decriminalisation of cannabis for certain medical uses, look like half measures that evoke to me the needless "Civil Unions" compromise on marriage equality; an unnecessary and time-wasting incremental step on an issue where public opinion has already decisively moved. A compromise neither needed nor wanted.

The global trend in the developed world is clearly in the direction of greater liberalisation of drug laws in general, and the widespread legalisation of cannabis in particular. In California, legislators adopted a medicinal-only solution only to supersede it within the blink of an eye with full legalisation.

The absence of any harm emanating from recreational use in legal states like Colorado, Washington and in the District of Columbia are telling US lawmakers, including conservatives, there is no evidentiary basis to continue with the failed policies of prohibition.

Everywhere you look around the world, the trend is towards liberalisation and legalisation has emerged because long-held arguments in favour of the status quo have become hopelessly out of step with public opinion, and crumble into fine dust when exposed to contemporary science.

As we found with marriage equality, and now with cannabis legalisation, the modern era produces many cases where public opinion, often supported by fast moving science, is moving much faster than political parties can match.

As regulators are discovering in Australia and elsewhere, there are numerous regulatory hurdles even with the narrow introduction of medicinal cannabis. The creation of a brand new industry from the ground up is no small ask. Parliament needs to develop regulations and tax arrangements that support a robust industry. Foreign venture capitalists and industry leaders like Canopy in Canada need to be told: NZ is in the weed business, and the welcome mat is out.

This will all take time, but there is no need to squander any more of it on the deficient half measure currently before Parliament. Some brave souls in that place need to take courage and propose a bill to make New Zealand the first true leader in the development of a safe cannabis industry, underpinned by sensible drug reform, in the Asia-Pacific region.

Outside groups and experts keen to support progress also need to rethink their strategy. Rather than engaging with a prolonged committee process for a narrowly targeted partial victory, why not aim higher for comprehensive reform in all its facets. That includes its inexorable tie to large scale incarceration, particularly among young Maori, and the criminalisation of otherwise law abiding, tax paying citizens. Just as it is for lawmakers, the same can be said for advocates and users: why take such a half-hearted yes for an answer?

Unlike Australian states, hidebound by requirements to consult and collaborate with Canberra, New Zealand has no such excuse. Public opinion offers no barrier either.

Why not get on with the job of developing a government bill that gives every MP the chance to play a role in comprehensive reforms, not incremental steps designed to avoid non existent electoral problems?

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