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Cannabis bill more politics than policy

National has drawn up its own medicinal cannabis bill, but the real story isn’t the policy, but the politics behind it, Thomas Coughlan reports.

National has released its alternative medicinal cannabis bill, which it says will make cannabis medication products more widely available.

The party also says that the bill adds some much-needed regulatory detail to the Government’s bill, which largely delegated such detail to officials.

But the real story of the day was a political one, with National blindsiding Labour, whose medicinal cannabis bill returned from select committee today.

Surprised Government MPs were unable to comment on National’s bill, which they had only been made aware of after it was reported by Newshub on Wednesday night.

The bill puts pressure on the Government’s support parties, particularly the Greens, whose own medicinal cannabis bill brought by Chlöe Swarbrick was defeated in January.

If National’s bill is drawn from the ballot and found to be popular, pressure could mount on the Green party to break ranks with the Government and support it.

The Government still has the numbers to pass its own bill, but National’s position means changes will now have to be introduced as Supplementary Order Papers, delaying its implementation.

Bills mount up

National’s bill is sponsored by Shane Reti, a doctor and the Deputy Chair of the Health select committee, which had been looking at the Government’s bill.

Reti enlisted the help of National’s health spokesperson Michael Woodhouse, Chris Bishop, and politicians from Canada and the United States in drawing up a proposed regulatory regime.

National would implement a “pharmaceutical” style system, in which products containing cannabis products would be treated “as if it were just another drug,” according to Reti.

Doctors would prescribe cannabis medicines for ailments and pharmacies would distribute them.

Users would be issued with a Medicinal Cannabis Card, certifying them to buy medicinal cannabis products.

The bill would not allow the use of “loose leaf” cannabis and, unlike the Government’s bill, would not provide a statutory defence for terminally ill people caught using cannabis.

Many of the provisions in National’s bill are absent from the Government’s bill, but could form part of its regulatory regime.

The key difference being that the regime would be drawn up and established by the ministry officials, rather than politicians.

The Politics

National politicians don’t think this is good enough and want to empower Parliament to establish the detail of the regime itself.

In the House, Bridges accused the Government of not “doing the work” and said National’s detailed bill was evidence of a “Government in waiting”.

But National has been accused of time wasting and petty politicking.

Instead of using the select committee to recommend changes to the legislation, the party opted to draw up its own bill.

Woodhouse said the Government members on the Health select committee were “ambivalent” about National’s proposals, while Bridges said the Government’s bill didn’t even have “the makings of a framework”  to look at the regulations National members demanded.

But Government sources who have seen the bill said the issue was not so much the difference between what the two bills permit, but whether Parliament or officials dictate the regulatory regime.

Health Minister David Clark said having the regulations set by Parliament could be too restrictive and result in a hamstrung regulator.

“It may well put restrictions around the regulatory body and compromise their ability to do their job in a fast moving, fast changing market — I wouldn’t want to compromise the regulator,” Clark said.

The Health Select Committee’s Chair, Labour’s Louisa Wall, said the introduction of a new bill on the day the select committee was to release its report undermined the integrity of the select committee process.

Her comments implied it was unlikely Labour would support National’s bill, even if it was found to be an improvement on their own.

“We’ve got a bill. So why would we focus on their bill?” Wall said.

But its hard to deny the process has strained relations within the select committee. Just a month ago, Wall and Reti joined forces to play in a Parliamentary band at the US Embassy’s Fourth of July party. Today’s blindside makes a repeat of that seem unlikely.

The teal deal — again

National’s bill still has several hurdles to cross before it is even debated in the House.

First, it must be drawn from the member’s ballot.

Then, to pass its first reading, it would need the support of a minor party, likely the Greens or New Zealand First.

Announcing the bill, Bridges pointedly wore a green tie, perhaps an overture to the party most likely to help get the bill over the line.

Neither minor party would commit to supporting the bill on Wednesday, before they had read it.

Green Party co-leader Marama Davidson said National had “taken a while to come round” since opposing Chlöe Swarbrick’s bill.

Swarbrick herself pointed to the similarity between her own bill, which was defeated in January, and the National Party’s bill, although her bill allowed loose leaf consumption, which the National bill does not.

She said she remained open to bipartisan collaboration, but was disappointed in the cynical politics that had played out on the sidelines.

“I understand the want for clarity but that is exactly what they had the opportunity to get through select committee with my member’s bill” she said.

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