Comment

Don’t let drug reform fall down another policy hole

The Government is already taking a huge political risk in holding the cannabis referendum alongside next year’s general election, and now the drug reform issue is getting that familiar feel of yet another policy initiative where the advance rhetoric will not be matched by the subsequent action, writes Peter Dunne. 

This Government continues to make heavy weather of its major policies.

Leaving aside for the moment the spectacular failure that has been KiwiBuild to date, its climate change policy is looking increasingly shaky, with National now seeming more likely than not to bail out over the treatment of agricultural emissions.

This will scuttle abruptly the emerging bipartisan consensus, built up so steadily over the last two to three years, and with New Zealand First potentially poised to join them, will deprive the government of the majority it will need to pass its Zero Carbon Bill as it currently stands.

Now, the announcement of the national cancer control agency, a Labour campaign promise from 2017, which should have been good news as a positive and bold step forward for an important and often neglected group of patients, faces having to fend off criticism that it is no more than a reaction to the National Party’s cancer policy announcement of a few weeks ago. Especially since the fanfare announcement, which the Government should have been working on since it took office, comes with a whimper and no guarantee of funding beyond its first year at this stage.   

On another front, the Government’s self-vaunted compassionate approach to medical cannabis has already hit a few brick walls.

Its initial commitment to having a regulatory framework in place by July this year, and products available by the middle of next year, has long since faded into oblivion. The regulatory regime is now promised for the end of the year, but with companies and products to be separately licensed after that, the likelihood of domestic products being available for patients by mid-2020 is receding.

And, if recent opinion polls are to be believed, the Government’s referendum next year on recreational cannabis use is headed for the same fate, with ever decreasing numbers of people saying they will be voting “yes”.

In part, this is to be expected as voters start to focus more specifically on the issue, rather than just express vague agreement that legal recreational cannabis is a good idea, but in more substantial part it is due to the woolly and waffly way in which the Government has to date promoted the issue to the public. The lack of clear information about the question to be considered and whether the result will even be binding on the Government; let alone the regulatory framework to be adopted if the referendum passes; when that might occur; and what will happen to enforcement of the current law if the referendum fails, have all created a massive policy and information vacuum which is being ruthlessly exploited, with little regard for the facts, by those opposed to any change in the law. They are whipping up a perfect storm, and, if the National Party joins the fray at some point, as is beginning to seem more than likely, the prospects for reform, let along meaningful dialogue, will diminish further.

In this regard, two recent reports provide balanced and informed perspectives, as well as introducing some currently missing facts and credibility into the argument. First, from an international perspective, the annual “The State of Legal Marijuana Markets” report, published by Arcview Market Research and BDA Analytics notes that “The list of countries experiencing cannabis reform on all levels continues to grow. The industry has seen progress from incremental steps to legalise the use of medical CBD products, to laws totally transforming existing medical programs, to promises of full legalization in the near future in significant world markets.”

The Helen Clark Foundation’s report provides a way forward in this instance – some will appreciate the irony of this – and provides a way out of the policy hole the Government has been digging so steadily for itself over drug reform issues.

In a briefing for its clients it observes that in the last year there has cannabis law reform in not only Canada, but many states of the United States, other northern European countries, parts of South America and Asia as well.

So, in considering the legal availability of cannabis for recreational purposes, New Zealand is not astray from the mainstream of current international practice, or engaging in some dangerous experiment, as some have alleged.

It is a timely backdrop, given that In New Zealand, the Helen Clark Foundation at the Auckland University of Technology has just released its own report “The Case for Yes in the 2020 Referendum”, focusing particularly on next year’s referendum, from a health and harm reduction perspective.

The Foundation’s report sets out a clear and cogent case for change, and the establishment of a properly regulated market, akin to that currently applied to the far more dangerous alcohol and tobacco, as the best way to govern the supply and use of recreational cannabis in New Zealand.

Its conclusion is as blunt as it is unarguable: “New Zealand needs to treat cannabis use as a public health and social issue rather than a criminal one.” As is its supporting observation that: “Prohibition-based policy approaches have not eradicated and cannot eradicate cannabis consumption and supply in New Zealand. Criminalising these is an inappropriate use of justice system resources…”

The report also sets out with far more precision and clarity than the Government has been able to date how a regulated market might work and what other ancillary measures the Government ought to address as part of that process.

The Government is already taking a huge political risk in holding the cannabis referendum – and potentially equally controversial referenda on end-of-life choices and abortion as well – alongside next year’s general election.

The prospect of contamination is high, with a distinct possibility of people using the referendum process to demonstrate their dissatisfaction with the Government’s overall performance, even if they do not vote against the Government parties in the actual election.

Equally, the likelihood of a muddled and confused outcome is strong, particularly if the lack of clarity around whether the referendum outcome will be binding, and the vagueness about the timing of any consequential law change arising from a “yes” vote, remain. Given all of that, there will also be increased pressure on the Government to explain what it intends to do, if the current negative trend prevails and the referendum is defeated, a prospect it appears to have given little consideration to so far.

Current trends and the way the Government is approaching the cannabis referendum are beginning to get that awful and now familiar feel about them of yet another policy initiative where the advance rhetoric will not be matched by the subsequent action. The Helen Clark Foundation’s report provides a way forward in this instance – some will appreciate the irony of this – and provides a way out of the policy hole the Government has been digging so steadily for itself over drug reform issues. How it responds may well determine the outcome of the cannabis referendum next year.

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