Looming referendums: Are politicians passing the buck?

Two referendums are due at the next election in 2020.

One is for A.C.T. Member of Parliament David Seymour and his End of Life Choices Bill, which Mr Seymour hopes will legalize euthanasia. The other is to legalize cannabis.

But are Members of Parliament passing the buck? It depends on whom one talks to. New Zealand First Leader Winston Peters believes that “temporarily empowered politicians” do not necessarily know better than the general public. As a result New Zealand First believes that it is correct to pass the decision making on big decisions or ones that are perceived to be morally divisive back to the people. The party even has a principle in its 15 Fundamental Principles that requires decisions that are not party policy to be sent back to the public for a referendum.

This is the primary reason why New Zealand First voted no in the 2013 Same Sex Marriage conscience vote – the Same Sex (Definition of Marriage)Amendment Bill had not gone to the public as a referendum, so the party chose not to support it.

Whilst Mr Seymour is in support, many conservatives are not. Judith Collins and Maggie Barry of the National Party believe it is an affront to the most important human right there is: the right to life. I would probably support it, but I would need to see what safeguards are in place – not only to ensure that a family cannot use it as a means of getting rid of a terminally ill family member, but to stop pro-life family from interfering if the irrevocable decision to die has been made.

Currently the legislation to legalize cannabis will go before Parliament late this year or early next year. It is being sponsored by Green Party Member of Parliament Chloe Swarbrick, who was handed the legislation by fellow Green M.P. Julie Anne Genter when the latter become a Minister of the Crown.

Support for this is fluctuating. Family First, a small party outside of Parliament with strong conservative family orientation released a survey done by Curia research. It showed that there was low support for the legalization of cannabis, at just 16%. A Newshub poll showed that support among Green Party members dropped from 83% to 64% whilst National Party opposition rose from 40% to nearly 66%.

I personally support the legislation before the House and think it would help to reduce cannabis related crime. But before then should it become law there needs to be firm measures against anyone who sells to minors. I agree with sending it to a referendum as it is too controversial to rely on a party vote or conscience vote in Parliament. Whilst Members of Parliament are empowered to make decisions, I believe the limits of what Members of Parliament can vote on, should be mainstream legislation that was put through the select committee process and in doing so, subject to public submissions.

The case for a cannabis referendum

I personally support a referendum. I think it would be too divisive to pass legislation without first knowing whether that is even what New Zealanders want. And given the propensity of New Zealand politicians for partisan politics, I might reasonably hazard a guess that if such legislation DID get passed through any backlash would be seized upon as New Zealanders objecting to cannabis.

And here would be where the politics start. Let us suppose that that is what happened: a law gets passed through Parliament, catching most people unawares, someone finds out and goes to the media full of indignation about it. The legislation itself might be perfectly fine, but the fact that a party is attempting to force it through Parliament without going to “we the people” has suddenly caused a major ruckus. Being a small country, within a short time the whole of New Zealand knows that cannabis laws are being pushed through Parliament. One major party or the other is demanding a referendum to force the issue into the open where everyone can see it.

Before the referendum, we would need to have a formal debate about it where someone speaks for those who support cannabis and someone to speak for those who are against it. A medical practitioner, legal practitioner, a police officer and a Member of Parliament would would be my preferred composition of the panel to talk about the issues that society might be faced with.

The referendum would need to address some thorny issues, such as what forms of cannabis are going to be voted on. What will the question be? Will it be a simple majority of 51% vs 49% or will there need to be a super majority to ensure the vote is clear of any obstacles?

Some people might question the timing of a cannabis referendum. I do not. It is very clear to me that the “War on Drugs” both here and abroad has failed to achieve its goals and that the only responsible thing to do is to wind it up. It is also clear to me that the support for medical cannabis has swung substantially in favour of allowing its use for purely medical reasons. In saying that, we need to acknowledge the hugely damaging consequences of synthetic cannabis which is causing major problems both in New Zealand and abroad.

But the movement in New Zealand is growing. I personally am not sure whether legalization or decriminalization is better and to what extent it should happen. In the United States the number of people going to jail for being in possession of small amounts of cannabis has led to a burgeoning jail population. Minor criminals end up meeting major league players and becoming hardened criminals, some with a vendetta against society who come out more dangerous than they went in.

Video clips on Youtube of people who have been destroyed by synthetics show zombie like beings in weird postures, completely oblivious to what is happening around them, are disturbing. Sure there is a growing problem with synthetics in New Zealand as well, but for someone completely trashed on synthetic cannabis, a jail cell or – as would potentially happen in Singapore – execution is not the answer. A rehab clinic is. There is no place for executing people and the jail cells should be spared for the chemists (the ones who make the synthetics), the importers, the dealers.

But if we agree that a referendum on cannabis should only deal with low powered product that might induce a brief high, but nothing else, then I see a case for a referendum around it.

The hour of legalized cannabis is approaching

It started with the release of the report into “meth houses”, houses that had been contaminated by methamphetamine production. Within months debate about how New Zealand view drugs and what should be done about them had turned its sights on potentially legalizing cannabis. Now with a referendum set down for 2020, I believe that the hour of cannabis legalization is approaching.

There is, I believe, no escaping the fact that public support for cannabis being legalized is high and rising. A number of reasons for this exist, but I believe in part the driver for change comes down to some basic myths around cannabis and its effects being blown wide open:

  • The so called “War on Drugs”, both in New Zealand and abroad has failed/is failing
  • Numerous other substances such as heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine and synthetic cannabis are much more potent than regular cannabis
  • Judicial systems in New Zealand and abroad have been clogging up with cases big and small
  • Medical marijuana – whilst its legal status is still in limbo – is no longer something that the police are actively prosecuting
  • If done properly, the tax take from legalizing marijuana would be substantial and could be used for funding treatment programmes

A nation wide referendum, scheduled to coincide with the 2020 General Election, and possibly the first in the world to ask such a question, will ask New Zealanders point blank whether they believe cannabis should be legalized.

Synthetic cannabis, also known as “Spice”, is illegal and supermarkets and dairies have been banned from selling legal highs since 2014. It has been linked to several deaths in New Zealand, people being dangerously spaced out with no idea or comprehension of their surroundings and is the cause of considerable public concern.

But for many people a few quite high profile deaths have highlighted the use of cannabis as a medicating agent against chronic pain. One of these cases was that of trade unionist Helen Kelly who was diagnosed with lung cancer, despite never having been a smoker. As a result of these high profile cases and in depth interviews conducted with those suffering, public support for the use of medicinal cannabis has rocketed.

Some opposition inevitably stems from conservative parts of society who are concerned about the effects of liberalizing drug laws and believe that it will have detrimental effects on society.

Some nations, notably the United States, which has long waged an expensive, often violent and now – ultimately – failing “war on drugs”, will also probably express concern. America though is starting to see that Federal law is no longer keeping up with changes in state laws, particularly in states like Colorado and Washington where restrictions on possession, distribution and manufacture of cannabis have been relaxed. A good example of this is in Washington State – my parents visited a friend whose daughter used to work in the first cannabis store in the state. The store had several restrictions on how it could operate, so that it would not be in breach of Federal law these included not being able to take credit cards; banking the earnings from the days business was a problem because banks are bound by Federal laws.

New Zealand is not the United States and there will need to be strict conditions on how we permit stores that sell cannabis to operate cometh the day when buying, selling and manufacturing cannabis  is no longer a criminal offence. But if a few common sense ones are followed such as, strictly 18+; all stores selling registered with authorities and only New Zealand grown product is permitted, maybe it will not be the catastrophe some believe.

Addressing the legalization of cannabis

When Helen Kelly, trade unionist, mother and advocate for medical cannabis passed away, there was a major surge in support for its decriminalization. Ms Kelly, who had been fighting cancer had become a visible icon of a debate about whether or not to legalize the narcotic, and had galvanized the nation.

Prior to that, support for cannabis reform had been lukewarm. Widely considered to be something only the Greens and Aotearoa Legalize Cannabis Party would contemplate, the pain suffered by Ms Kelly and her candid interviews with media, where she talked openly about her use of it to free her from pain did much to swing the mood of the nation. Politicians from across the spectrum began to have second thoughts about whether reform was such a bad thing.

Political parties are divided on how to tackle this subject as the run down below shows:

  • New Zealand First favours a referendum
  • National supports the status quo, in that the work being done by Associate Health Minister Peter Dunne is coming along just fine
  • A.C.T. is in favour of legalization, but does not believe the public support a repeal of the law
  • Aotearoa Legalize Cannabis Party supports full legalization for personal, medical, industrial and spiritual use
  • Conservative Party strongly opposes any legalization and will tighten penalties for anyone caught under the influence of or in possession of cannabis
  • Labour support legalizing medical cannabis, but does not think decriminalization will work
  • Greens support restricted  personal use and the legalization of medical cannabis
  • Maori Party has not in the past supported reform, but has softened its stance in the last few months, calling for a conversation about the issue
  • Mana support access to medical cannabis but would ban tobacco and not permit personal use

I personally want medical cannabis made immediately available, which should be reinforced by a law change. I further believe that a referendum should be held to determine what the public wish to have happen with regards to other personal use of marijuana. Before then there needs to be an inquiry into the pros and cons of legalization, that also examines what changes to the law would need to happen.

Green M.P. Julie Anne Genter has a Bill of Parliament currently before the House, which seems to have significant cross party support. It would address the need for medical cannabis to be legalized.

However, I harbour concerns based on the experience of synthetic cannabis that there is significant potential for abuse. In saying that, the current war on drugs has demonstrably failed and it is time for a new approach, based on evidence and not ones personal conviction. The cost of waging it is time, money and resources that could be better used to help addicts and go after the much more destructive drugs – cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine and so forth.

So, bring on the medical cannabis reform. Whilst we are doing that, we can consider the extent to which we want to reform the law and what sort of outcomes are going to be acceptable.

Is the War on Drugs over?

Who would have thought it. The global prosecution of a war on drugs that spanned nations as diverse as the United States and Colombia, Afghanistan and Singapore is the subject of a United Nations review. It will examine how the “War on Drugs” is/not going and whether a change of tactics and thinking is needed.

The “War on Drugs” might have been fought with the best intentions. However as nations such as Colombia can attest, it has had absolutely devastating socio-economic consequences, cost the countries affected billions of dollars in revenue caused by investment being pulled, tens of thousands of deaths in Colombia alone and social scars that will take generations to heal. Therefore one can say it certainly was not executed as well as it could have been, and that failure to conduct it properly may in the end be the cause for people wondering why it is still being fought.

This is not to say that nations are just going to roll over and stop prosecuting criminal offences. Nor is it to say that further use of the death penalty in countries like Singapore and Indonesia is unlikely – on the contrary there are probably people on death row in those countries right this minute. It certainly is not to say that just because a United Nations panel is meeting that all drugs should suddenly be decriminalized. Far from it being the case – there are indeed drugs, such as methamphetamine, speed, cocaine that should permanently remain criminalized.

But there are also those that are marginal. And whose legal status should be at least in partial question – especially if there are known medical benefits that can be derived from (partial) decriminalization. This is particularly for drugs of a cannabinoid nature.

I have already argued for the decriminalization of medical marijuana following several compelling cases recently in New Zealand. In each of these cases it was obvious that conventional medication was not working, and that medical marijuana had been found to be a more humane solution to reduce the pain.

The money saved from changing course in this war will be substantial. The monetary value of reinvesting it in rehabilitation and researching medical usage of marijuana, might not be able to be fully calculated on the basis that for every dollar reinvested, the social gains that could be made by individuals genuinely wanting to wean themselves of their drug of choice are immense. For those addicts who understand that it involves a significant effort on both sides, the opportunity and the assistance achieving the removal of drugs from their lives should be considered an investment in their health and that of society at large. If it enables them to eventually live something approaching somewhat normal lives, contributing to the economy and maybe entering into a relationship, then it has to be a good thing.