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The Nation: Simon Shepherd Interviews Helen Clark

On Newshub Nation: Simon Shepherd Interviews Helen Clark

The Helen Clark Foundation has come out strongly this week in favour of legalising recreational cannabis.

Its new report argues our current laws are a waste of time and money, and worse - they punish our most vulnerable.

Simon Shepherd spoke with former Prime Minister Helen Clark about the case for yes.

Simon Shepherd: Cannabis convictions have dropped by 62% over the last decade; that’s fewer police and justice resources being wasted. Is this really that big a deal?

Helen Clark: There’s still the 4,000 Kiwis who are dragged through the courts each year on cannabis offences. If you look at the demographics, Māori are disproportionately impacted by this, so it is a social justice issue as well. I don’t think any time and money of the police and justice and prison system should be wasted on this.

Isn’t this being addressed, though, because the Ardern Government has already directed police to use discretion when it comes to dealing with drug users and treat it as a health issue?

So the Misuse of Drugs Amendment Act that went through a few weeks ago is an improvement, but there’s still two issues. One, the discretion, and the discretion still sees these 4,000 people brought through the courts on the cannabis offences a year, and also it leaves supply in illegal hands. So if you legalise and you regulate, you can deal with the supply issue. You can say what age it can be sold at, you can say how it can be sold. You could actually stop it being marketed, which is my preference, you can say what the contents of the cannabis are.

Just before we get onto what it might look like — you just mentioned the fact that Māori are over-represented in terms of those cannabis convictions — the Police Minister has admitted on this show that there’s unconscious bias in the force. Do you see that as well? Do you agree with that, and is that one of the reasons why you want to see this legalised?

I’m always very reluctant to criticise our police because they’ve done a great job protecting me over the years, and they work for society, but the outcome of our justice system is that Māori are disproportionately in prison. And that is something that we as a society have to deal with.

Okay. You talk about finding the ‘Kiwi way’ to grow and sell cannabis. What is that Kiwi way?

My foundation’s discussion paper looked at the models. You go from Colorado, which is kind of free-market USA, all the way to Uruguay and Latin America, which says you can use cannabis legally if you grow your own, you’re in a cannabis club or buy it from a government store. Now, we all think, ‘We don’t have government stores here in New Zealand.’ So we have to find somewhere that’s in between, and I think we should start with looking at the tobacco level of regulation. We do specify an age, we don’t allow any advertising or promotion including at the point of sale in the shop, and we can specify content. So that’s where I’d start.

Do you want people to be able to grow their own or do you want the supply regulated?

I think people should be able to grow their own. I think it’s futile to try to prohibit that, but if you are then regulating sale, sale, of course, would have to have a specified content of THC and CBD — the technical components of it. And so I don’t think the ‘grow-your-owners’ should be supplying. I think that needs to come through a legal channel.

All right. Just quickly, you say that you want to go down the tobacco route, but you don’t want big business involved in this, do you? I mean, your paper says that you want to discourage large commercial and profit manufacturers.

And that’s why I say look at how we’ve ended up dealing with tobacco. And it’s been a battle, believe me. I’ve still got the scars on my back from the Smoke-free Environments Act of 1990 where I stopped the promotion and sponsorship and advertising of tobacco. So let’s not even let cannabis go down that route.

Okay. Your report says people who are most affected by the current laws — growers and users — should be given equal access to become producers and retailers. In other words, that means giving people who could be current criminals a leg-up. Is that right?

Well, they’ve got the experience of growing it. This is an issue the Global Commission on Drug Policy, which I’m a member of, has commented on a lot. If you’re moving to a legal market, why would you exclude the people who have traditionally been growing?

What sort of leg-up would that mean? I mean, is it a grant to get them to be able to supply or sell?

Are you thinking the Provincial Growth Fund? (LAUGHS)

Well, you could ask Shane Jones. Although, he is dead against any cannabis use.

Well, you see the referendum is not about whether or not people should use it; it’s recognising the reality that it’s there now. And we could put some rules around it or we continue to have it as a complete free for all with no rules at all. So that’s why I came down for rules. But yes, our paper also argues that those who have cannabis offences should have them wiped, and that includes for growing if there’s been no other factor. If there’s been violence and they fought the police and brought out a firearm, that’s a different matter. But if it’s a simple cannabis offence, it should be wiped.

All right. Would legalisation actually really smash, sort of, the black markets that deal in cannabis because they’re still going to exist, aren’t they?

Well, not for cannabis because you’ve made it a legal market.

There has been criticism that this government is, sort of, losing the public support around this issue because they haven’t properly explained the issue or the referendum in question. Do you agree with that?

I think it is early days. Andrew Little has put the Cabinet paper out there. He’s given the basis of the government decisions, but they haven’t started any information campaign around this.

Would you like to see them move a bit quicker on that?

Well, they’re going to have to concretise what is going to go in the proposition, so that people know when they vote ‘yes’ that this is the shape of what they’re voting for.

The sooner you have that information out, the quicker the public will be reassured.

The sooner the better, and Peter Dunne has commented in his article this week that our foundation actually makes some quite good points about what that market should look like.

So the government wants a more health-focused approach to drug use. In terms of health, your former chief of staff, Heather Simpson, released a scathing report this week on the state of the health and disability system. The government says it’s putting enough investment into health, but do you think it is enough from your experience as prime minister.

Well, first point is that I haven’t seen the report. I think it’s ‘in the mail’, as it were, but secondly, Heather worked for me for many, many years. She is a very, very acute mind, and whatever analysis she’s put out there I think is well worth taking extremely seriously. In terms of level of investment, I mean, probably the proportion of GDP that we spend on health isn’t too far from wrong. But you’ve got to look at where are we spending it? Are we doing enough on the prevention, health promotion, harm reduction — all the things that actually keep people out of hospital.

Right, okay. Jacinda Ardern has described her government as the most ‘pure form of MMP government’. I don’t know whether you’d agree with that.

I had a few pure forms. (LAUGHS)

Well, that’s what I’m saying. That also means dealing with Winston Peters, which of course you have. In this run-up to the cannabis referendum, what’s your advice for her dealing with the coalition partners and especially Winston Peters?

Well, I think Jacinda is absolutely a class act. She did an incredible job taking Labour from the doldrums to being in a position to go into government. She’s going to judge for herself how she positions on this one. Look, I’ve been in the top seat — everyone’s urging you to take a position on this or that and the other. I think she should take her time and figure it out for herself.

All right. Just finally before you go, you’ve been prime minister, as you say, head of the UNDP and now you’re part of this — the Global Commission on Drugs. What’s next? What else do you want to achieve?

Mostly I’m focussed offshore. I’ve ended up chairing some big multi-stakeholder partnerships — one of them, Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, which tries to drive corruption out of oil, gas and mineral sectors. And we have many developing countries who are members. The other big partnership I’ve taken up chairing is on maternal, newborn and child health.

Right, so it’s quite diverse, isn’t it?

It’s very diverse.

Does that mean that without the constraints of leadership now, that you are enjoying yourself?

Well, I am enjoying myself, but they are leadership positions as well, and they involve a lot of dealing with governments, with private sector, with civil society, academics, universities, so yeah, I’m loving it.

Okay. Helen Clark, thank you very much for your time this morning.

Thanks.

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