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Cannabis Debate - Nats Get Nasty Over Green Threat

If there is one thing you can say of the Green Party in this election, it is that they have run the cleanest campaign. Despite barbs and ridicule from every main political party, including those who may eventually depend on their support to form a government, the Greens have refused to enter into a negative campaign and have campaigned on their belief in their own policies.

While this is admirable, things look set to get harder as National launch a concerted campaign to try and discredit the Greens in the eyes of voters. The first blows have come this week with the Prime Minister visiting the Coromandel to try and boost support for her MP Murray McLean, and diminish that of Green co-leader Jeanette Fitzsimons.

Depending on National’s success – or otherwise in this smear campaign – the Greens are set to boost the left wing vote with between three and five MPs in the next parliament. The latest poll shows Fitzsimons opening a healthy eight point lead over McLean and National, knowing the significance of losing this seat, have begun digging the dirt. There doesn’t appear to be a lot to dig and the Nats are getting nasty.

The Prime Minister raised the issue of the Greens cannabis policy on Wednesday in the Coromandel, saying the policy of decriminalisation would lead to an increase in use by children and would ‘rot their brains.’

This follows National jumping on a New Zealand First press release detailing a link on the Green website to a site which provided a guide on environmental sabotage. What seemed a minor story quickly blew up into a top story on both TV news channels, Holmes and National Radio.

The next day Tony Ryall and Fitzsimons tried to debate the issues on the Kim Hill show, with a creepy Ryall saying he was surprised Fitzsimons could remember her own policy (implying she had smoked too much herb herself) and calling Nandor Tanczos – number five on the Green list - Tandor Lankzis. This wasn’t even close and sounded deliberately insulting.

Following the Prime Minister’s comments on their cannabis policy the Greens immediately challenged Shipley to publicly debate the policy, but to no avail. This is a shame because Ryall’s arguments for maintaining the prohibition status quo of the drug showed a very poor understanding of the issues and a policy based around a conservative ideology rather than logic and reason.

It is disappointing to see the cannabis issue treated as such an election football and point-scoring device by National. If National succeed in damaging the Greens with their own cannabis policy, no party will ever want to touch it again. And that would be a tragedy because, with some surveys indicating 30 per cent of the population regularly using the weed, this is something that clearly needs addressing.

Ryall trotted out the example of a young woman he met in a mental hospital whose parents urged him to keep a firm line on drugs. Fine, but why? What has prohibition done for their daughter? Cannabis may possibly have contributed to her mental state, but prohibition didn’t stop her getting it, it didn’t stop her using it, it didn’t educate her at all, it turned her into a criminal along the way and that certainly didn’t help her get the help she needed.

People like Tony Ryall – and I daresay the rest of his cabinet colleagues – probably have no idea of just how much cannabis is out there, how incredibly easy it is to get and how many people are using it. Police Minister Clem Simich possibly knows because before he was ‘tuned up’ he was a public supporter of decriminalistion himself.

There are undoubtedly many more in the National Party who – given a clear (and perhaps secret) conscience ballot – would vote to decriminalise cannabis and, looking at the research, these would likely be the more open minded and sensible members.

The libertarian element in parliament – Williamson, Luxton et al – ought logically to support decriminalisation. And if ACT do not, then that, like Prebble’s now infamous views on arts funding, would be at odds with their philosophical base of emphasising the rights of the individual.

National’s handling of the cannabis debate has been a classic Delamere-style case of we know best.

A high powered parliamentary select committee has, after vigorously studying the numerous issues and consulting with health and legal professionals recommended a review of the law.

The police have an open mind to the idea. Clem Simich has been forced into the closet but still supports reform. The Ministry of Health are not adverse and it is rumoured that even Jenny’s deputy – the honourable Wyatt Creech has had the occasional toot.

Indeed for a while there Delamere was trying to outlaw cigarettes while advocating cannabis law reform. However that was around the time his son was arrested and charged with possession, and before FBI Director Louis Freeh visited the Beehive on his anti-drug crusade. Perhaps it would help if one of Delamere’s relatives had HIV.

National have taken their hard line stance on this issue not because it represents the views of New Zealanders, not because it makes sense, and not because it represents the views of the National Party or the Parliament. They have adopted this position because it differentiates them from the parties of the left, and they think it will go down well with the family vote, the older vote, the paranoid vote and the redneck vote.

It has everything to do with politics and nothing to do with health and justice. It has everything to do with trying to keep a National MP in a seat he is looking like losing and, as a result, trying to keep National in government.

There is a wealth of international and domestic research, and working overseas examples, which suggest that cannabis use actually decreases – especially among children - in a decriminalised environment. It is commonsense that people are more likely to seek help if they know they can admit to cannabis related problems without fear of prosecution and a meaningful education campaign is hindered by the criminal status of the drug, despite acting as absolutely no deterrent.

Labour’s Tim Barnett has long advocated a review of the law and Labour will allow a conscience vote on the issue should it ever arise in the House. The Alliance promise a full and thorough inquiry into the judicial and health implications of prohibition and decriminalisation.

Over half of all adult New Zealanders have smoked cannabis at one time or another in their lives which is a hell of a lot of criminals for the police to hunt down and the courts to process. Through her support of the criminal status of the drug National is in effect saying that half of all Kiwi adults should have criminal records. And a fair chunk of parliament too.

As Jeanette Fitzsimons correctly says, the law cannot be changed unless there is a majority in parliament supporting that change. If parliament represents New Zealand voters as it should, exactly what does Shipley have to fear?

But if the Greens lose in Coromandel because they have the courage to stand by their convictions – not to mention the weight of evidence - then it is unlikely that parliament will in the foreseeable future ever get a chance to even debate the subject.

And there goes democracy… up in a desperate puff of National Party smokescreen.

ends

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