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Dunne Speaks: Cannabis Referendum Looking Shaky

Recent opinion polls have suggested the recreational cannabis referendum later this year might not succeed. While there is a still a flood of water to move under the bridge before the referendum, there are nonetheless some early warning signs that those promoting change should be wary of. Once early trends become apparent in referenda like this, they can become locked-in and very difficult to reverse.

The referendum was a product of the confidence and supply agreement between Labour and the Greens and has been enthusiastically and diligently promoted ever since by the Greens’ drugs spokesperson. That is its biggest problem – it is seen by too many people to be little more than a sop to the Green Party, not to be taken all that seriously. And that view will persist to the referendum’s detriment while the issue is being left solely to the Greens to run.

What is needed now to get the referendum back on track is for the Ministers of Justice and Health to take ownership of it and drive the campaign based on the legal and health evidence, not the resort to popular emotion. However, Labour seems to have adopted a position of neutrality, neither for nor against, but prepared to be bound by the public outcome, whatever it may be. All well and good, but once more reinforcing the impression that the Labour part of the government is not really all that interested in taking the matter seriously. A cynic might say that this is a deliberate distancing strategy, and that Labour would not be unhappy if the referendum were to fail. The more Labour declines to get involved and leaves it all to the Greens, the more likely such failure becomes.

All of which raises the question of what happens next. If the legal regulation of recreational cannabis fails at the referendum the issue is unlikely to secure prominence on the political agenda any time soon thereafter. That brings everyone back to square one and the existing Misuse of Drugs Act. The one thing they all agree upon – no matter whether they support or oppose the referendum – is that the now 45-year-old Act is no longer fit for purpose. But it, if the referendum fails, it will still be the law of the land that a newly energised public will expect Parliament, the Police the Courts to uphold and enforce, not just pay lip service to.

New Zealand’s National Drug Policy which I released in 2015 when Associate Minister of Health focused on a “compassionate, innovative and proportionate” approach to drug policy issues. When I addressed the United Nations General Assembly Special Session on Drugs in early 2016, I added “boldness” to those three pillars, saying then that, “responsible regulation is the key to reducing drug-related harm and achieving long-term success in drug control approaches”. Implicit in all this was beginning a major review and rewrite of the Misuse of Drugs Act during the current term of Parliament. However, the present government’s attention has, understandably, been focused more on the referendum, albeit without much obvious enthusiasm, than those wider and more important issues.

Whatever the fate of the referendum, the next government will have to turn its attention to the Misuse of Drugs Act. But its rewrite will be a major task in itself, meaning it is quite possible that the existing Act will live to celebrate its 50th birthday in 2025, before it is replaced by something more fit for purpose.

Meanwhile, the current uncertain state risks just stumbling on. If this year’s referendum fails, the government (particularly if it is National led) will be extremely reluctant to do anything substantive. For their part, the Greens will be tarnished goods, linked to the failed referendum, so their capacity to advocate credibly for change will be considerably diminished. In short, the prospects for credible reform will be at their lowest ebb for a long time.

Having agreed to the referendum as part of its confidence and supply negotiations with the Greens, Labour cannot now wash its hands of it, and imply that the onus of its success or failure rests entirely on the Greens. By accepting it in the post-election negotiations Labour also accepted that the referendum (and by implication a successful result) became government policy. It is not just one more item to be picked up or left on the smorgasbord of policies passing by.

If Labour supports legalising recreational cannabis, it should say so and be upfront it in campaigning for it. If it opposes it, it should be equally upfront in spelling out what changes if any it will make to the Misuse of Drugs Act to uphold the restored status quo if the referendum is defeated. But it is simply not fair to leave it all to the Greens to make the case for change. Everyone knows where they have long stood, and the risk is they conclude that the referendum is more about pandering to those long held views than serious reform.

The recreational cannabis debate is an important one that deserves to be taken seriously by Labour. If the Ministers of Health and Justice do not take over the leadership of the debate, and spell out all the ramifications, including the alternatives, it will most likely fail. And, aside from the Greens, the big losers will then continue to be those vulnerable New Zealanders suffering daily from the consequences of the misuse of drugs.

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