CANNABIS REFORM LOSES PUFF

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Pubdate: Sat, 15 Jul 2000
Source: New Zealand Herald (New Zealand)
Copyright: 2000 New Zealand Herald
Contact: letters@herald.co.nz
Address: PO Box 32, Auckland, New Zealand
Fax: (09) 373-6421

Author: John Armstrong, Political Editor

CANNABIS REFORM LOSES PUFF

Don't hold your breath for a speedy rewrite of the cannabis laws.

The odds are stacked against that happening before the next election.

The puff has gone out of parliamentary momentum to amend the legal status of cannabis and
decriminalise possession of small amounts of the drug.

In the first flush of excitement of a new Government, the Prime Minister and others made
bold statements about decriminalising.

A straw poll of MPs by TVNZ's One News in March revealed that a narrow majority
favoured such a change.

Most agree there is a big problem with a law that makes a large chunk of the population guilty
of a victimless crime. But the debate has shifted to the health impact of cannabis smoking,
particularly on young minds.

The politics are getting correspondingly murkier as politicians position themselves to avoid or
exploit any public backlash against changing the law.

National is already on the front foot, this week launching a nationwide anti-decriminalisation
petition with the School Trustees Association.

This unusual coalition will disturb Labour. School principals are in the vanguard of opposition
to liberalisation, arguing that their students are getting the message that cannabis is okay.

The teaching profession is not only a core constituency for Labour. Many party activists are
teachers.

The most telling sign of a more-reticent Labour is Health Minister Annette King. She now
stresses that Labour promised only to "review" the legal status of cannabis during this
parliamentary term. She refuses to give an undertaking to promote reform legislation.

Another indication of the mood shift was a hush-hush meeting of pro-reform lobby groups
and sympathetic MPs at Parliament last month.

No one will say what was discussed at this informal gathering, which appears to be the
precursor to a new umbrella group to coordinate lobbying. But the Sunday afternoon meeting
was recognition that those wanting a law change are now in for a real fight.

Coincidentally, Jim Anderton went public the same day with his opposition to liberalisation.
He has personal reasons for concern about youth mental illness - his daughter's 1993 suicide.

But he is also seen as speaking on behalf of lower-ranked MPs afraid of alienating the youth
vote gravitating towards the Greens' Nandor Tanczos.

Even though any law change would be enacted by conscience vote, Anderton's power as
Deputy Prime Minister gives him a pivotal role in influencing reform legislation - or blocking it
before it gets to Parliament.

He is less inclined to let a bill go forward simply to buy off the hated Greens. Labour wants
to keep the Greens sweet. But it has not gone unnoticed that the Greens are hardly rushing to
put up a private member's bill, presumably because they do not want to be typecast.

Tanczos says the Greens reserve that right. He is disappointed things are moving more slowly
than he would have liked. But he believes MPs will respond to the logic of liberalisation.

That view is backed up by those who sat on Parliament's health committee during its 1998
inquiry into the mental health effects of cannabis.

They say the committee's recommendation that the Government reconsider the drug's legal
status was not one they initially expected to make.

Now, the same committee is being asked by Annette King to hold a far more wide-ranging
inquiry.

That choice - rather than the justice committee - is another sign the reform agenda is losing
traction because it could get bogged down in the complexities of the health argument rather
than focusing solely on legal questions.

Neither will an inquiry get high priority from a committee jam-packed with important
legislation - including the weighty bill establishing new district health boards.

The committee is unlikely to hear submissions until early next year. Its report will not be
completed until late next year, leaving MPs with the galling prospect of debating any law
change in election year.

"It's stone-cold dead," declares Act's Richard Prebble, whose caucus favours decriminalisation
in principle.

Optimists note Parliament passed contentious drinking laws shortly before the last election.
But alcohol-related measures have always been free from party-politicking. The reverse is
happening with the cannabis debate.

Prebble argues the Government would not have shunted the issue into a backwater if it was
serious about reform.

National complains that King's attempt to get a multiparty inquiry conveniently takes a tricky
problem off her hands. "We are not going to play that game," warns Wyatt Creech,
National's health spokesman.

He argues - with justification - that it is not a select committee's job to write Government
policy or get the Government out of a hole. Neither should the committee be used as a sop to
the Greens.

King argues that it is better get to "buy-in" from MPs at an early stage, given they will vote
according to conscience.

National cannot block a select committee inquiry - it is outvoted by five to three on the health
committee. Instead, the party sees cannabis law reform as an opportunity to create brand
difference and erode support for the Government.

Two months ago, Jenny Shipley revealed she was open-minded about police using
court-ordered diversion as an alternative to prosecution of first-time offenders - as long as
they sought treatment.

This subtle, but shrewd positioning blunts accusations that National is inflexible, while
appeasing liberals in her caucus. It also allows her to remain staunch against
decriminalisation, which would see offenders hit with instant fines.

National is twinning cannabis law reform with other Government measures, such as the
reform of matrimonial property law, to paint the Labour-Alliance Coalition as too liberal.

There is nervousness in Government ranks about such a perception. "The danger is in the
accumulation of such issues.

After a while, the public starts thinking, 'Is this what I voted for?' "After a while, you start to
burn people off," says a Government source.

On cannabis, Labour must weigh up the longer-term gains from appealing to young voters
against the risk of upsetting middle-aged and older voters who swung back to the party at the
last election.

Waning enthusiasm in the risk-averse Beehive suggests judgment has already been passed.

MAP posted-by: John Chase