New Zealand Politicians Talk Drug Law Reform as Election Approaches

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As New Zealand’s general election draws closer, some of the parliamentary candidates have been discussing drug policy; while they may disagree with each other about what needs to be done, many believe that change is necessary.

The 2017 Parliamentary Drug Policy Symposium was convened in early July by the NZ Drug Foundation to fuel debate on the subject, and to allow the public to gain greater insight into the potential future of the country’s drug policy in the run-up to September’s general election.

As Ross Bell, executive director of the NZ Drug Foundation, described in a recent op-ed, “even though we convict thousands of people each year for using drugs, we still have some of the highest use rates in the world”. The failure of New Zealand’s war on drugs seems to be increasingly understood.

During one panel discussion on international case studies of drug law reform, particularly cannabis law, six MPs of six different parties across the political spectrum all agreed with a question posed by the moderator: “do you all agree prohibition is a failure?”

Less unanimous, however, was the MPs’ views on how to address this failure.

Chris Bishop - an MP from the centre-right National Party, which is currently in power - did not specifically oppose drug policy reform, but claimed that his party would need a clearer indication of public support for legislative reform prior to making change.

Bishop was not the only panel participant who spoke noncommittally. David Clark of the centre-left Labour Party, the main opposition party, said that the current approach to drugs should be reviewed, but failed to address how this could translate into material change if his party were to win the election.

The other politicians on the panel hailed from smaller parties, but generally voiced clearer statements on their hopes for drug policy change.

David Seymour, leader of the right-wing ACT party, believes that cannabis “decriminalisation is the worst of all worlds, probably worse than what we have now”, but that he could be open to the legal regulation of cannabis. He suggested that New Zealand should wait to see how cannabis legalisation unfolds in Canada before pursuing similar changes.

Possession, cultivation, and sale of cannabis are currently illegal in New Zealand.

Marama Fox from the Māori Party supported cannabis decriminalisation, asserting that the current system unfairly discriminates against Māori people, and that “we don’t want prisons full of our young people who are locked up on drug charges”. She also added that her party was “open to the conversation” on cannabis legalisation; a major change for Fox who previously opposed drug law reform. 

Metiria Turei, a Green Party MP, took a stronger approach, arguing that “it is time we took the step and legalised cannabis.”

Peter Dunne, the current Associate Minister of Health and leader of the centrist party, United Future, reiterated his support for the Portuguese model whereby personal use and possession of all drugs, including cannabis, are decriminalised.

Anne McLellan, Chair of the Task Force on Cannabis Legalisation and Regulation in Canada, who presented her experience as an international case study before the political panel, acknowledged that some candidates do not want to compromise their potential success at the polls by expressing polarising opinions. “As a former politician, I can tell you are about to have an election,” she told them. However, this could be a powerful tool to garner support among a public that seems to be largely in favour of such changes.

A 2016 poll commissioned by the NZ Drug Foundation revealed that almost two thirds of the country’s population supported either the decriminalisation or legalisation of cannabis for personal use. Ross Bell notes that "this poll shows that it doesn't matter what party people back, there is consistent support to move away from the criminal justice approach to drugs.”

While it is too early to predict the election’s results, the latest polls suggest a strong lead for the National Party, the group that – among those in attendance – seemed least interested in altering the status quo on drug policy.

It is thus essential for those who support reform to keep drug policy issues at the forefront of public discussion, and to continually emphasise the existing public support for cannabis reform.  As Green Party MP, Julie Anne Genter’s affirms, it’s time for MPs to “be brave” and “listen to the wishes of the public in New Zealand.”