A black-red-green “Afghanistan” coalition has replaced National in the halls of New Zealand power, and so the absolute, mindless refusal of the outgoing National Government to countenance any kind of cannabis law reform is now no longer relevant. This means that the wasted decade might be at an end. This article looks at the prospects for cannabis law reform over the next three years.
Labour had already pledged to introduce medicinal cannabis within the first 100 days of taking power, at least to “people with terminal illnesses or in chronic pain”, but questions remain.
It isn’t yet clear what definition of medicinal cannabis Labour intends to use when they change the law. What constitutes “medicinal” use of cannabis is a subject of considerable debate, not least among medical and mental health professionals. That it could be prescribed to people with terminal illnesses seems straightforward enough, but what qualifies as “chronic pain” could vary from a small number of acute conditions on the one hand, to a California-style wide range of ailments on the other (California has had legal medicinal cannabis since 1996).
The best outcome for cannabis users would be that the Labour Party adopts the same definition of cannabis, and treats cannabis the same way, as in Julie Anne Genter’s medicinal cannabis bill, currently before Parliament. This bill contains a very broad conception of medicinal cannabis and provides for users to grow their own medicine at home if they have approval from a doctor who believes that cannabis would prevent suffering.
A jackpot outcome for medicinal cannabis users would be for the home grow provisions of Julie Anne Genter’s bill to be made legal within the first hundred days of the Sixth Labour Government. Although we can be sure that all of the Green MPs and most of the Labour MPs would support this, Winston Peters and New Zealand First might prefer a narrower definition of medicinal cannabis in the first hundred days with a broader definition put to referendum as part of the deal with the Greens.
Recently it was learned that the Green Party had successfully negotiated to hold a referendum on personal use of cannabis at or before the 2020 General Election. Although it isn’t clear at this stage whether this will be similar to the referendum that successfully legalised recreational cannabis in Colorado in 2012, or if it will be some watered-down offer of decriminalisation, the very fact that a referendum is happening is excellent news for New Zealand cannabis users.
Although James Shaw is maintaining the lie that the Greens have supported legalising cannabis for 20 years, rather than tell the truth that they abandoned cannabis users for many years in an effort to appeal to the middle class, the fact that he feels the desire to take credit for the change in public perception regarding cannabis is a sign that he is sure that the wind has changed.
This column pointed out some years ago that it would be possible to tell when the public perception of cannabis had definitively shifted because politicians would start publicly claiming to have always supported a law change. Shaw is lying when he says that the Greens have had cannabis law reform as part of their policy for the past 20 years, because cannabis law reform activists have been challenging the Greens that whole time to update their cannabis policy to something similar to that of the Aotearoa Legalise Cannabis Party, and they have only done so in the past year.
But that doesn’t matter any more. The important thing is that a lot of cannabis law reform should be happening in the next three years, under a governing alliance that does not suffer from the fear-based myopia of the National Party around the substance. It appears that the efforts of cannabis law reform activists to persuade the centre-left parties of the merits of reform have been broadly successful, and that the ruling powers are now of a mind to make change to the laws.
Vince McLeod is a former Membership Secretary of the Aotearoa Legalise Cannabis Party and author of the Cannabis Activist’s Handbook.