Hard News by Russell Brown


Splore 2019 – Please Don't F*ck This Up Part 2: The Reeferendum

This is the second excerpt from the panel looking at the next two years' pending drug policy reforms at the Splore Listening Lounge in February this year.

Those reforms include a new amendment guiding police discretion in the case of drug possession (effectively requiring the police to justify prosecution), new medicinal cannabis regulations, the possibility of onsite drug checking getting some legal cover, a new focus (and funding) for addiction services and treatment and next year's referendum on legalising cannabis for adult use.

The panel was called, in recognition of the historic opportunity these reforms embody, Please Don't Fuck This Up.

Panelists were Chloe Swarbrick MP, Wendy Allison of the volunteer harm reduction service Know Your Stuff, Otago University researcher Geoff Noller and David Hornblow, who works for Waipareira Trust and independently as an addiction practitioner.

It seemed timely to post this part of the discussion today – covering next year's referendum – given that the Prime Minister was questioned in Parliament yesterday afternoon and clarified one thing about the question to be put to New Zealand voters.

Which is that Cabinet will decide on what the question is. Everything else: the timeline, whether a bill will be put to Parliament in advance, the likely shape of any information campaign and, of course, the question itself, is yet to be determined. 

Given the topic, Chloe does most of the talking in this one. (That's me asking the questions in bold, obviously.)

Chloe, the reeferendum, where are we at? What's the timeline?

Chloe: Kia ora, good question. So I guess to provide a little bit of context to everybody, you'll possibly know the Green-Labour confidence and supply agreement has a commitment to hold a referendum on or by 2020 on the legalisation of cannabis. Just to clarify, the legalisation of cannabis. Paula Bennett asked a question in the House last week, asking the Prime Minister if it was going to be on legalisation or decriminalisation, and the Prime Minister said that it would be following the lines of the confidence and supply agreement – ie legalising cannabis – and she put out a really confusing tweet, saying that the Prime Minister had confirmed that there wasn't confirmation whether there would be legalisation or decriminalisation. 

To be fair, the Prime Minister could have given a better answer as well.

C: I will leave that with you. So we are working through my proposal, and you'll understand that this is politics, which is a bit shit, but the reality is that we have to work in that framework, so we are trying to, and I'm advocating for us to have legislation first.

Which means that we'll hopefully pass it through the House this year. It'll have a clause in it, which says that with a majority vote of New Zealanders it'll come into effect. So that is how we will avoid the Brexit-type situation. I found it really funny that Simon Bridges has started saying that, because he's essentially advocating for legislation first. So I went and talked to him and Paula this week, and I got the impression that they really don't care too much about the legislation, they just want to play politics with it. So that was a bit gutting.

It's extremely depressing. 

C: But I was just going to confirm as well, it is happening in 2020, and it will be tied to the General Election, and it will be binding, our best version of binding is legislation.

Just to explain what legislation means, it's that Parliament debates and passes a bill that will define what the legalisation is. So there's no question about what we're voting for. The idea is that we will get the chance to vote yes or no on a fully worked-up piece of legislation that we give the tick or not to. There is a right way of doing this, and I've spoken to constitutional lawyers about it.

C: And the other benefit to it is that it means that a future iteration of Parliament doesn't have to work out what a yes vote means. And it also means that we deal with all of the arguing prior to that point. So Bob McCoskrie can't wave around gummy bears again and go 'this is what's going to happen'. 

Geoff, as a former Norml board member, you have some insight into the cannabis reform community, which has suddenly got the prospect of this thing it's been chasing for 30 years. What do you make of the way that lobby is getting its act together? It's been a fractious group in the past. 

Geoff: Yeah, the cannabis activist community, or lobby, has always been a fractured community. You get these very strong personalities, probably like politics, isn't it, without the mandate. You get this really strong set of identities, and they're always struggling to, they want to put their agenda forward. So you're going to get this factionalism, and I think that's certainly held us back.

Right at the beginning I think of the introduction to these talks Russell, you mentioned this idea of the reform, the reeferendum as people are calling it which I quite like, as being a sort of generational opportunity, and it absolutely is. Make no mistake about this, we've never been closer to any possibility of meaningful reform in this country ever. We just haven't. And it's a real opportunity for you folks out there to think about this, and to educate yourselves, and there are a number of groups that are providing information.

There's a group called Make It Legal, and you can get on to their Facebook page and they are working quite vigorously, currently behind the scenes, but setting up a process to provide education and information to people, and one of the big issues that we're going to have to think about is the actual question of the referendum. What format is that going to be in? Maybe Chloe might like to respond to that, because that's an issue that we really do need to get right.

C: So that's why I'm advocating for legislation, because if we have the legislation first, it can be literally as straightforward as, 'Do you want to see the legalisation of cannabis as per (insert name of act)'. That can be the question, simple, straightforward, binary yes or no. 

"Would you like to see the Legalise and Regulate Cannabis Act become law?"

G: Does that mean that everything about what that question means is already set out, so people know what it is?

C: Yes. That's what I'm advocating for. 

G: Obviously people will have a sense or input into that process before it goes to select committee or something like that? 

C: There's a lot of different ways to do it, and it was floated in the general public, and I put it forward to the minister, Andrew Little, who then said that it could happen publicly. But to be perfectly frank with everybody, there's not much time left. There's the notion of a citizen's jury, which is what happened in Ireland around the abortion referendum. But what I think could work, and this is just an idea, it's obviously not set in stone, is to have a specialist select committee that works on it. 

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