Hard News by Russell Brown

25

Cannabis: Who owns Say Nope to Dope anyway?

After a quiet spell in the news on account of, well, other stories, cannabis and what to do about it staged a modest headline revival this week. First there was this Stuff report on a journal article by Massey University researchers Marta Rychert and Chris Wilkins on how the cannabis referendum campaign unfolded.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s decision not to reveal her position on the cannabis debate during election campaigning could have been a "decisive factor" in last year’s referendum, academics believe.

The article in the Drug and Alcohol Review isn't freely available, but I've read it – and the headline claim, quoted accurately from article's abstract, isn't really backed up in the text, which declares only that Labour's decision not to campaign on the referendum (a Green Party policy) and Ardern's decision not to declare her vote (a "yes") in advance added to the "volatility" of the vote. That's it.

The authors also speculate that in financial terms the "Yes" and "No" campaigns probably cancelled each other out.

Of the 15 registered referendum campaigners, only two were clearly against the reform while 11 were supportive of the policy change, suggesting, on the face of it, that pro- legalisation campaigners outnumbered anti-legalisation groups with potential related greater allowable campaign promotional budget.

They quote their own research finding (which will have been based on  information published by Facebook itself) that "the leading pro-legalisation reform group (‘Make it Legal’) spent nearly four times as much as the main anti- reform group on social media advertising (‘Say Nope to Dope’)."

Make It Legal was prominent on Facebook especially, but it simply was not "the leading pro-legalisation reform group". Only three registered third-party promoters crossed the $100,000 thresheld requiring a return to be filed with the Electoral Commission. Make It Legal was not among them. Say Nope to Dope wasn't a registered campaign at all.

To be fair, the authors acknowledge that their article was submitted before third-party promoter returns, offering a proper insight into who spent what during the regulated campaign period. Those returns have been published now – and they're interesting.

As noted, only three promoters spent more than $100,000. On the "Yes" side there was the New Zealand Drug Foundation and its "Health Not Handcuffs" campaign, which spent $337,241.67 – right up to the limit of $338,000. On the "No" side, SAM-NZ did much the same, spending $320,300. The third big spender was also on the "No" side: Family First racked up $141,224 in expenses.

Which is where it gets intetresting, because Family First and SAM-NZ are really the same people – between them they spent $461,524.

Say Nope to Dope was founded by Family First's Bob McCoskrie and in 2017, after the referendum was announced, McCroskie declared it would be  mounting "a strong campaign" against a vote for legalisation. On June 3 last year, Family First announced it was stepping it up a notch, with the appointment of Aaron Ironside as Say Nope to Dope's spokesman. But only five days later there was another announcement, also made by Say Nope to Dope: Aaron Ironside was to be spokesperson for a new group, SAM-NZ, which welcomed the assistance of the American prohibitonist group SAM (Smart Approaches to Marijuana).

SAM-NZ had a number of organisations listed as members – including those Scientology fronts – and Family First was not among them. But Bob McCroskie – who, lets face it, is Family First – was.

Then we come to the matter of who owns Say Nope to Dope. The Say Nope to Dope website is still up and its campaign material is Authorised by SAM (Smart Approaches to Marijuana) NZ, c/- 28 Davies Ave, Manukau City 2241. And yet, here's a Say Nope to Dope ad Authorised by Family First NZ, 28 Davies Ave, Manukau City 2242.

This apparent donation of office resources is in neither organisation's return.

Anyway, yesterday, in a post gloating about the Massey article, Family First was back using Say Nope to Dope.

By this point, you may not be surprised to learn that all along, including when it was a vehicle for material from one registered promoter (SAM-NZ), the saynopetodope.org.nz domain was owned by another registered promoter (Family First).

So here you have two organisations involving the same people, working out of the same office and using the same campaign material (the URL for the SAM-NZ 'Reasons to Vote No' sheet linked above even contains the text "SAM-VERSION').

It seems that the cleaving of Family First's efforts in two was a successful effort to spend beyond the expenses cap for a single group – nearly half a million dollars versus the cap of $338,000.

That, of course, isn't all there is to it. SAM-NZ and Family First did pursue distinct strategies. SAM-NZ's main expenses were in mainstream media advertising. Family First, on the other hand, spent more money printing pamphlets – and having them translated into Tongan, Samoan, Maori, Arabic and Korean. This was pretty smart.

The biggest expense for the sole "Yes" campaign to exceed $100,000, the Drug Foundation's was $214,387 on media advertising. There was also $80,434 to Augusto for creation of TVCs, digital and print ads and social media material. It's fair to say it wasn't Augusto's best work.

There is one more thing: and that's all the money Say Nope to Dope spent as a Family First vehicle in the nearly three years leading up to the regulated campaign period. We'll  never know now much that was – but there were a lot of billboards.

No assessment of the campaigns can ignore those three years, because that's when the polls turned from being fairly favourable for reform (albeit without knowing the details, including the scope of retail sale) to very unfavourable. "Yes" got close to making up that ground as the referendum drew near, but didn't quite get there. I've expressed previously the view that that was effectively when the referendum was lost.

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Another point made by Rychert and Wilkins in their article is that there was always more public support for decriminalisation than for a tightly-regulated legal market and a referendum on decriminalisation might have fared better. I think that was evident to everyone involved.

But – and this is a point that still needs explaining – the Ministry of Justice group that came up with the basis of the Cannabis Legalisation and Control Bill was not tasked with crafting the reform most likely to pass a referendum. It was asked to look at the evidence and devise a regime based on that.

Decriminalisation was canvassed early on, in the first Cabinet paper, and dismissed: it didn't restrict access to cannabis or impose controls on the quality of cannabis products and who could sell them – and it relied on a continuing criminal supply.

Unlike many other people on social media, I wasn't furious at Jacinda Ardern for her decision not to declare her vote in advance, or at Labour for failing to campaign on another party's policy. Ardern declaring would have helped, but I don't think it was the clincher.

But I have been bloody livid at Andrew Little, on his damn way out of the Justice portfolio, for declaring that the very narrow referendum loss was curtains for all drug law reform for the foreseeable, decriminalisation of cannabis included. And for him continuing to say so even now he's not Minister of Justice.

That was not what the referendum was about – and not long afterward there was in fact a key drug law reform, when the government fulfilled a promise to legalise drug-checking at festivals and other venues, a move which has already helped save lives and medical resources.

So perhaps the government might want to look closely at a UMR poll conducted for the Helen Clark Foundation and published this morning. It finds a majority in favour of decriminalisation amongst supporters of every Parliamentary party, excepting the Māori Party, where the sample size was probably too small to publish.

The poll is notable because 49% of respondents say they voted "Yes" in the referendum – that is, almost exactly the proportion (48.4%) who actually voted that way in the referendum. When you add the people who voted "No" but would support decriminalisation, that's 69% of the electorate. I mean, come on.

To save any blushes, the government could simply do what it has promised to do and fix the police discretion amendment in the Misuse of Drugs Act now that New Zealand First is out of the way – so that the default for simple possession of any drug is not to prosecute. From there, it could carve out some special provisions around cannabis – especially in the case of green fairies.

As my profile of the Northland green fairy Gandalf in Canvas last Saturday makes clear, local police very probably know exactly what he's doing, but stay their hands because they don't want to bust someone on whom hundreds of mostly elderly patients rely, knowing a judge might grant a discharge anyway. That shouldn't be the way it works – and the goverment should have the courage to change it.

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