John Armstrong's opinion: Cannabis referendum National's opportunity to open fresh front against Labour

Simon Bridges' appointment of Paula Bennett as National's spokesperson on drug reform is more significant than it might look.

Not only did it qualify as the opening salvo of the new political year from the major Opposition party, the installation of National's deputy leader, one-time police minister and self-proclaimed "party girl" in what is a new shadow portfolio was also the first barrage in what seems likely to become, if not "war on drugs", then at least a "war over drugs".

Bridges' initial reaction to the pre-Christmas confirmation by Justice Minister Andrew Little that a referendum on the recreational use of cannabis will be held in conjunction with next year's general election was to moan that Labour was deliberately creating a distraction to the main event.

Over the summer break, National's leader has engaged in some fresh thinking. He now clearly regards the referendum as an opportunity to open a fresh front against Labour.

Handing the mounting of that offensive to a fearless, in-your-face sharp-shooter and front-footer like Bennett is a pretty unambiguous indication that National is not going to sit in the background as a passive observer during the 18-month run-up to the referendum.

The plebiscite is really the Greens' baby. The ballot is only being held because that party succeeded in making such a referendum part of its price for signing up to a confidence and supply agreement with Labour.

The latter's enthusiasm for a nationwide yes/no ballot on legalisation can be measured by the party's silence on the matter.

Little is about the only Labour MP to have expressed an opinion on legalisation. His willingness to do so has more to do with him having ministerial responsibility for the running of referendums.

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She was also asked how she would vote on the cannabis legalisation referendum, saying, “I’m not a prude, I’m a Westie and I’m a realist”. Source: 1 NEWS

That no one else in Labour's ranks seems willing to front the case for legalisation speaks volumes - it tells you that politicians are still very reluctant to fess up to the fact that they have smoked weed.

Parliament must be the only workplace in the country where everyone has had the same experience of marijuana. Yes, they have smoked a joint or two, but no, they didn't like it. Or it didn't do anything for them. Or it didn't agree with them. And yes, anyway, that all happened in their dim and distant past.

It might be expected that the Greens would be less reticent. But even they are careful how they frame their push for reform. They stress that the current law is not working, that the prohibition of drugs can cause more harm that it prevents, and that drug policy should have a primary focus on improving public health instead of punishing users.

In Labour's absence, it has fallen on the first-term Green MP Chloe Swarbrick to argue the merits of a referendum.

The party's drug law reform spokesperson is very smart and savvy, and meticulous in ensuring she is well-briefed. Her lines of argument are rehearsed to perfection; she is able to anticipate what adversaries are going to say before they have even thought what to say; and she always has a cogent and factual answer ready and waiting to throw back at them.

Swarbrick could never have anticipated Bennett's barging into the debate, and as impressive as Swarbrick might appear, she has shortcomings.

Bennett is already exposing them. The most obvious and arguably the most crucial deficiency is the absence in the Greens' policy of any indication how a market for legal cannabis would operate. So far, Swarbrick and the rest of her party are only saying they will assess evidence from overseas jurisdictions to determine the best model for New Zealand.

That is not good enough, but the Greens are cognizant of the fact that there is no perfect model. Whatever model they put up, Bennett will find fault. It is best not to reveal their hand until they really have little option but to do so.

Swarbrick's initial response to Bennett taking on her new Opposition responsibility was to be inclusive. Swarbrick welcomed National coming "on board" and seemingly signing up to an "evidence-based, harm reduction" approach to drug policy. She invited Bennett to join Parliament's cross-party drug reduction group.

The Green MP was wasting her breath - the creation of Bennett's new role has one purpose and one purpose only.

While avoiding directly saying as much, Bennett has made it patently clear that National intends on using the referendum as a platform to paint Labour as "soft" on crime and feeble when it comes to tackling the twin menaces of methamphetamine and synthetics.

When asked if she was personally in favour of legalising the recreational use of cannabis, Bennett neatly ducked the question. Before "leaping to legalising", she wanted to know what impact such a move that would have on the illicit black market for marijuana, what legalisation would mean for laws banning drug driving, and how making it OK to smoke a joint squared with New Zealand's medium-term goal of becoming smoke-free.

These are very valid questions. These are questions which Labour also appears to have no answers. That is likewise simply not good enough.

There are literally scores of other related matters which will similarly demand answers from the Government in the run-up to the referendum - the most pressing one being the age at which young people will be permitted to smoke or ingest cannabis.

Not far behind are questions regarding the commercialisation of the supply of cannabis. The indication from opinion polls is that many people's willingness to accept the legalisation of recreational cannabis use is contingent on any legal market for the drug being highly regulated.

Regulation is bound to push up the price of legally-supplied cannabis by imposing costs on production which illegal cultivation avoids.

It is also difficult to see how any government will be able to justify not imposing tax or duty on the drug, given those imposts are applied to tobacco and alcohol in quite heavy degree.

The assumption that legalising cannabis use will kill the black market is therefore misplaced.

All this — as Bennett has astutely observed — has somewhat worrying parallels with the brouhaha that has erupted in Britain over Brexit. The referendum back in 2016 merely flagged Britain's exit from the European Union. It did not deal with the question of "how" that exit was to be managed.

Similarly, the wording on the ballot paper which will be put in front of voters in New Zealand's referendum may likewise not indicate the "how" of the legalisation of cannabis use.

In answer, the Greens have mooted a two-step process. If there is majority for legalisation then there would be a further vote to determine the preferred model to be adopted based on overseas experience.

Such a process was used in the early 1990s when voters backed MMP as the preferred choice for a new electoral system ahead of three other alternatives.

It could be argued that if it was possible to determine the mechanics of a new electoral system by referendum, then the complexities of drug reform can be handled likewise.

There is one very significant difference between what happened in the 1990s and what is likely to happen in the next 18 months - the political parties kept themselves well out of the debate about electoral reform.

In the case of drug reform, National has plunged head-first into the argument. It is hard to see how Labour can escape being dragged into the debate.

It would be the height of irresponsibility for the party charged with conducting the referendum to refuse to detail how legalisation would work.

The countless rewrites of the liquor laws over the years are testimony to the difficulty in getting it right, however.

Referendums are blunt instruments. Their results might be free from tampering, but they are open to manipulation. They can start out being about one thing; they can end up being about something completely different.

We elect MPs to make decisions for us. We pay them a decent salary to do so. It is not right that they decide when they can indulge in abdicating their authority.

The holding of a referendum on legalising the use of cannabis is just such an abdication. It would have been better to have made legalisation the thrust of a Government-sponsored bill and then permitted Labour MPs a conscience vote on the measure.

If Bennett's new job succeeds in doing nothing else, the current cosy arrangement between Labour and the Greens will at least get the scrutiny it currently so patently lacks.

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The two drug reform spokeswomen went head to head on TVNZ1’s Breakfast. Source: 1 NEWS