John Armstrong's opinion: Marked shift in favour of retaining status quo as cannabis referendum looms

As the pending referendum on legalising cannabis edges ever closer, it correspondingly seems more and more likely that that those voting for such a change in the law will not be in the majority and the status quo will consequently prevail.

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Details from the bill include a legal age of purchase set at 20, only licensed premises will be allowed to sell cannabis and online sales and advertising will be banned. Source: 1 NEWS

That verdict might well be challenged on the grounds that there is still the best part of a year to go before voting in the plebiscite gets under way in tandem with the 2020 general election.

True, a heck of a lot could change from now until voting closes on election day and the provisional tally is released shortly thereafter.

It is difficult, however, to see any changes working in the favour of those who have long fought for what they regard as their ordained right to use cannabis for recreational purposes.

Just look at the polls. The findings of voter surveys conducted over the past 12 months has left those in the pro-reform lobby feeling distinctly jittery and queasy — and quite understandably so.

When the question of legalisation of cannabis has been asked of voters by pollsters, the findings bounce around too much to enable one to be absolutely definitive enough as an accurate forecast the likely result of the referendum.

Nevertheless, recent surveys of voter opinion has revealed a marked shift in the trend in the polls in favour of retaining the status quo.

That has been the case with the 1 News Colmar Brunton poll over the past 12 months.

What had been a narrow margin in favour of legalisation has swung around to a majority preference for the retention of the current outlawing of the cultivation and smoking cannabis of between six and 13 percentage points in the 1 News poll.

When people start referring to the poll on referendum day as being “the only cannabis poll that counts” — as did Chris Fowlie, the president of the pro-reform organisation NORML in response to a different, but equally dispiriting poll— that is tantamount to an admission that their campaign or cause, is in serious danger of faltering.

It is the language of the loser.

It is not clear just what is responsible for this turnaround in the public’s willingness to entertain what would be a monumental change in the drug laws. Or even whether the apparent setback in the polls is permanent. Or whether the shift in opinion is just a temporary blip during legalisation’s journey to referendum victory.

It is pretty safe to assume there is a combination of things in play. Some will be germane to the running of the referendum. For example, those wanting liberalisation have felt frustrated by how long it has taken Andrew Little to come up with a draft law which covers every aspect and implication of not merely making a banned substance legal, but writing the law which will cover the plant’s commercial cultivation, harvesting, sale, purchase and consumption.

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Winston Peters called Paula Bennett a “world-class expert”. Source: 1 NEWS

That has been a massive exercise for the Justice Minister and his officials— one made even more complex by the inclusion of the policy objective stipulating that heavily-regulated legal market not be undercut on price by the long-established illicit market for cannabis supplied by individuals or groups — namely gangs — growing plants illegally.

Securing a licence to grow cannabis in commercial quantities is not going to be a licence to print money on quite the scale that is commonly assumed.

The complaint of those in the pro-legalisation camp is that the time it has taken Little to formulate a detailed regime which covers the establishment of what will be a major new industry left a vacuum which opponents, like Bob McCoskrie’s Family First, has filled with fear mongering. 

There has been a vacuum, no question. But it has been one marked by the almost complete absence of any debate at all.

The Greens patted themselves on the back for securing a referendum on legalisation in their confidence and supply agreement with Labour.

Prior to then, the likelihood of legalisation making it on to the political agenda was something which seemed remote, bar for a few zealots in the Aotearoa Legalise Cannabis Party.

National is opposed to legalisation. Labour couldn’t be bothered with the aggravation. It is a referendum no-one else wants. The public now has to think about it — and in very serious fashion.

Many will note the referendum’s timetable and postpone thinking about it until they have to do so. Others will look at the polls and deem legalisation to be doomed.

Not surprisingly, a segment of the electorate has become far more cautious. It might be that the P epidemic is turning people off liberalisation of the drug laws. Many struggle with how the Greens can acknowledge the adverse health, social and economic consequences from the use of drugs is remedied by making one drug legal and freely available.

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Professor Giles Newton-Howes says children, pregnant women and those with mental health issues are most affected. Source: Breakfast

There are definite worries in the public mind about cannabis with mega sized levels of THC scrambling the developing brains of young people. That has deeply worried Little and saw him some months ago impose minimum purchase and use age of 20.

The question now is whether his release last weak of further and extensive detail spelling out how legalisation will work will bolster the “yes” vote.

Again, the public does not seem interested. The media, meanwhile, had barely begun digging into that detail before becoming fixated with what was a less than pressing question: how many joints could be rolled from the 14g limit on the amount of cannabis which could be sold to an individual customer each day.

Missed by virtually all and sundry was something of somewhat more significance: that anyone caught supplying cannabis to someone under the age of 20 will be liable to up to four years in prison on conviction.

The current provisions of the Misuse of Drugs Act set a maximum of eight years in jail for someone offering to supply a class C drug, such as cannabis to someone under 18.

The halving of the maximum sentence speaks volumes about the contradictions and compromises that riddle Little’s packaged regime of rules and controls that would apply across just about every facet of life if the “yes” vote wins a majority in the nationwide ballot.

If he wanted to send the firmest possible deterrent that supplying cannabis to those in their teenage years or younger will not be tolerated, why didn’t he retain the eight-year maximum sentence — rather than watering it down.

In retaking the option of a jail term, Little has pulled the rug from under the Greens’ argument that the potential risks to health associated with cannabis use are “relatively low” compared to alcohol.

New Zealanders more likely to vote against legalising cannabis in next year's referendum - 1 NEWS Colmar Brunton poll

If you hold that view, then the current punishment of a maximum fine of $2000 for supplying liquor to a minor is a nonsense.

Whether setting an age before someone can use cannabis is enforceable is anyway extremely doubtful. How could it be otherwise, given the draft bill permits the cultivation of cannabis in the privacy of the family home?

On top of all that are the complexities of the referendum process itself. Voters won’t be voting for legalisation per se. If they vote “yes”, they will be voting for the passage through Parliament of legislation incorporating the detail which Little released last week.

Or voters will be assuming that is the case. National is refusing to commit to pushing such legislation through the House if the party wins power at next year’s election and there is a majority “yes” vote in the referendum.

That is largely bluster. It is hard to see how the governing party could frustrate the will of the people. National is trying to give the impression it can do so in the hope of picking up stray votes from the anti-legalisation camp.

What is becoming obvious is that the Greens look to have made a massive miscalculation. They might have done better to have bedded in decriminalisation as some kind of halfway house between the status quo and legalisation — at least for the time being. Under decriminalisation, the possession of cannabis would no longer be a criminal offence. If you were caught with a small quantity of the drug, you would pay a fine.

There is some evidence from polling that the public is more comfortable with decriminalisation. But the Greens have been too greedy.

They may be ready for the legalisation of cannabis; the country seems far from being so.