Paula Bennett denies Chloë Swarbrick's claim NZ 'locking people up' for using cannabis

Green MP Chloë says thousands of lives are being thrown away by locking people up and throwing away the key for using cannabis, but National's Paula Bennett says only two people were imprisoned last year for cannabis use.

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The Green MP says thousands of lives are being thrown away by locking people up but the National MP worries about "normalisation" of cannabis. Source: Q+A

The Green MP and National Party deputy leader have gone head-to-head on TVNZ1's Q+A over whether New Zealand should legalise cannabis for the recreational use of people aged 20 and over. 

The question will be put to voters in a referendum at next year's general election. 

The referendum is part of the coalition Government's commitment to reduce the harm caused by drugs and take power away from the criminals who sell them.

"Imagine an Aotearoa New Zealand where anybody, no matter where they are born in this country, is able to get access to mental health or addiction treatment no matter where they are," said Ms Swarbrick, a firm supporter of cannabis law reform.

"Imagine an Aotearoa New Zealand where we're not throwing away hundreds of millions of dollars a year and thousands of lives by locking people up and throwing away the key for using cannabis," she said.

"We can have that Aotearoa New Zealand. But for 40-odd years politicians have decided to continue down the pathway of failed rhetoric that is the war on drugs." 

Ms Swarbrick said we "have the opportunity to turn that on its head, to pay attention to the evidence and to turn around a situation where we get the worst of all worlds at the moment under the status quo where we are empowering the criminal underground and we are pushing people who have problems further and further into the shadows."

Ms Bennett responded that people are not getting locked up for using cannabis and haven't been for quite some time. 

"I think it was two people in 2018. I think there were seven in 2017. And there were always other things going on - it wasn't the first time that they'd been caught," she said. 

"And now of course with the changes to the Misuse of Drugs Act they're not getting locked up and police time isn't going into that."

Ms Bennett said she was with Ms Swarbrick on increasing mental health and addiction services and access to these but she worries about several aspects of legalising recreational cannabis use.

"I worry about normalistaion. I worry that we haven't got the testing for drug driving. I worry about what a retail looks like and how many stores there will be," she said.

Ms Bennett said she doesn't like the harm that alcohol does in New Zealand, "and I think there's a risk of it becoming more readily available". 

Ms Bennett has recently returned from Canada where she has been taking a look at overseas cannabis regulation models. 

"I don't like the increase of drug use, particularly for the sort of 18 to 24-year-olds that I've seen in jurisdictions that have legalised," she told Q+A.

"I think there's a whole lot of unknown answers to questions. And I simply wish we were waiting a little bit longer so we could see more of that evidence coming through," the National MP said.

* Q+A is on TVNZ1 on Mondays at 9.30pm, and the episode is then available on TVNZ OnDemand and as a podcast in all the usual places.