It is disappointing that after one year of inaction, the coalition Government’s referendum on cannabis law reform could prove to be an expensive waste of time. Similar to John Key’s flag referendum, this could prove a masterclass in wasting taxpayer money.
The referendum was one of the few concessions The Green Party secured that wasn’t already in the Labour Party manifesto. However, if the coalition Government doesn’t take the referendum seriously very soon, it risks making a hash of the whole thing.
Of course a real win would have been to negotiate for a regulated market as proposed by The Opportunities Party in 2017. All of the concerns that the public are likely to have can be catered for by careful design of a regulated market, as we are seeing from overseas experience. Such an approach has been recommended by the Law Commission almost 10 years ago, as well as The Drug Foundation and former Prime Minister Helen Clark. However, since the referendum has already been promised, we should all focus on making it a success.
Sadly it doesn’t appear the coalition Government shares this goal. The Minister responsible Andrew Little admits he hasn’t 'given it much depth of thought at all'.
So far this year the coalition have already tripped over itself with a muddled approach to medicinal cannabis. The promise of action within 100 days now looks more like token changes within 1000 days. Meanwhile the synthetic cannabis crisis has sent the Government scurrying backwards to the “War on Drugs” - hoping harsher penalties will provide a solution. We all know they won’t.
We need to prevent the cannabis referendum descending into a similar farce. A regulated market is now the only real hope we have of removing criminals from the market, reducing harm from cannabis use and providing cost-effective help to sufferers of chronic pain.
This referendum is a unique, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to have a Government-initiated popular vote on this long festering social issue. Yet the coalition Government has undertaken no consultation on the timing, referendum questions, whether it is binding and a detailed proposal for a regulated market. It is even more worrying that nothing is planned or even budgeted for into late 2019.
The risk here is that we will end up having a rushed and shallow debate marked by fear and doubt, because none of the details are clear. It all risks being a waste of time and money, much like John Key’s failed flag referendum.
Regardless of their motivations, there’s a way not to waste this opportunity and we’re here to help.
The Opportunities Party has three key suggestions for working out the details of how the referendum will work and what it will say:
Firstly - Make the referendum binding. The Drug Foundation already does polls on attitudes to drugs, another very expensive glorified opinion poll would be pointless. Unlike a citizens' initiated referendum, a Government referendum can be binding, just like John Key’s flag referendum was.
Secondly - Use questions which matter.
Question 1: Should possession and growing of no more than two cannabis plants for personal use by adults no longer be considered a crime?
Question 2: Should adults be able to purchase small amounts of cannabis for personal use from specially regulated premises?
This allows splitting the issue of decriminalisation and personal use (where there is clearly majority support in the public) from the much less well understood issue of having a regulated market. Without two questions it could be confusing what they are asking the public.
Finally - Draft legislation that provides the detail of what these two questions would look like if implemented. This would mean that voters would know exactly what they were voting on, as they would have the opportunity to read the complete law that would be the outcome of an affirmative referendum vote. It would answer everyone’s questions, and not leave people making second guesses about what they are voting for.
To do this properly means starting now. It will take setting up a new working group immediately so that the public have plenty of time to assess the options before the 2020 election.
Sure, this is more work, but as we have seen with the push to make synthetic cannabis Class A drugs, the Government can deliver things quickly when they want to. They could also abandon their work on medical marijuana since that is such a mess and would be defunct if the referendum is passed.
All of these issues should have been part of the Labour Greens coalition agreement, and the fact it was not shows how ill-prepared they were for government.
After nearly a year in power, the coalition is staring down the barrel of a referendum debacle akin to the flag referendum. We don’t need a working group to figure that one out.