THE LATEST DRUG FOUNDATION POLL reveals a New Zealand electorate that has moved well beyond the tipping-point on cannabis law reform. Roughly two-thirds of the voting public now accepts that the possession of cannabis for personal use should not be a criminal offence. The international evidence has percolated through New Zealand society: from Portugal and, most particularly, from those states of the USA that have voted to discard the prohibition model.
Public opinion on the medicinal use of cannabis, which is now overwhelmingly in favour of decriminalisation, has been shaped by the heroic example of Helen Kelly. Her open use of cannabis, to relieve the pain of her terminal lung cancer, and the pathetic response of the Key-led Government to the issues she has raised, have clearly had a decisive influence on the debate.
And yet, in spite of the public’s readiness for radical reform, the leadership of the two big political parties have either refused to embrace the necessity for change (National) or taken refuge behind the poll results by issuing a cautious endorsement of medicinal cannabis use, while remaining opposed to any broader decriminalisation measures (Labour).
Truly surprising, however, has been the Green Party’s response to the Drug Foundation’s poll.
At the time of writing, not so much as a single media release had emerged from the Greens. The party that almost certainly owes its original entry to Parliament in 1999 to the votes drummed-up by anti-prohibition campaigner Nandor Tanczos and thousands of former supporters of the Aotearoa Legalise Cannabis Party, has had nothing to say.
The Greens’ silence is, unfortunately, typical of the party’s cowardice over cannabis law reform. When push came to shove in the Green campaign for decriminalisation, Tanczos discovered that he could not rely upon the full backing of his party.
As is so often the case in issues of particular relevance to young New Zealanders, the effort to shut down discussion and debate was spearheaded by conservative secondary-school principals. Tanczos had attempted to address a group of seventh-formers on the subject of cannabis law reform. In spite of the fact that many of these students either were, or soon would be, voters; and that Tanczos was a duly elected Member of Parliament; the principal of the school concerned refused to allow him on school property.
Had the Greens been serious cannabis law reformers, they would have sent their entire caucus to the school in question on the back of a flat-bed truck equipped with loudspeakers. Parked outside the front gate, Tanczos could then have invited the seventh form to join him and his parliamentary colleagues in the nearest community-hall after the final bell. Before leaving, they could also have asked the students to consider the propriety of an appointed secondary-school principal attempting to prevent young voters from debating important political issues with a Member of the House of Representatives.
Sadly, the Greens did not do this. Tanczos’s planned discussion with the seventh formers was successfully stymied, and from that moment on the party began to edge away from the Cannabis issue. It was argued that the time was not yet right for an all-out push for decriminalisation. The policy remained on the Greens’ agenda, but it was now a very long way from the top.
That was more than a decade ago – a decade during which opponents of cannabis law reform have been able to consolidate their political position by pointing to the Greens’ retreat as proof of the issue’s electoral toxicity. If not for the courage of reformers in Portugal and the United States, and of the heroism of Helen Kelly and all the other sufferers who have argued publicly for the medicinal use of cannabis to be legalised, the opponents of reform might still have the upper hand.
New Zealand is now ready for the laws relating to cannabis possession and use to be radically revised. There is no longer a broad social consensus in favour of prohibition and punishment. Most New Zealanders believe the “War on Drugs” to be lost, and that the legal war currently being waged upon their children – young Maori in particular – must end.
Unfortunately, there is no corresponding parliamentary consensus for change. Even the left-leaning members of our political class remain unconvinced by the revised opinions of their constituents. What is most needed now is a political party willing to break the log-jam: a party with a proud history of cannabis law reform activism to live up to, and with a cowardly retreat from that activism to live down.
Come on Greens, this is the moment to mount loudspeakers on a whole fleet of flat-bed trucks and begin mobilising an electorate that has clearly signalled its willingness – and readiness – to put an end to cannabis prohibition.