The Politics Of Cannabis Law Reform

By   /   August 2, 2018  /   22 Comments

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Far from promoting the liberalisation of drug laws, Labour contributed significantly to the dramatic expansion of the state’s powers of intervention in the lives of those Kiwis deemed to have deviated from the “caring” agencies’ expectations.

OKAY, SO LET’S get this straight. In last year’s post-election negotiations, the Greens asked for – and got – a referendum on ending cannabis prohibition. Which means that if New Zealanders vote “Yes”, then the Greens will sponsor a change in the law to give effect to that result.

So far, so good.

It gets better, though, because NZ First have been keen supporters of referenda forever. (They don’t call them populists for nothing!) So, if New Zealand votes in favour of dope, then the NZ Firsters will 1) let loose a very long sigh, and then 2) call in the law draughtsperson.


Yes, it is, but you ain’t heard nothing yet. When asked if the National Party would honour the result of the referendum, Simon Bridges replied in the affirmative. Simon says that if pot is what Kiwis want, then pot is what Kiwis will get.

So, that’s game-over, isn’t it? If a majority of Kiwis vote to end cannabis prohibition, then a majority of the House of Representatives is pledged to making it happen.

As stoners used to say, way back in the day: “Solid!” Time to dust-off that old hookah-pipe!

But, wait a minute, aren’t we missing something here?

No, it’s not David Seymour. As a good libertarian, the Act Party’s sole parliamentary representative (assuming he’s still there after the 2020 election) is bound to vote in favour of ending cannabis prohibition. The state, after all, has no business criminalising behaviour which is, to all intents and purposes, victimless.

No, the thing that is wrong with this picture is that Labour isn’t in it.


Yep. The Justice Minister, Andrew Little, when questioned about the Government’s likely response to a “Yes” vote in the forthcoming referendum, made it abundantly clear that the straight person at this particular student party is Labour.


Oh yes, it’s Labour. And if that surprises you, then you haven’t been paying attention. Labour hasn’t had a progressive position on the issue of cannabis law reform since Noel Rayner persuaded the Otago Regional Council of the Labour Party to vote in favour of legalising marijuana way back in the 1980s. Hell, if Rob Muldoon hadn’t called a snap election in 1984, it’s even possible that Labour’s Annual Conference might have passed Noel’s remit. Labour was a pretty liberal outfit in the early 1980s: anti-nuclear, pro-gay rights, open to all kinds of progressive ideas. So, who knows?

What has become clear in the intervening thirty-five years, however, is that while Labour has remained a progressive champion of LGBTQI rights, it has grown increasingly conservative on the issue of drugs.

Partly, this is a reflection of Labour’s uneasiness with everything Green. Nandor Tanczos’ energetic promotion of cannabis law reform and the response it elicited from the young and the marginalised in the 1999 election seriously freaked Labour out.

These were not the sort of people Helen Clark, Michael Cullen and Phil Goff wanted to be associated with. The slow but relentless pushback against Tanczos from the conservative establishment – especially secondary-school principals – further convinced Labour that, when it came to legalising pot, political discretion was the better part of principled valour.

Labour’s ultra-cautious approach was confirmed by the Greens themselves when, in election after election, cannabis law reform was allowed to slip down the party’s list of priorities.

The other explanation for Labour’s conservative line on drugs emerges from the party’s dramatically changed relationship with the poor and the marginalised. Where once the Labour Party had been the sword and shield of the disadvantaged in New Zealand society, by the turn of the twentieth century it had become, in effect, their case-worker.

The poor and the marginalised were now a client-class to be monitored and managed: the responsibility of precisely the same managers and professionals who had come to dominate the NZ Labour Party. Drug-taking was just one among many dysfunctional behaviours in need of “expert” intervention.

Far from promoting the liberalisation of drug laws, Labour contributed significantly to the dramatic expansion of the state’s powers of intervention in the lives of those Kiwis deemed to have deviated from the “caring” agencies’ expectations.

No surprise, then, that Labour is resisting the popular movement in favour of liberalising New Zealand’s drug laws – especially those relating to cannabis. The dog’s breakfast that is the coalition’s bill on medical marijuana is not the fault of NZ First, it’s a reflection of the impulse to control that grips so many members of the Labour caucus. National’s bill is better than Labour’s because its MPs are not so deeply enmeshed in the professional-managerial norms of the welfare state’s bureaucratic machinery.

Cannabis law reformers should, therefore, be on the their guard against any attempt to bring the referendum forward. Such a move would be an admission by Labour that it wants no part of the mobilising effect a well organised reform campaign could unleash. An effect which would very likely increase the Green vote in ways prejudicial to Labour remaining the dominant partner in any progressive government.

Similar vigilance will be necessary when it comes to determining the nature of any public “education” campaign prior to the referendum. Much will turn on who is given the job of overseeing the debate between prohibitionists and reformers. Whoever is given this responsibility must be able to resist the subtle and not-so-subtle pressures of the forces seeking to uphold the status quo.

That it should be Labour standing in the way of cannabis law reform tells us much about the political forces currently shaping our society. Lenin argued that all politics could be reduced to just two words: Who? Whom? On this particular issue it is vital to keep as clear as possible the distinction between those parties determined to exercise control over people’s private pleasures and those who are intensely relaxed about New Zealanders having fun.


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  1. David Stone says:

    It might not be surprising that Andrew is not enthusiastic about legalising Marijuana given his trade union background.
    There are some workplaces, notably the forestry industry where using dope on the job or beforehand is an ongoing nightmare for those responsible for keeping the workplace as safe as possible. This includes both sides of the issue of workplace safety issue , contractors and unions.
    If it is legalised special arrangements would have to be worked out to keep it banned when someone using compromises the safety of other workers .
    Some will point out that alcohol is legal and just as potentially dangerous in this situation. But it is not part of the culture of workers in manual jobs in NZ to drink on the job or come to work drunk, and it is much more easily spotted when someone’s breath stinks of alcohol and they are drunk.
    This is what will be behind Andrew’s position. It needs thinking about.
    D J S

    • Yes, David, it does. And the thoughts I would have are pretty straightforward: make it absolutely clear to all such workers that operating potentially lethal machinery while stoned will be treated every bit a seriously as operating such machinery while drunk. Hardly rocket science, I would have thought.

      • David Stone says:

        My point as stated Chris is that it is much less obvious if someone is stoned than if they are drunk.
        D J S

    • Shona says:

      I have to disagree there David, your complete lack of experience in the work worlds of large machinery is showing. Off shore oil rigs developed an effective system for policing drug use over 30 years ago. The templates are out there and available. All the policies for a work safe environment have been written and have been operating effectively where drug use is concerned for 3 decades. Once again NZ is out of the loop and behind the times because of neo-liberalism and deregulation. The Department of Labour and the Ministry of Works should never have been disbanded because of this we have not kept up . There are some areas where government regulation is essential . Leaving workplace safety entirely to the private sector has been a disaster. What a surprise. Forestry needs to be policed and forced to adopt drug use policies developed in consultation with Government regulators. Happens every where else where safety is valued why not here? it is not a biggie. And Forestry is only one industry where large machines are used.It is a matter of education . Drunks are not tolerated so why would stoned idiots be tolerated? Being legal the information becomes available and can be acted upon. That’s what MATURE rational societies do.

      • David Stone says:

        I have attended forestry training programmes where it has been discussed. It is not a problem that has been dealt with adequately and is now no longer an issue. If you know of “systems in place” to address it conclusively now would be a good opportunity to describe and explain them.Especially if they are as you say established systems overseas that NZ needs to catch up on.
        I totally agree that the government should never have abdicated the responsibility of workplace safety with labour department inspections and a blueprint for safety systems that any operator could follow . The neoliberal approach is to make workplace accidents a revenue gathering industry. The more accidents there are the more profitable for the government as they sue a more and more remote -from -the- workplace person in order to capture someone who might have some assets beyond their liabilities to collect .
        The forrest industry does have drug use policies. Like no use. It is policing them that is the problem. And there is no shortage of information that legalisation would remedy. And could you identify a mature rational society that does better than we do? It would not be the USA if you ever watched American logging programmes on TV. They constantly violate safety procedures they would be sacked for here.
        BTW I work with heavy machinery nearly every day.
        cheers D J S

        • Shona says:

          Regular urine tests.
          Regular health checks (6monthly)where blood is also tested . Paid for by the employer.Compulsory.
          It is easy from one respect on oil rigs because of the captive nature of the work environment.You can’t get on the chopper if you fail a urine test for example.
          THC is not as damaging as those who are spreading the disinformation would have us believe. Alcohol is far more pervasive and far more damaging but we accept it and cover for our workmates hangovers and there is no punishment?
          Alcohol abuse permanently alters personalities. Nothing is done no one says a word and we all have to live with those supervisors and bosses and their crap decisions or we move on if we are lucky.
          It is a matter of education and regulation growing the fuck up to create a safe workplace. If weed continues to be illegal there is zero chance of developing an informed mature responsible workforce. Prohibition is the position of pig ignorant power crazed fools. i.e the fuckwits who run NZ.
          Tangible rewards for creating and maintaining safe work environments work brilliantly.E.g. wage bonuses, top quality tools and work gear GIVEN to workers.Better recreation spaces . Meals at good restaurants for all staff. NZ employers are renowned penny pinching shitheads. They have gotten away with dangerous life threatening workspaces for far too long.

          • Harry says:

            Urine tests detect cannabis use that may have occurred days or weeks previously. They have nothing to do with safety.

            • Shona says:

              Yeah they do!! If you’re gonna be tested regularly you curb your use. Simple! It is the frequency of those tests and the POLICY practised by the business in CONSULTATION with the workforce that matters. These safety issues can be and are managed in the areas of crucial infrastructure. now. Legalising weed makes it a drug that can be educated for. So those who use it regularly can make INFORMED decisions. Wake up this is the debate. And the lack of understanding shown on this thread is woeful, inexcusably so considering it’s the Daily Blog. Do you want a mature informed decision made at Government level about dope, weed , ganja etc etc or are you all gonna be lazy and mumble and not think. Urine tests are heree to stay howmany and how much you can fail one is what gets included in workplace safety. What’s an acceptable limit? for heavy machinery operation? for example these are the questions that need to be debated . That’s what has been done for 30 years wordwide in vital industries. NZ heeds to catch up or we will continue to fuck up thanks to neo liberalism the retarder.

          • David Stone says:

            Most of the forestry contractors who are the “employers”, penny pinching shitheads you refer to started their working life as a skiddy. They are much closer to their workers in experience and empathy than people outside the industry. It isn’t constructive to address this problem or any other by establishing a “them and us” confrontational abusive atmosphere.
            D J S

            • Shona says:

              Sorry David , I live in Forestry country in the FarNorth. And it’s all about the money mate. Most of the poor bastards working in Forestry may be skilled but they are treated like shit. Because they are not unionised.NZ workers are sold a crock every day go to work. Poorly paid, poorly trained with few benefits and fuck all in the way of collective contracts and long term futures. I have never regretted getting out of NZ. Neither have my offspring. The opportunities for skilled workers in this country and the pay and conditions are shit unless a site is fully unionised. End of discussion. I know what it is to start off with nothing and do it hard so don’t patronise me. Forestry is a dangerous industry because it is run by operators who have very high opinions of their skills and charge accordingly. The kind of machinery used on oil rigs and the levels of manpower used dwarfs any operation in NZ.

        • Shona says:

          Also the use of mentors . There is no greater role model than a reformed or experienced drug user who has lost a mate a team member or a limb due being off their game.i.e hung over . Team members who are trained to be supportive educators and NOT SNITCHES. Trust and respect two qualities NZ workers rarely if ever experience these days.

    • Ras Gonzo says:

      Californian economy…. nuff said, and they have been ‘rolling’ in weed use since way before the 70’s.
      NZ workers are getting stoned all day at work already, so ‘little’ will change with legalisation.

      ‘Forest-tree’s’ problem is management taking safety shortcuts for $$$ and blaming stoner workers to shift blame and then smirk behind their whiskeys.

    • esoteric pineapples says:

      “It is much more easily spotted when someone’s breath stinks of alcohol and they are drunk.”

      It is pretty easy to spot someone who is stoned on the job too. But if they are doing job adequately anyway, is there necessarily a problem. Not that I would advocate having a smoke and then chopping down a tree with a chainsaw.

      “It is not part of the culture of workers in manual jobs in NZ to drink on the job or come to work drunk”

      That might possibly be true, but people who drink at night and then come to work the next more are still affected by the intake of alcohol the night before, arguably more so than someone who has smoked marijuana the night before.

      • David Stone says:

        I’ve worked with people on jobs with machinery who smoke dope regularly. For people who are stoned most of the time, they get used to it and do operate pretty normally. That is the problem. You cannot always tell if someone is stoned as easily as a drunk. Especially if they smoke regularly as a lifestyle habit.
        Testing everyone as they turn up to work is intrusive and time consuming.
        It is a concern in industry, it isn’t just my idea.
        Recreationally I would totally support legalisation. I expect alcohol does more harm . The problem is how to separate the two situations
        D J S

  2. bruce says:

    Andrew Little waste of space still sucked in by reefer madness, doesn’t he know it was all bullshit. Meanwhile the planet burns while a solution stays locked in pandoras box.

  3. Ada says:

    Very true words from Chris:
    “The poor and the marginalised were now a client-class to be monitored and managed: the responsibility of precisely the same managers and professionals who had come to dominate the NZ Labour Party”.

    Civil society is mainly middle-class professionals managing the lives of the poor.

  4. esoteric pineapples says:

    While I find the comments on Labour’s position interesting, as far as I am aware, National’s position is only to legalise medical cannabis and even this will be solely provided by pharmaceutical companies, prescribed by doctors and very expensive.
    The person who wants to grow their own marijuana for health or any other reason will still be thrown charged.
    This would match what is happening in the United States where “big pharma” is presently taking a two pronged approach. Trying to make sure cannabis is only available through it, and still otherwise illegal, which also will keep the private prison corporates happy.

    “Medical marijuana has become a multi-billion dollar a year industry in the United States, and as more states continue to legalize cannabis for medical purposes, that number is going to climb even higher. So naturally, Big Pharma is trying to stop the medical marijuana industry in its tracks. Attorney Mike Papantonio delves into this topic and more.”

  5. e-clectic says:

    More delay, to bring:
    * more deaths from synthetic cannabis
    * more waste of police time away from crime that has victims
    * more money for gangs
    * more proliferation of P, a far worse alternative

    Yes legalising cannabis does pose risks and cautions but the status quo is hardly tenable.

  6. Johnnybg says:

    What happens when you lock social liberals, economic liberals, social justice warriors & identity politic fanatics et al in a room for well over half a century. You end up with an impotent, life negating, dictatorial liberal elite (the unholy alliance) which has succeeded in not only creating a bland, homogeneous, globalised world, but also paving the way for the ruination of our planet & the immanent extinction of our species. You call this progress, I call it regressive, blender driven, death wish insanity.

  7. simonm says:

    And yet Helen Clark, a former Prime Minister who holds great esteem and mana within the Labour Party, is a strong supporter of drug law reform based on a system of decriminalisation for New Zealand and around the World:

    Current PM Jacinda has also been an advocate for moving drug policy out of the sphere of criminal law towards an evidence-based health and harm-reduction approach.

    Let’s hope their voices and views come out on top over those of some of the more conservative and retrograde members of the Labour Party.

    • phillip ure says:

      gee..!..when did helen clark have that revelation/u-turn..?

      of course – not when she was prime minister – and actually able to do something about it..?

      words are so very cheap – aren’t they..?

  8. Janio says:

    Keep off the grass Chris. Bigger issues at stake than “fun” – as EsoPine points out, Nats cannabis policy is about control & profits for big business.
    You left out the urgency around complex health problems. Benefit my MS (slow paralysis) and for others who have worse to contend with.

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