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.