This article by NORML board member Dr Geoff Noller was first published on as part of their series “What if cannabis was legal?

Cannabis policy: Too important to be left to the politicians? (Stuff Nation)


As part of the Stuff series ‘What if it was legal?’, pro-cannabis reform academic and Norml board member Dr Geoff Noller gives his view on the political landscape for cannabis reform.

OPINION: With the elections looming, many New Zealanders’ thoughts will be turning to party policies.

With significant shifts in international cannabis policy, it is very likely New Zealand’s favourite weed will have an even greater influence on the minds of the electorate than it already does.

It is even possible that cannabis could play the kingmaker.

Ministry of Health data from 2015 indicates about 400,000 New Zealanders aged over 15 acknowledged using cannabis in the previous year. With most of these being potential voters, there is an opportunity for parties to harness their interest in reforming what are increasingly seen as our iniquitous cannabis laws.

This is especially the case where medicinal cannabis is concerned. The Ministry’s 2015 survey reports a whopping 42 per cent identified cannabis’ medicinal properties as either part of or their sole reason for use.

Of course, some parties will simply miss the “canna-bus”. National, with its do-nothing policy, redolent of Nancy Regan’s 1980’s “Just Say No” campaign, is clearly in this category. Similarly for Labour, who’ve had decades to implement genuine changes and failed spectacularly to do so. Despite Andrew Little’s muttered platitudes around medicinal cannabis – “We would legalise [it]” – one is left thinking “Yeah, right”. Ironically this is a meme signifying the love affair with our other favourite and more damaging recreational drug.

Where then, do we look for leadership on this issue?

The lesser parties, led by the Greens, may have the most to gain by offering more nuanced policies. The Greens’ policy shows their awareness of key issues, notably medicinal cannabis, reduced and eliminated penalties for personal use and possession, and a general health-oriented approach.

Nonetheless, it is possible that their commitment to the more liberal of these might ultimately fall victim to the creeping conservatism that influences a second-tier party, aiming to grow support amongst middle New Zealand. Left-wing blogger Martyn Bradbury holds this view, recently suggesting the most likely reform route may lie with NZ First, due to their proposal that a binding citizen’s referendum should be held on legalising cannabis. However, NZ First’s actual policy contains barely any reference to cannabis, let alone a commitment to reform.

UnitedFuture is the other incumbent political player, with Peter Dunne’s Associate Health Ministership – including responsibility for drug policy – providing him with a strong advocacy position. Dunne has overseen the introduction of significant policies, notably the Psychoactive Substances Act (PSA) in 2013. Nonetheless, reviewing UnitedFuture’s policy reveals limited indications of meaningful reform specifically for cannabis.

Dunne cleaves strongly to the PSA, hardly surprising given he was its architect. The Act’s pharmaceutical regulations limit market access for new medicinal cannabis products. Moreover, despite Dunne trumpeting the removal of the non-psychoactive cannabinoid Cannabidiol (CBD) from the Misuse of Drugs Act (1975), thereby increasing medical access to it, this is undermined by the Ministry of Health’s existing rules that leave CBD-containing products all but unobtainable.

The onerous nature of these uncompromising regulations in fact seems cruel indeed for the very ill people at whom they are apparently directed.

Interestingly, new kid on the block The Opportunities Party (TOP) may provide the most likely political vehicle for meaningful reform, despite lukewarm commitment to medicinal cannabis access. Their detailed policy is significantly informed by research, a crucial element in any modern drug policy. TOP’s emphasis on regulation, control and education, to protect health and for users, and its engagement with the PSA suggests the party is genuinely committed to effective reform.

Evidently this is clear to policy-literate New Zealanders, with well-regarded cannabis reformer Abe Gray resigning his ALCP (Aotearoa Legalise Cannabis Party) President’s role to join TOP. Gray’s move is a strong endorsement of a new party, as is that of Norml’s President, Chris Fowlie, who has described TOP’s as “the most well developed policy for legalising cannabis of any party”.

Fowlie notes its “strong public health focus” and that TOP has attempted to learn from the failure of other laws.

Beyond the political sphere, hope for meaningful reform rests with grassroots organisations, community policy advocates like Norml and Canterbury-based Mild Greens, and NGOs.

The most significant among the latter is the Drug Foundation, whose commitment to reform is manifested this week in its Parliamentary Drug Symposium. This exciting Wellington event will certainly bring together numerous experts and many New Zealand delegates. However, with tickets a cheeky $420 (420 being the classic code for smoking cannabis) plus airfares and accommodation, and with a focus on international speakers and numerous MPs with only a smattering of locals, one is left wondering how broadly the event will speak to New Zealand phenomena.

The Drug Foundation has previously hosted community hui and it is perhaps this uniquely New Zealand approach that might most usefully engage with all New Zealanders. The hui’s great strength is that all have a voice to generate consensus, rather than having set agendas dominated by a few.

This is also most apposite given the huge over-representation of Maori in negative drug statistics, including within the justice system. The idea of a National Drug Hui has its precedence elsewhere, for example in Western Australia, where a state-wide Drug Summit produced a shared vision of drug policy for that state in the early 2000s.

Rather than leaving such an important issue to inherently conflicted politicians or a narrow selection of policy experts, we might look to broaden the net, hear all voices and generate a strategy to deal with harm and use, that we all may take ownership of and personal responsibility for.

Dr Geoff Noller is a Dunedin-based anthropologist with a special interest in drug policy and cannabis use.