Nicholas Jones is a New Zealand Herald political reporter.

Labour would consider a referendum on decriminalising cannabis

Labour leader Andrew Little has downplayed his comments that the party could hold a referendum on decriminalising cannabis if in Government. Photo / Ben Fraser.
Labour leader Andrew Little has downplayed his comments that the party could hold a referendum on decriminalising cannabis if in Government. Photo / Ben Fraser.

Labour leader Andrew Little has downplayed his comments that the party could hold a referendum on decriminalising cannabis if in Government.

Little was asked if Labour would decriminalise cannabis during an interview on Victoria University student radio station Salient FM.

"We will look at holding a referendum about it... we want to make sure there is a good information campaign about it, and have a referendum about it and let people decide," he said.

When asked about the comments by Newshub today, Little said holding a referendum was possible, but down-played the likelihood, saying it was "simply not a priority" for Labour.

Decriminalising cannabis would mean possession would remain an offence but be punishable by a step such as a fine, with no criminal record.

In May, Little confirmed Labour would legislate to make medicinal cannabis more accessible "pretty quickly" after taking office.

Labour MP Damien O'Connor has lodged a member's bill that would make it easier for patients to access medicinal cannabis products.

The mouth spray Sativex is currently the only form of medicinal cannabis currently available in New Zealand, but is not funded by Pharmac and costs about $1300 a month.

Prescriptions are approved by the Ministry of Health. Other products must be approved by Associate Health Minister Peter Dunne.

O'Connor's bill would mean the minister would not be able to prevent the supply and administration of cannabis products to a person considered by a medical practitioner to be in the final stages of a terminal illness, or in significant pain or impairment from a permanent condition.

On the question of cannabis law reform, Dunne told the Herald that the Government had been very clear on its position - that leaf cannabis remains illegal.

However, an adjustment of how severely people are dealt with for drug offences is possible.

As part of the 2015-2020 National Drug Policy, launched in August last year, the Government is currently reviewing the regulation of drug utensils, including the effectiveness of the associated penalty regime.

And next year a review of the penalty and offence regime for personal possession of drugs will follow.

Dunne has said that three words - compassion, innovation and proportion - were of the utmost importance when developing the National Drug Policy.

Speaking at the launch of the policy, Dunne said the Ministry of Health would work with the Expert Advisory Committee on Drugs to make sure that drug classification decisions were focused on harm.

"The laws we make need to be reasonable, and it is crucial that our enforcement response is proportionate."

A 2011 review of the Misuse of Drugs Act by the Law Commission recommended that the whole act be replaced, but Dunne has said changes could instead be made within the boundaries of the current law.

The National Drug Policy has been hailed by the NZ Drug Foundation as a subtle shift towards treating the abuse of drugs and alcohol as a health issue - meaning prevention, education and treatment should take priority over the criminal justice approach.

Police are already employing practices such as pre-charge warnings to divert low-level drug offenders away from the criminal justice system, the foundation says, but this was applied unevenly.

- NZ Herald

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