New Zealand's politicians are not very liberal on the issue of medical cannabis. That's the main conclusion to be drawn from the heavy defeat last night of Green MP Chloe Swarbrick's private member's bill which would have produced a significant change to cannabis laws. The bill was defeated by 73 votes to 47 — a much wider margin than many were forecasting.

Swarbrick is being reported this morning as saying "politicians have demonstrated how out of touch they are" by voting down her medicinal marijuana bill — see Benedict Collins' Chloe Swarbrick: MPs out of touch over medicinal marijuana.

She went further last night, saying "I think what's been demonstrated in the House today is it is not a House of Representatives." She added, "It was voted down today by quite a majority — so the National Party as well have really proved themselves to be quite conservative on that."

She might have added that many of her Government colleagues are also "conservative" on the issue — all nine New Zealand First MPs voted against her bill, as well as eight Labour MPs.

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Last night's vote was an interesting test of how liberal the new Parliament is. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern had already said that the vote on Swarbrick's bill was going to be a useful test of Parliament's liberalism on the issue, comparing it to her own official Government bill which is a more moderate version: "Chloe Swarbrick's goes a step further and we want to test whether there's an appetite in Parliament to do that" — see the Herald's Jacinda Ardern to support Green MP medicinal cannabis bill.

But the conservativism of Parliament may be lessening. Henry Cooke notes that when a similar bill to Swarbrick's was introduced by Metiria Turei in 2009, "it failed at its first reading 86-34" — see: Green Party's medicinal marijuana bill gains Grey Power support, vote likely this week.

Labour's official bill only amounts to a moderate adjustment to the status quo, which leaves many medical cannabis campaigners dissatisfied. Photo / File
Labour's official bill only amounts to a moderate adjustment to the status quo, which leaves many medical cannabis campaigners dissatisfied. Photo / File

Nonetheless, there is now an argument to be made that many other countries are leaving New Zealand behind in the area of drug law reform. And earlier this week, Nina Hindmarsh reported on public opinion, expert medical advice on reform, and how other countries are moving faster than us — see: Cannabis campaigners say New Zealand is lagging behind the rest of the world.

Crucial to the heavy defeat of the Swarbrick bill was the fact that the Labour-led Government has introduced a different bill to Parliament which also concerns the supply of medical cannabis products. This passed unanimously the day before, with every party voting in favour. The Government's success in gaining 120 votes for its bill is a testament to the legislation's much more moderate nature.

Thomas Coughlan explains the differences between the bills in his Newsroom article, Two paths to cannabis reform. Coughlan explains that the main differences are that the official government legislation will only pertain to those who are terminally ill — not those suffering chronic pain — and it would not allow patients to grow their own cannabis (with a doctor's permission).

Labour's official bill therefore only amounts to a moderate adjustment to the status quo, which leaves many medical cannabis campaigners dissatisfied. A number of voices were critical of it being too "watered down". Even Grey Power has criticised that bill for excluding those with chronic pain — see TVNZ's Government's medicinal cannabis bill too weak, GPs should be able to prescribe to anyone who needs it — Grey Power.

Some Labour supporters have also challenged how progressive the legislation really is. Greg Presland, for example, says it's too timid — see: National's drug conscience.

Conservative Christian lobby group Family First NZ has spoken out in favour of Labour's bill, with spokesperson Bob McCoskrie praising it as "cautious and researched", and complaining that Swarbrick's bill amounted to "a grow-your-own-dope bill", and should therefore be "chucked in the bin" — see Craig McCulloch's MPs to vote on medicinal cannabis bills.

The vote on Chloe Swarbrick's bill was a useful test of Parliament's liberalism on the issue. Photo / File
The vote on Chloe Swarbrick's bill was a useful test of Parliament's liberalism on the issue. Photo / File

McCulloch's article also clarifies Grey Power's very interesting political position: "Senior advocate group Grey Power is in the odd position of disagreeing with aspects of both bills, but still hoping they pass. Grey Power president Tom O'Connor said the government's bill was too restrictive and had too many hoops to jump through. But he said the Greens' effort went too far."

It also goes into the differences between the two bills. And it highlights the concerns of medical cannabis campaigners that politicians and the public would be confused by the existence of the two bills, leading to only the more conservative version being adopted. Medicinal cannabis user and campaigner Rebecca Reider is quoted: "I hope that MPs don't get confused by the fact that two are coming up at once ... we actually need them both. They do pretty different things."

This raises the question of whether Swarbrick's bill would have been more successful had Labour not introduced their conservative bill, which had been watered-down in order to gain the support of coalition partner New Zealand First.

Essentially this rival bill meant that many MPs who wanted to see some progress on medical cannabis liberalisation — and who otherwise might have supported the Swarbrick bill — were able to opt for the less contentious version, thereby being able to claim they were helping fix the problem without receiving any opprobrium from conservative opponents.

Polls have showed a lot of public support for more liberal cannabis laws. Photo / File
Polls have showed a lot of public support for more liberal cannabis laws. Photo / File

Certainly, some MPs pointed to their support for the Government's bill in justifying their vote against Swarbrick's. Derek Cheng reports, for example, that "National MP Chris Bishop, who had earlier indicated support for the [Swarbrick] bill, was unmoved. He opposed it in the hope that the Government bill would be improved at select committee" — see: Green Party bill to provide greater access to medicinal cannabis falls short.

Similarly, according to this article, National's Nikki Kaye "said she would not vote for the bill, but pledged to work with the bill's supporters to expand access in the Government bill to include those suffering from chronic pain". She is also quoted as saying that "It's one of the toughest political decisions I've ever had to make" and that she had never been so "deeply conflicted" about a bill. For more on why Bishop and Kaye voted against the Swarbrick bill (after earlier reports that they would support it), see Henry Cooke's Chloe Swarbrick's medicinal cannabis bill fails at first reading.

Of course, there is now an expectation that the Government bill can be made much more progressive in the select committee process. And Thomas Coughlan suggests in his article on the two bills: "Eventually they'll morph together" — see: Two paths to cannabis reform. He elaborates: "The Government's bill will also mandate a review to take place in two years after the law commences to test its effectiveness and recommend further changes. That could mean the cannabis regime in put in place by the Government ends up being similar to what Swarbrick proposes within a few years."

In this regard, cannabis campaigner Chris Fowlie noted last week "a silvery-green lining even if the Greens' Bill fails to pass" saying that the defeat of the Swarbrick bill "will flush out opponents' arguments and provide a measure of where Parliament is at ahead of the vote on the Government's own bill. If it fails to pass that will increase pressure on the Govt to make substantial changes to their own lacklustre bill" — see: MPs to vote on the Greens' Medicinal Cannabis Bill next Wednesday 31st Jan.

Finally, in case you think that all National Party supporters — or even the wider public — are against a liberal approach to medical cannabis reform, it's well-worth reading David Farrar's two blog posts on the matter. In his post, Grey Power backs Swarbrick bill, Farrar reports his own polling company's research which shows overwhelming public support — including from National Party voters — for more liberal cannabis laws. In a second blog post today, Farrar laments that no National Party MPs voted in favour, but also outlines how he thinks the Greens could have got the Swarbrick bill passed — see: Swarbrick bill fails.