Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman: Act's saviour at hand - just push for legal weed

Act Party leader Jamie Whyte. Photo / Natalie Slade
Act Party leader Jamie Whyte. Photo / Natalie Slade

Jamie Whyte was going to resurrect the Act party by returning it to basics. He won the leadership this year on a promise to cut back the role of the state, encourage free market economics and abandon the populist, vote-seeking, campaigns of his predecessors, John Banks and Rodney Hide.

But on Easter Monday, Dr Whyte emerged, not as Roger Douglas reborn, but as just another Banks/Hide glove puppet.

He unveiled details of Act's three-strike campaign against burglars. It was a policy tailor-made to scare well-heeled Epsom National voters into splitting their votes again, and rescuing Act from oblivion.

Dr Whyte warned that in 2013 "there were more than 52,000 reported burglaries" and that "according to the Treasury, for every 10 reported burglaries, there are another 12 that go unreported". All told, more than 2000 a week.

It was vintage "law and order" stuff. While admitting the maximum sentence for burglary is already 10 years, he thundered that "even professional burglars who head professional gangs never get anything like this".

Under Act's policy, the judiciary would be put in its place. A third conviction for burglary would earn the miscreant a minimum of three years in jail without parole. He claims a similar policy in Britain reduced burglaries by 35 per cent.

But instead of readying the thumbscrews, Mr Whyte's own figures suggest he would be better occupied in coming up with a plan for catching more burglars. At present, only 15 per cent of burglars get caught by the police. Less than 5 per cent of reported burglaries end up with a conviction.

As famous cookbook author Mrs Beeton is reputed to have said at the beginning of a pie recipe, "first catch your hare".

On the eve of his selection as leader, Dr Whyte told the Herald that "people have just got to believe that it [Act] isn't just a vehicle for either careerist politicians or to be used by other parties for their own goals - that it is more than that, it really is a party in its own right with strong principles".

Over Easter there was a law and order issue just begging to be grabbed which would have certainly differentiated Act from the others. It could well have helped attract the 5 per cent of party votes needed to get Dr Whyte and some of his colleagues into Parliament. It's the ongoing quandary about recreational drugs.

On television and social media, we saw long queues on both Good Friday and Easter Sunday nights, stretching down the main street of Palmerston North, waiting for the Naked Pie Man "legal highs" shop to open at midnight. It was depressing to think that people could be so disorganised not to have stocked up for these two isolated non-shopping days. Either that or that the legal highs were so addictive that people needed to queue at midnight for their fix.

Last July, Parliament passed a law that aimed to remove harmful synthetic drugs, requiring vendors to conduct clinical trials to prove they had no more than a "low risk" of harm. More than 40 existing synthetic products gained interim licences for legal sale to adults while the new system was set up. Nine months on, the new regime is still being drafted, and there is growing concern about the worrying side-effects of the artificial cannabis, in particular its addictive nature.

This month there were street protests in 23 towns and cities calling for a ban.

The Law Commission's 2010 report into recreational drug use highlighted the futility and expense of that course of action. To the politicians' horror, it suggested decriminalisation of some drug use. "There is no clear community view that use of mind-altering substances is immoral. Many of us will have drunk alcohol ... itself a mind-altering substance, without feeling morally compromised." The commissioners argued that "using these substances can bring benefits ... such as increased sociability and relaxation". They noted the $190 million (2001 estimate) spent on policing the cannabis black market.

Instead of reform, we now have the ludicrous situation where imitation cannabis, which because it is man-made may have more dangerous side-effects than the natural thing, can be bought over the counter legally, while anyone caught with the real thing can be prosecuted.

Back in 2011, then Act leader Don Brash said most New Zealanders thought the cannabis law was "an ass" and the $100 million spent enforcing its prohibition could be better spent. He said 6000 people were prosecuted each year for cannabis offences, but "are we any safer"? About 400,000 New Zealanders routinely flout the law and smoke cannabis, but "has the sky fallen in"?

He said the police would be better occupied hunting "real criminals". People such as Dr Whyte's burglars perhaps?

Dr Whyte has long argued for decriminalisation. In November 2011, he wrote an opinion piece saying the "basic error in the drugs debate" was the belief that drugs were bad for users. "Drugs are, in fact, good for their users." He said the pleasure of drug use outweighs the costs.

However, now, as Act leader, he says he won't hijack the party by pushing his own views on drug liberalisation.

Unfortunately for Dr Whyte, it's the one issue that might just get his party the 5 per cent popular vote it needs to survive September's poll and get him into Parliament.

- NZ Herald

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Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman's first news story was for Auckland University student paper Outspoke, exposing an SIS spy on campus during the heady days of the Vietnam War. It resulted in a Commission of Inquiry and an award for student journalist of the year. A stint editing the Labour Party's start-up Auckland newspaper NZ Statesman followed. Rudman decided journalism was the career for him, but the NZ Herald and Auckland Star thought otherwise when he came job-hunting. After a year on the "hippy trail" overland to London, he spent four years on Fleet St with various British provincial papers. He then joined the Auckland Star, winning the Dulux Journalist of the Year award for coverage of the 1976 Dawn Raids against Polynesian overstayers. He has also worked on the NZ Listener, Auckland Sun, and since 1996, for the NZ Herald as feature writer and columnist. He has a BA in History and Politics.

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