If both Labour's and National's campaigns have been risible — let's keep moving where? — the cannabis-reform pitch has been worse.
That's mainly because reform advocates couldn't agree on such basics as a message or even a central proposition. They include libertarians, anarcho-socialists, the earnest Wellington "evidence-based" crowd, the Grey Lynn liberal elite, Big Cannabis, committed life-long stoners, and — if usage data is correct — potentially the overwhelming majority of New Zealanders.
Against them is a coalition led by culture warriors like Family First, supported by conservative Māori who argue Pākehā have already done enough damage to their people with alcohol and tobacco.
Because 80 per cent of New Zealanders have tried cannabis and 10 per cent developed a pattern of heavy use, the terrible risks of the drug — particularly on developing adolescent brains — are well known to everyone.
Is there a high school, from Baradene in Remuera to Tangaroa College in Ōtara, where any determined student couldn't buy a joint within an hour? In doing so, they engage with criminal networks controlled not by amateur thugs like the Mongrel Mob, but international syndicates peddling the full range of illegal drugs, such as Mexico's Sinaloa Cartel, believed by police intelligence to be the largest distributor of meth into the New Zealand market.
Like manufacturers of any ingestible, criminal gangs are incentivised to constantly increase the addictiveness of their product to assure ongoing demand. But unlike suppliers of Te Mata Coleraine or Lewis Road chocolate milk, they don't have to disclose on the packaging how much of the good stuff it actually contains.
Reform advocates paint a rosy picture of how all this will improve based on the outcomes in South Australia, Canada, Europe and the growing number of US states to have decriminalised or legalised cannabis.
Apparently, criminals like the Mongrel Mob will gently let go of their commercial position, to be replaced by the new licensing system for cannabis-related businesses, with strictly regulated locations and opening hours decided in consultation with local communities.
Imports will be banned, illegal supply eliminated and perhaps a billion dollars of GST, company and income taxes paid annually to the IRD.
Those who need help will feel safe to approach their GP, Narcotics Anonymous (NA) or Community Alcohol and Drug Services (Cads). Teenagers will obey the R20 rule. Total usage will fall or remain static. The police will be able to divert resources to other crimes, like burglary.
All these claims should be treated like any political promise. Whatever happened in Adelaide, Vancouver, Chicago, Denver or Lisbon, we cannot know exactly what will happen in New Zealand if we follow their lead.
The best bet is that the effects will initially be marginal.
Usage among teenagers will probably slightly fall and increase among adults, at least initially. A handful of addicts will feel safer in seeking help.
Some of the market controlled by gangs will be captured by licensed growers and dealers, who will have to disclose in their packaging the potency and contents of their products.
Advertising will remain banned, in the media and on shop fronts.
It will still feel a bit dodgy buying cannabis, as it already does for tobacco. It will be illegal to smoke cannabis in public, although that will often be disregarded as now. There could be a few cannabis coffee shops like in Amsterdam. People will be able to grow a couple of plants at home. Police will still be busy blocking illegal imports and dealing with underage and excessive use, as they are now for alcohol, cannabis and worse.
Overall, it is inconceivable that the harms of cannabis could get worse but initial gains will most probably be minor.
The initial conservative disposition is to say, "Good, let's leave well enough alone. Cannabis is illegal in most places and there must be good reasons why, even if we can't say what they are." But voting no is to explicitly back a piece of law that no one thinks should be enforced.
The law currently demands that anyone who possesses, consumes, smokes or supplies cannabis should be jailed for up to three months or fined up to $500. In practice, it never happens except where the police suspect the person is involved in much worse and use cannabis to bring them before the courts, the way the FBI used tax evasion against Al Capone. Despite the enormous prevalence of cannaBis, just five people are in jail for possession and use.
Experienced in the real world, police have chosen not to enforce the law, but instead to see cannabis as a health issue — and that also extends to harder drugs. After Operation Pinyin in 2017 and 2018, police could have had a fair proportion of the population of Gisborne locked up for meth. Instead, they required users to get help and focused on the kingpin, who the courts jailed for nearly 15 years.
Whatever happens in the referendum, that style of policing will only become more entrenched. No one really believes cannabis users or even small-time dealers should be locked up — not the police, courts or Parliament, including National.
To vote no is therefore to consciously vote against the rule of law and for the current anarchic system where we turn a blind eye to criminal behaviour and allow criminal gangs to monopolise the market. Conservatives should never do that, not least because it undermines public respect for the law, including by our young people, and transfers effective law-making power from Parliament to the police.
The proper conservative stance is very clear. Unless you genuinely believe that the law as written should be enforced against 80 per cent of the population, you should end the hypocrisy and uphold the rule of law by voting yes — and demand political parties properly empower the police to smash the criminal gangs and fully fund addiction services to support everyone with the courage to seek help.
- Matthew Hooton is an Auckland-based PR consultant and recovered alcoholic who still attends Auckland Cads most weeks.