The Coroner's office has told the media that between 40 and 45 people have died as a result of using synthetic cannabis.

New Zealand is unique in this appalling record. Much bigger countries such as Japan or the United States report one or two deaths or hospitalisations but nothing like the carnage that's happening in our own backyard.

Some greenhorn National MP with no sense of history whatsoever wants to address the problem by doubling the jail sentences for those selling these harmful substances.

He is clearly unaware that we used to jail marijuana smokers until we realised that this spread the habit amongst prisoners who went on to grow the stuff on release.

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People only resort to these malign concoctions because the natural product – marijuana – is unavailable.

I cannot find an instance of a death arising from the consumption of natural marijuana beyond one mythical gentleman who got the "munchies" so badly that his stomach supposedly exploded.

This week we saw a dramatic flip-flop by National leader Simon Bridges on the medicinal marijuana issue and we can safely put this down to the secret research that both of the big parties undertake on a weekly basis.

National employs the research company Curia headed up by long-time National Party activist David Farrar and Labour uses UMR, whose spokesman is usually Stephen Mills, a former Lange Government aide.

These companies have contracts with Labour and National's "Leaders Fund", a pile of taxpayer money awarded to party leaders' offices on the basis of their tally of MPs.

Though this expenditure cannot be discovered under the Official Information Act, I can report that as a former director of what is now UMR, I was part of a negotiation that resulted in a research contract that would now be worth well over a million dollars a year.

The National Party will have a similar arrangement with Curia.

These research contacts result in weekly "tracking reports" which show how each party is doing in response to a question something like "if there was an election tomorrow which party would you support?"

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Last week's Curia Poll undertaken for the Drug Foundation found increasing support for legalising marijuana and particularly for pain relief, the so-called medicinal marijuana issue.

This research would have coincided with one of National's tracking polls.

Support to legalise cannabis for the use of pain relief has increased from 78 per cent last year to 87 per cent this year and support for using cannabis for pain relief for terminal conditions is even higher, at 89 per cent.

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The use of marijuana to cope with pain especially by people with terminal illnesses has had a lot of publicity in recent years, which included the former Council of Trade Unions President, Helen Kelly, and the media giant, my friend Sir Paul Holmes.

This has obviously struck a chord with nine out of 10 Kiwis, so Bridges must have thought he was on pretty safe ground when he suddenly withdrew his party's support for an agreed approach to a new law on medicinal marijuana and produced a new version.

This should be loudly welcomed by anyone who, like me, believes that the outright legalisation of marijuana for recreational purposes should happen as soon as possible.

The Curia poll on marijuana coincided with the same company tracking the National Party vote dropping behind the Labour vote so Mr Bridges obviously concluded that the time was ripe to put National at centre stage.

National Party activist Matthew Hooton, writing in the New Zealand Herald, confirms that on its internal polling, National has indeed been falling behind Labour.

Labour's internal polling, revealed by another leak, currently has it three points ahead of National.

Probably most alarming for National is that both sets of internal polling have New Zealand First and the Greens well over the 5 per cent threshold.

This gives the Coalition plus Greens a 17-point lead over the opposition. Even at Labour's worst times there wasn't a gap of 17 points between Government and opposition.

What National proposes is now a step towards the outright legalisation of marijuana and its approach with this bill implicitly concedes that natural cannabis is not a seriously harmful substance.

In the United States this kind of measure laid the foundations for the legalisation of marijuana for recreational use - in the election that saw Trump become President.

A friend who has lived in California for many years entertained me with how he became a medicinal marijuana user a couple of years ago.

At his local pharmacy my friend had a Skype interview with a remote doctor who assessed (in a couple of minutes) his ongoing pain and authorised his prescription.

Californians realised that this was de-facto marijuana legalisation and at their next chance voted for the real thing.

• Mike Williams grew up in Hawke's Bay. He is CEO of the NZ Howard League and a former Labour Party president. All opinions are his and not those of Hawke's Bay Today.