It would not be surprising if some who have seen the early shots in the campaign for the legalisation of cannabis have had a flashback to the 1990s, when Rod Ronald, later to become an Alliance then a Green MP, and Telecom chairman Peter Shirtcliffe squared off over MMP.
Donald, who clearly had an enormous vested interest in changing the electoral system was widely credited with running a much more effective campaign than Shirtcliffe. And, to no great surprise, we abandoned first past the post, as we should have, then adopted MMP, despite assertions from some informed quarters that it was not the best option.
It wasn't difficult in later years, MMP having displayed its most obvious 'virtue,' effectively eliminating any possibility of electing a government without the need for coalitions, to find people who said they had voted for the new system without understanding it, and who now wished they hadn't.
We might well be about to see the same thing happen in September's referendum on the legalisation of cannabis, if the Drug Foundation's contribution so far is anything to go by.
Of greatest concern perhaps is the claim that legalisation will give those who need it easier access to medicinal cannabis. That is an unashamed fudging of the fact that medicinal cannabis products are already legally available for those who need and are judged as medically qualified to use them. This referendum is not about medicinal cannabis, palliative care or pain relief that other drugs cannot provide. It is about legalising its use recreationally, with a number of so-called safeguards.
Ross Bell, executive director of the Drug Foundation, has defended the inclusion of medicinal cannabis in the advertising campaign because the current regime is restrictive, and, if the referendum succeeds, there will be easier access. People were buying the drug illegally because they were too afraid to talk to their doctors, or their doctors were unwilling to prescribe, he said. More importantly, medicinal cannabis products could not be subsidised by Pharmac, so people were still paying hundreds if not thousands of dollars every month, so were making the choice to use the illegal market.
We don't know if the foundation has evidence that people are afraid to ask their doctors for medicinal cannabis. We have to take that on faith, but it is difficult to believe. Why would anyone be afraid to ask their doctor for a legal medicinal product? No doubt some doctors are reluctant to prescribe them, but that might well apply to any number of drugs. And cost might well be a pertinent factor, but that is an issue to be addressed via Pharmac, not the legalisation of a drug via a referendum offering recreational use.
The inclusion of the medicinal cannabis factor in this campaign is disingenuous, and does not bode well for the standard of the debate we are supposedly embarking upon before we vote on September 19.
Much the same can be said for the other supposedly compelling reasons for supporting legalisation offered by the foundation, such as that it will raise tax that "will" be used to fund drug education and treatment. Few people will buy the 'will' part, like road user charges 'will' fund improvements to the country's roads. There is no such word as 'will' in terms of what governments use specific taxes for, and we will never know whether this particular promise has been kept. Even if it is, we might well ask whether the hundreds of millions of dollars expected will be enough to educate and treat problems arising from cannabis use.
We are told that legalisation will enable the police to deal with more serious crime, which supposes that significant resources are currently going into enforcing the laws against the production, possession and use of cannabis. That was true once, but not now. It's a branch of the myth that our prisons are full of people whose only offence was growing or using cannabis. People in this country don't go to jail for that any more, unless, perhaps, they are growing on an industrial scale. It simply isn't true that legalising cannabis will empty our prisons.
We are told that cannabis will be "strictly illegal" for those under 20. Just like tobacco and alcohol are strictly illegal for those under 18. We have failed miserably in banning the use of those drugs by those declared by law to be too young, and no such guarantee can be given for cannabis.
Potency levels will be limited "for safety." That's a big tick for the current purveyors of cannabis, who we are told are fundamentally gangs. Those who don't want the weaker, state-approved drug will grow it themselves or look elsewhere. And where will they look? Legalisation will not put the gangs out of business.
We are told that the drug will only be available via licensed premises, which again supposes that the illegal market will disappear. And we are told that its use in public places will be prohibited. That might make it invisible, but will not reduce the harm it does to many who use it, including those whose age makes them most vulnerable.
We are also told that it will be sold in plain packaging, with warning labels, and that advertising will be prohibited. Those measures have done nothing to reduce the use of tobacco, but are supposedly going to be effective with cannabis. Anyone who believes that might be interested in buying a bridge.
The writer doesn't care too much what others do with their lives, on two provisos - that they don't represent any kind of risk to others, and that they do not become passengers. Many cannabis users, to a greater or lesser extent, are indeed passengers. A recent survey supposedly found that the great majority of cannabis users were convinced that their habit had no effect on them whatsoever. They would, wouldn't they? The last thing that users are likely to admit to, even if they recognise it, which they tend not to, is the drug's impact on their ability to function.
Years ago an American judge told a man who argued that it was his right to use the drug that it was his right to expect, when he boarded a plane, that the pilot was not affected by cannabis. It was his right, when he went under the knife, to expect that the surgeon was not affected by cannabis. There's the rub. Those who believe it is their right to use a mind-altering drug undoubtedly believe, if they are capable of processing the logic, that they have the right to expect that some in society will not indulge. Its OK for them to gratify their craving, but not for others.
One way or the other we will decide on September 19 whether the recreational use of cannabis will remain illegal, but surely it is not too much to expect an honest discussion? We know, from the way the government has framed its case for the referendum, that it is in favour or legalisation, and we now know how the Drug Foundation feels. But they should not be dressing this issue as something it isn't. There might well be valid reasons for legalisation, but none of the arguments presented thus far come close to that.
Current polls suggest that the referendum will fail, but those in favour have three months in which to change enough minds to make it successful. If they achieve that, it is well and truly on the cards that one day some who support it in September will look back one day in the future, and, like many who voted for MMP, will wish they hadn't.