While other MPs were at the beach during last summer's Parliamentary recess, Shane Reti was in America, begging interviews with public health officials in several states about how they'd handled medicinal cannabis.

New Zealand's new Government had, on December 17, fulfilled a campaign promise to introduce a medicinal cannabis reform bill and Reti, who declared in his maiden speech in 2014 that "It's cool to be a geek", was already obsessing about the detail.

That trip culminated last week in the National Party's controversial decision to support a private members' bill drafted by Reti, the deputy chair of the Health committee, over the Government bill the committee was due to report on.

The Whangarei MP – a quiet backbencher who one leading pundit admitted to having to Google last week – wound up as the toast of the weekend's National Party conference. And this week, the Government has been under growing pressure to at least consider incorporating elements of Reti's bill into its own when it returns to the House.

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Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern confirmed to the Herald that she had been following the issue and can be expected to address it when she returns to official duties tomorrow.

Meanwhile, Reti met yesterday with Green MP Chloe Swarbrick, who has been acting as a go-between. Reti is cagey about whether he has talked with Labour.

Green Party MP Chloe Swarbrick, seen here at a Medicinal Cannabis Nursery and Dispensary in California, has been acting as a go-between. Photo / Supplied
Green Party MP Chloe Swarbrick, seen here at a Medicinal Cannabis Nursery and Dispensary in California, has been acting as a go-between. Photo / Supplied

"I'm not able to give you the details of that, other than that we are looking for collaboration, it was part of our discussions today," he says. "So you can draw your conclusions from that. All of the key political stakeholders, we are looking to collaborate with."

But it appears that Reti, in convincing his caucus to endorse a medicinal cannabis policy that is in key respects bolder than the Government's, may already have changed the atmosphere around drug policy debate in Parliament. Yesterday, National leader Simon Bridges declared he would act on a vote to legalise cannabis in the forthcoming referendum – and hours later Health minister David Clark said he personally favoured drug law reform. It's not the impact you might expect from an MP who is regarded quite fondly by Family First.

"I look at myself and I think 'how did I come to be leading this out?'," he admits. "Seriously, I'm the Mormon boy in caucus! Really?"

It's likely that some of Reti's caucus colleagues got behind his bill as a chance to land one on the Government, but Reti himself seems authentically interested in the complexities of policy.

Although he was a GP and DHB board member in Whangarei before becoming an MP, Reti had what he describes as his "second career" in Boston, after being made a Harkness fellow to Harvard Medical School in 2007, then working as a medical informatician in Boston for seven years.

"The detail matters to me, the workflow. And I know that through my career that if you don't get the workflow right, one, no one will use it, and two, people will find a workaround that give you unintended consequences."

PM Jacinda Ardern, pictured with newborn baby Neve and partner Clarke Gayford on June 21, confirmed she is following the issue and can be expected to address it when she returns to official duties tomorrow. Photo / Supplied
PM Jacinda Ardern, pictured with newborn baby Neve and partner Clarke Gayford on June 21, confirmed she is following the issue and can be expected to address it when she returns to official duties tomorrow. Photo / Supplied

Reti says his experience as a GP also fed into his bill – most notably in his knowledge of current systems and the idea of employing the existing "special authority" form, which sits on the home screen of every doctor's surgery PC, to handle eligibility for his proposed medical cannabis card, which would entitle patients to obtain medical cannabis products from pharmacies. That same knowledge, he says, also helped get the Pharmacy Guild on board.

But it may not be that simple. Ministry of Heath officials quickly provided the Government with an analysis of Reti's bill that cast doubt on how much his approach would really free up availability. Senior officials have said privately that his proposal for pre-approval of products – pending the Phase 3 trials usually required for Medsafe approval – looks unworkable.

That has not dented Reti's confidence that his proposal, by leveraging existing systems, could be introduced very quickly. And that's important, because his bill shuns both "loose leaf" cannabis and the Government bill's statutory defence for terminally ill patients to possess and use cannabis – which is intended as a compassionate stopgap until a working regime gets up and running. That was crucial in winning National caucus support.

"Yes, our caucus were quite firm on no loose-leaf," he acknowledges. "We're naturally conservative as a party, everyone knows that. This is a big step for the National Party. And what my team required was a well-thought-out, well-structured process that they understood as much as possible. So it was a challenge for me to get this over the line to our caucus."

Yesterday, National leader Simon Bridges declared he would act on a vote to legalise cannabis in the forthcoming referendum. Photo / Supplied
Yesterday, National leader Simon Bridges declared he would act on a vote to legalise cannabis in the forthcoming referendum. Photo / Supplied

But he is not alone in wanting to see some accommodation between the duelling bills. The East Coast company Hikurangi Enterprises, which is positioning itself for a new medicinal cannabis regime, wants to see the Government adopt most of the proposals in Reti's bill and also retain the statutory defence in its own – and has hired lobbying firm Thompson Lewis to advise on how to get that.

Swarbrick says she is "connecting the dots and working across the house to get a better outcome for patients and their whanau. We are actively talking to David Clark's office to see if we can get movement on this."

Reti says the select committee process broke down on the Government's refusal to include regulatory guidance in its bills, or to agree to Parliamentary scrutiny of the regulations when they were eventually devised by officials. Swarbrick says the Greens shared National's frustration with the lack of regulatory detail in the Government bill, but has been disappointed with the failure of the two major parties to build consensus so far.

New Zealand Drug Foundation executive director Ross Bell, another key lobbyist, also wants to see more co-operation.

"When needs to happen, and I'm actually optimistic that it will, is for common sense and goodwill to prevail once the egos have done their thing. I think what we'll see is what we've asked for publicly, which is for the best bits of the Government and National proposals to influence the Government bill. You're not going to see the National bill hitting the floor of Parliament, but the best bits out of that will be tabled as part of the Government's amendments.

"I think the negotiations that will take place will be at a very high political level, at leader level, where you're going to see consensus and hopefully the right amount of give and take."

New Zealand Drug Foundation executive director Ross Bell is optimistic that
New Zealand Drug Foundation executive director Ross Bell is optimistic that "common sense and goodwill will prevail once the egos have done their thing". Photo / Mark Mitchell

Bell says the public – and submitters to the select committee in particular – are understandably frustrated by the process.

"The submitters were all very brave in telling their personal stories, MPs said they were very moved by these powerful stories, and yet the select committee fundamentally ignored what patients were saying. That has angered people. I think the other thing that's angered people is the National Party, for whatever reason, coming up with a bill, trying to grandstand. Patients can rightly ask, wasn't all that meant to be done at select committee?

"My observation would be that politicians across all parties have read the public mood and have calculated that there are big risks if they continue to play silly buggers on this. Last week's done and now it's time for real pragmatism."

Activists outside Parliament have not been shy about noting that National, which had nine years to address medicinal cannabis and other drug policy issues, campaigned and governed on a promise to never change the Misuse of Drugs Act. Things have moved on, says Reti.

"First of all, the public mood has changed over that nine years. We get that and we need to respond to that. Secondly, we had a new leader and when I asked Simon Bridges if I could lead this, I could see where it was going to lean. And I briefed him and said, Simon can I take a lead on this, and he said yes.

If voices for consensus do prevail – and, perhaps, if the returning Prime Minister provides direction to that end – it may well be that the politics that have plagued drug policy for decades have, by a quite unexpected means, begun to resolve.

"Yeah, it's really interesting isn't it?" Reti says. "This whole topic for any number of reasons, including that it was quite a strong position for us to take last week and that captured everyone's attention and then it forced everyone into a position. Success has many fathers, failure is an orphan and I suspect we're starting to see the fathers come to the table and wanting to be on the right side of this. And the right side of this is, it's timely for cannabis reform."