COMMENT: I live politics. I work around it. I did a degree in it. Some of my best friends are politicians.
And yet I don't think I truly understand what drives it. I'm what people inside politics call "beltway". And frankly a lot of the politicians I deal with are "beltway" too. We often fail to lift our heads above Wellington and beyond the politics of politics to see what actually matters.
We bury ourselves in numbers and statistics like GDP and unemployment, and forget that real people live and breathe at the end of those numbers.
I had this realisation at a symposium I attended last week. It was put on by the Drug Foundation and focused on "just and equitable drug law reform". Obviously it came in advance of next year's referendum on whether to legalise cannabis.
The central idea of the conference was that our current cannabis law is actually harmful. And it's particularly insidious towards Māori and people from poorer areas of New Zealand.
My white-male-middle-class-suit-wearing ass sat in the back row and listened. I had questions I wanted to ask but it became apparent that I needed to shut up, and give space to those who don't often get heard.
There was one panel in particular that stood out for me.
The panellists included known anti-P crusader and former P addict Tricia Walsh, United States activist, author and drug law reformist Asha Bandele and former National Party MP and now chairman of the Justice Advisory Group, Chester Borrows.
Given the nature of the symposium, all three were pro-legalisation of cannabis.
Chester's case is particularly interesting in this regard - he's a former cop turned lawyer turned National MP for Whanganui. He wasn't always pro-legalisation and when I asked him what changed his mind, he told me about having arrested people for cannabis crimes, and then seeing them now, still in the same area with good jobs and helping in their community.
Cannabis hadn't stopped them contributing, he said, but being in prison had.
The facts and science support legalisation of cannabis but it's hard to shake the emotional concerns of it.
The floor opened up for comments and we heard stories and questions from people whose lives were devastated by drug use. People who had become stuck in a cycle of abuse and drug addiction.
One woman talked about her parents having been wards of the state, her having been a ward of the state, her children having been wards of the state and her grandchild becoming a ward of the state.
These were real people talking about the real issues that they faced. They weren't people like me who might have smoked the odd joint when we were younger and now talked pseudo-intellectually about how cannabis is so low down the harm scale that it's pointless it being a crime, that if people are able to go home and have a glass of wine or two to unwind, then why shouldn't the be able to roll up a spliff?
These people had lived experiences I could barely conceive of. Sexual abuse. Physical abuse. Real deprivation and poverty. Families and communities torn apart by violence and drug use.
And the more I listened, the more uncomfortable I became. Because my life is devoid of the stresses that they experience.
I know that poor people exist. I know that sexual and physical abuse occurs, but here I was hearing from people who were living, or had lived, it.
Often we intellectualise politics and proselytise our ideals to "the other side", but that often comes in the guise of politics as an academic exercise.
These people were the real-life consequences of politics. I challenge anyone to listen to the group of people I heard, and really hear the hardships they faced and come away thinking that being tough on crime is the way to go, that tough drug laws somehow help us instead of destroy us.
Because every person who stood up and told their story about how drug use had harmed their family, and expressed concern that they didn't want young people having easy access to drugs of any kind also recognised that outlawing drugs hadn't helped.
That criminalising drug offences meant that people had less access to help and education and treatment if they did have a problem and so it was easier to turn to a life of crime, a life of violence and a life of not very much at all.
Nobody there considered punishment a deterrent to drug use. Nobody thought that the 'state's gang' was the right way to combat gangs in their communities. Everybody saw drug law reform as an opportunity to take control.
Gangs don't put bouncers at the doors of their tinny houses ready to ID kids, but if the sale of cannabis was controlled then we could have enforced age limits. Dealers don't think twice about the harmfulness of their cannabis, but controlled potencies would mean we would know how strong the product was and could take precautions.
And control would mean that we could deal with the harm and problems of cannabis
consumption through our health system, and not just fill our prisons up and make worse
criminals out of people who were never really criminals to start with.
There were no illusions that making cannabis legal would be a magical cure-all for the myriad problems faced by many of those people in that room, but there was a shared belief that it would be a start, one of many things that would need to be done to make society a more equitable place.
So hearing that unemployment is below 4 per cent is great. But hearing real stories of real
people helped me see that my political world is very small indeed.
* David Cormack has done paid work for the Drug Foundation. This is not part of that.