COMMENT:

If maternity leave has given the Prime Minister any time to reflect on the team's performance in her absence she might have returned with two big concerns. One is obviously the decline in business confidence, the other may not so obvious.

It is legislative laziness that ignores practical flaws in the policy behind it.

It was a weakness of the previous Labour Government and it has now appeared in this one, on the subject of legalising cannabis for medicinal use.

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All parties in Parliament appear to have been persuaded this would be a good thing to do. Doubt that the drug has any unique pain-killing properties have been put aside. Labour and the Greens – especially the Greens – want to be seen as liberal on drugs.

Labour mainly wants to be seen as compassionate to the terminally ill. Who doesn't? But good government requires more than good intentions. The hard part is working out the practicalities of putting good intentions into effect. That is the bit Labour governments are inclined to duck - or delegate, which amounts to the same thing.

The new Government put a bill before Parliament that would have allowed terminally ill people to possess and use a drug that would remain illegal for anybody else. Quite how the drug would be cultivated, manufactured and supplied only to the terminally ill were details that did not unduly concern Labour MPs on the select committee that would have let the bill proceed if Labour and the Greens had a majority.

The bill would have delegated all the important practical decisions to the Ministry of Health, which of course was willing to take on the work. It tried to do the same thing for the National-led Government when it was persuaded to set up a licensing system for synthetic cannabis five years ago. That ended badly.

Labour MPs on the medicinal cannabis select committee have published their view of the issues the committee considered and it shows Labour's lack of intellectual rigour on subjects such as this. The word "compassion" features a lot.

Labour simply proposed to provide a legal defence for people charged with possession if they were "terminally ill". It would have been a defence lawyers' picnic, probably invoked for growers and dealers too. Labour MPs did not sound much interested in the form of the products for medicinal use or their quality.

Their report declared, "The overall standard of cannabis products is not expected to match that of pharmaceutical grade products, e.g. manufacturers will not be required to provide clinical trial data. The setting of quality standards will be led by the Ministry of Health and will be informed by approaches taken in other jurisdictions, expert technical advice and stakeholders." In short, "Whatever".

Not surprisingly, many of the submissions to the select committee wanted legalisation extended to people not terminally ill but in chronic pain or with severe or debilitating illness such as cancer, epilepsy and multiple sclerosis. Labour's response was that those patients "should continue to be able to access quality medicinal cannabis products on prescription." Which begs the question, why would the terminally ill need access to a lower grade of cannabis products than they could get on prescription?

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Many of the submissions also wanted the medicinal legalisation extended to growers, suppliers, friends and whanau, caregivers or nominated people since the terminally ill might not be able to obtain the drug for themselves. Labour could only answer lamely that the legal position of suppliers was "outside the scope of this bill."

Likewise, allowing the terminally ill to grow their own cannabis was "outside the scope of this bill."

So what was its purpose, other than to give Labour's voters the impression the Government was doing something on this subject while, in fact, the difficult details it was ducking would very likely prove insurmountable.

We now have a term for this - "virtue signalling" – which we did not have when Helen Clark's Government made pious announcements on subjects such as pay equity and delegated the hard work of finding a credible way to compare the value of different occupations. That task remains elusive.

The Ardern Government has signalled its virtue on just about all issues close to its heart by setting up inquiries. Meanwhile, on medicinal cannabis it has been overtaken by the National MP Shane Reti who has drafted a bill resolving the practical details and has convinced his caucus to support it.

Reti's bill would allow cannabis products currently available only on prescription to be available from pharmacies on presentation of a medical cannabis card issued by the patient's doctor or nurse practitioner. A licence would be needed to cultivate or manufacture the products, which would not include cannabis in loose-leaf form.

It would not let terminal illness be a Trojan horse for careless decriminalisation.