Labour governments have one habit that annoys me intensely. They love to trumpet big liberal social advances without doing the hard work. The last Labour Government made an art-form of this and the present one is shaping up to be just the same.

This week its Health Minister, David Clark, moved the final reading of the bill legalising medicinal cannabis and hailed it as "compassionate and progressive" legislation that would make a difference to people living in pain and nearing the end of their lives. You could almost hear the violins playing in Labour minds and see the wistful look in their eyes as they imagined this moment in a movie made for audiences susceptible to simplified social history.

You had to read the news reports carefully to notice that a great deal of work on the bill, now law, has still to be done. "Little" details such as, what cannabis products? How will people know they are effective? Who will be allowed to make them? How are you going to restrict them to people genuinely in pain or terminally ill?


All those questions, and more, have been passed to officials in the Ministry of Health. Until they can work them out the legislation does almost nothing, it's just a statute of intention. Labour governments tend to love those.

It annoys me intensely because it is dishonest. Not just politically, but intellectually dishonest, which you would not expect Labour people to be. I don't understand how they can take pride in acts of principle that leave so many practical difficulties demanding answers.

To my mind, if a principle is not practical there is probably something wrong with it. In this instance, if I can't think of a practical way to regulate marijuana decriminalised for medicinal use I have to consider the possibility that the status quo, criminal sanctions seldom enforced, might not be a clearer health message than all the red tape in creation.

Ironically, the one thing this week's legislation has done immediately is provide the terminally ill with a legal defence should they be prosecuted for using the drug while it remains illegal. Since they were never likely to be prosecuted that pretty much confirms the status quo.

But a lot of unnecessary and probably fruitless work has been given to health officials, possibly the same officials who have been trying to devise a regulatory regime for the legal production of synthetic cannabis.

It is five years since the previous Government briefly flirted with legal synthetics and that ended badly. If there is one thing that experience ought to have taught all politicians it is that when you legalise a narcotic you own it, along with all the damage it can cause. Every bad trip becomes a public health charge. The public health profession advocates that but politicians would have to be as naive as the Greens to buy into it.

A large crowd gathers at the candlelit vigil held on Federal St, Auckland City, in remembrance of murdered British traveller Grace Millane. Photo / Peter Meecham
A large crowd gathers at the candlelit vigil held on Federal St, Auckland City, in remembrance of murdered British traveller Grace Millane. Photo / Peter Meecham

Labour seems divided on the subject. Police Minister Stuart Nash and Health Minister Clark this week announced a toughening of the laws against the manufacture and sales of synthetics, classifying them as class A drugs which I guess means the end of the attempt to provide a legal framework for them.

At the same time they announced a directive to the police would be written into the Misuse of Drugs Act to use their discretion not to prosecute for mere possession of all drugs (all?) where a therapeutic approach might be more beneficial. Again, the status quo, for lesser classes of drugs anyway. Discretion works well enough in practice but how do you define it in law? More hard work for somebody else.


Much of the work on regulations for the medical marijuana was in fact done by a new MP in National's caucus, a physician, Dr Shane Reti.

Reti spent last summer in the US talking to officials in states that have legalised the drug for medicinal use. On return, he drafted a private members' bill that appeared fairly practical and capable of controlling the standard and distribution of cannabis in medicinal forms.

He convinced the National caucus to support legalisation and for a while it seemed the Government might write his proposals into its bill. But though he was deputy chair of the select committee on the bill, it didn't happen. It is hard to know why. Possibly because Reti's regulations would not have legalised the drug in loose leaf form for smoking.

Maybe Reti was naive. Maybe this Government is using medical legalisation to soften the electorate for general decriminalisation before we get a referendum on that issue. Is that the kind of dishonesty we are dealing with? I prefer to think not, and that Reti's work will not be wasted when National returns.