Hard News by Russell Brown

10

A cannabis moment in the Parliament

One of the issues on Jacinda Ardern's first-day-back desk today is medicinal cannabis – and specifically, the issue of how to respond to pressure to compromise and incorporate key elements of National MP Shane Reti's private members bill into its own proposed law.

Both bills are flawed, but Reti's goes further than the government's in some key respects. The Greens' Chloe Swarbrick – who, part by fate and part through aptitude, has done more in her first year than some MPs manage in a Parliamentary career – has been meeting with both Reti and the office of Health minister David Clark in search of an outcome. And the Prime Minister has been watching.

I've looked at that in my story for the Herald today – and at how on earth Reti, a quiet, relatively conservative backbencher, has taken a caucus that merrily governed on never, ever changing the Misuse of Drugs Act into endorsing a proposal for perhaps the most consequential change to the law since it was passed in 1975.

The answer, I think, lies in a line from Reti's maiden speech: "It's cool to be a geek." Within days of the government bill being published, he got interested in the detail in a way that no Labour MP has, and he used the Parliamentary recess to pursue that detail. Is he right about everything? No. But he's trying. Labour, implicitly positioned as the party that might finally do reform, has been complacent in government. And I think Health minister David Clark – who took responsibility for the medicinal cannabis issue over his Green associate Julie Anne Genter – has to shoulder most of the blame there.

As I make clear in the story, I think it's a certainty that some of Reti's caucus colleagues saw backing his bill as simply a chance to get one over on the government. By the same token, the worst parts of his bill are essentially the price of getting it signed off by a National caucus. But it's also a wake-up call for Labour. And I think it might be a moment.

On Tuesday, the day I spoke to Reti, Simon Bridges declared that he would honour a vote for legalisation in the forthcoming cannabis referendum. Labour, absurdly, has manoeuvred itself into a position where it can't yet say the same – but hours after Bridges made his statement, David Clark declared that he personally favoured "more liberal drug laws because I think in the world when prohibition has been tried, it hasn't worked." These are not positions we're used to hearing from National Party leaders or Ministers of Health.

This is an unprecedented Parliamentary term for these issues. By the time the medicinal cannabis bill, in whatever shape, gets Royal Assent, we will be (or should be) into the process for the referendum on legalising  cannabis for adult use. And despite what various people have been keen to tell me on Twitter, that process will not be a simple or straightforward one for the government.

In a story out this week in Matters of Substance, I've looked at the road to the referendum question, with input from Helen Clark, Graeme Edgeler, Andrew Geddis, Khylee Quince and drug policy experts in the US and Britain, including the designers of the successful ballot initiatives in two US states. I strongly encourage you to have a read. This is, remember, the first national referendum on cannabis law reform. It would be good if we didn't screw it up.

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I didn't have room in the Herald story for all of the Shane Reti interview, including some interesting parts that weren't necessarily suited to a mainstream audience story. I figure it's useful to include those parts here.

On why National didn't embrace the statutory defence in the government bill for terminally ill patients to possess and use cannabis.

Several things. First of all, the terminal exception has problems. We're permissioning an illegal act – no one disagrees about that. It's an illegal act but once that act has been committed, you're okay. That's really awkward. We had the Police say it was going to be awkward for them as well. Are you inducing a crime? That was going to be a challenging area anyway.

Secondly, the time to roll that out as a temporary scheme that was expected to last two to five years. We could have a scheme up and running almost as soon as that temporary scheme could be up and running. So let's to a fully-fledged scheme right and properly and then wouldn't need the temporary scheme and the problems we've got with that.

On the odious fit-and-proper-person elements of Reti's bill, which ban anyone with even the most minor historical drug conviction (and anyone who was even sought help for a drug problem) from working in a new medicinal cannabis industry:

The answer to that is yes, it's another area of flexibility we have. We needed to draw a line in the sand. The officials were telling us [prospective directors of medicinal cannabis companies] would fundamentally only need to meet what the Hemp Act 2006 says, which is not to have have previous convictions under the Misuse of Drugs Act or under the Crimes Act. And that was it.

So on a spectrum of fit and proper people, you'd have nothing, do-as-you-please all the way to the Australians, who I think are too restrictive. They've very, very tough. What officials were also telling us was that because we didn't do anything in the Hemp Act or the Psychoactive Substances Act, we probably won't here either. That's not a good enough reason.

I think, and still, think there need to be some criteria for staff. Not as much as the Australians, but something. And that something could be retrospective, some leeway on that, and current and prospective. For example, if you are an active patched gang member currently under drug addiction therapy, I would suggest that you are probably not wise and probably not suitable for the cannabis industry. But some flexibility on previous convictions, which may be prohibitive as I've written it, I have flexibility on that. That is something we can tak about.

On his meetings with American public health officials and politicians:

My Boston colleagues were able to get really challenging and hard appointments with high-level people. Kay Doyle, the Health Commissioner for Massachusetts was very helpful. Let's also remember that a large number of medicinal cannabis schemes come up from referenda – they're public-driven initiatives. So she was given a time-frame and within 18 months, she had to deploy. That's why I'm saying for the time it took to set up the temporary exceptions [in the Zealand government bill], we could potentially have a full-fledged scheme underneath that.

So Kay and the [Director of Government Affairs at the Massachusetts Cannabis Control Commission] David Lakeman, they were very, very helpful.

In New Hampshire, I spoke with Senator Jeff Woodburn. New Hampshire's fascinating, in as much as there are other things that no one's talking about that come in around medicinal cannabis. Senator Woodburn said to me, 'Shane, we as a state have the second-highest incidence of heroin addiction and overdose – after we introduced a medicinal cannabis scheme, that has been significantly reduced'.

It was a question I asked of the New York people too, because I'm interested in other benefits that might come from it. The thing I was really interested in was, do you have any evidence on the impact of medicinal cannabis schemes on P? And all of them said no, which I can understand– it's a different class of drug. I know there are clinics and specialists in San Francisco who do believe that medicinal cannabis can be a go-to drug to wean people off P.

And some people will say, Shane, that argument is that you improve heroin addiction, but all you do swap one addiction for a lesser addiction. Yes, absolutely correct. That's exactly what we do with methadone – we swap one very addictive and damaging drug for one less addictive and less damaging. And then we look for the next step after that.

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Andrew Freedman, who was the previous director of marijuana coordination for the Colorado scheme, he was a really hard appointment to get, but my Boston team were able to secure that. He advises other states and jurisdictions on how they deploy medicinal cannabis. So speaking with him was absolutely fascinating.

I was able to explain what my thinking was and get their advice on it. And that then took me to New York, where I met with Dr Howard Zucker, who's the Commissioner of Health for New York state, and he brought together his whole medicinal cannabis team around the table. And again, they had excellent advice.

Because New York's one of about 15 states who prevent the smoking of loose-leaf. They actually do allow vaping, but they were similar to where I was heading. And so to get their advice, to find out what they did and the unexpected hurdles they encountered, that was really interesting.

Furthermore, all of the international experts have said 'however we can help'. In fact I've just got a question back to Commissioner Doyle in Massachusetts this afternoon, all of them have said 'we're happy to be available to you, however we can help, however we can transfer our learning, we'd love to do that.

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