Hard News by Russell Brown


The long road to "Yes"

One day in 1985, I came down from the loft where I was working as deputy editor of Rip It Up magazine, looking for lunch, and walked into a scene. There, on the corner of Queen and Darby Streets, a man was in the process of getting two kids to sign a petition against homosexual law reform.

I was incensed. I knew all about the petition, which had been founded by two Labour and two National MPs, taken up by the Salvation Army and then by the Coalition of Concerned Citizens, a conservative lobby group that also railed against biculturalism and the alleged communist threat to New Zealand. (As a measure of quite how bigoted this organisation was, it might help to know that its more moderate, left-leaning members eventually split away and formed the Christian Heritage Party.)

I knew about  the way the petition had been brought into workplaces, where men signed it to avoid losing face. And here, in front of me, was someone gathering fraudulent signatures from children.

I strode up and told the man with the petition to stop. He smirked and the two boys he was soliciting indicated they were up for signing. A police officer walked past and I called him over, urgently. Here, I told the policeman, was someone gathering illegal signatures, and he needed to do something. He looked bemused. Eventually, our odd little cluster broke up without the signatures being secured. Many months later, after the Coalition had presented its 800,000-strong petition to Parliament, it was determined that a great many of the signatures it bore were invalid.

It would be another 16 years before the Salvation Army reflected on its role in this unethical enterprise – and on its appalling submission on Fran Wilde's Homosexual Law Reform Bill – via a paper by Ian Hutson. Whether or not you think Hutson's paper was the mea culpa it needed to be, it's a worthwhile read.

Hutson places homosexual law reform in the context of social turmoil. The 1981 Springbok tour had torn the country apart and now the fourth Labour government was turning it upside down. After a vicious battle in the 1970s, access to abortion had been made possible, if not exactly legalised. The Treaty of Waitangi Amendment Act passed in 1985. And now, this drive to legalise homosexuality. The world of conservative Christians, including those in a growing evangelical movement, had come unmoored and it was time to make a stand against all this change.

In 2020, we again find ourselves in interesting times. Nature and its pandemic have forced change on us, made us anxious and sometimes angry. We've worked out that anxiety and anger in different ways and some of us have embraced conspiracy theories and bizarre beliefs. American evangelicism has been a noxious influence, again. A government led by a woman finally legalised women's fertilty choices – and it seemed so inevitable a step that the opponents of change looked right through it and focused instead on another change: legalising and regulating cannabis.

Three years ago, in the closing panel of an Orcon IRL event looking back at 2017, I asked National MP Chris Bishop what he thought about the just-announced cannabis referendum – putting it to him that he was a law reformer and wondering how many of his caucus would be with him if actually passing the law came down to a conscience vote.

He said he hoped it would be a conscience vote (as we now know, things didn't work that way for National MPs) and then he said something very interesting.

I'm a bit worried about the referendum proposal. You know, be careful what you wish for. I'm not sure a referendum is the right place to conduct a sensible, evidence-based, informed debate about drug law. Because I'm telling you now, there are a lot of people out there whose last wish is an evidence-based, informed debate about drug law reform. And they will have voices and they will spend a lot of money and they will ... not monopolise, but they will put their view into the public domain and they will toxify the debate.

And actually, I may be wrong, but i think we will come to regret the referendum proposal. It seems elegant and it seems clever, but actually referenda are the wrong place to decide finely-grained public policy questions like drug reform. Particularly a debate where there's so many different elements and people will impute their own interpretation about what each word means.

So the debate around decriminalisation versus legalisation – there's a lot in that, like a lot, and even finding the wording of the referendum question is going to be massively politically contentious. You know, it sounds good, but be careful what you wish for if you're a drug law reformer.

Since then, many others have echoed Chris's thoughts on the desirability of a referendum. I'm more philosophical about that. A referendum is what was politically possible at the time – and referenda, in the form of the ballot initiatves in American states, are main reason we're even able to talk confidently about legalisation as a policy initiative, after decades of political roadblock.

But the parts about voices, money and "fine-grained policy"? Yes. It feels like one side in this referendum has been trying to talk about policy points and the other wants a culture war.

That's why I was interested three months ago when Cleve Cameron bought me a beer and asked if I'd be interested in getting involved with an idea he had for a campaign focused on normalising a "Yes" vote. It wasn't my usual style – which is basically shouting nerd facts at people – but the "No" campaigners had focused on making an evidence-based choice for "Yes" look deviant. That needed addressing. We needed to say that this was something that good people could support. The campaign would be called "We Do".

Cleve had been offered a three-week nationwide billposter campaign by Phantom Billstickers, who have a history of helping out on these issues. My friends, graphic designer Roxanne Hawthorne (the one who originally pointed Cleve my way) and festival production maestro Fred Kublikowski came aboard too. Kieran Scott agreed to photograph our volunteers for the posters. About an hour after I announced our plans on Twitter, my old friend Tim Wood came through with $5000 donation that all but covered our main initial cost – the printing of the posters themselves.

A PledgeMe campaign brought in another $5000-odd, which meant we could also do a campaign with A3 "retail" posters to go in cafes, bars, bakeries and the odd church. That cost money to execute because Phantom contracts out that part of its business, but Stuart Shepherd and Fred Soar at Soar Print did the posters for free for us.

Part of their decision, I'm sure, came down to a shared memory of our dear, lost friend Grant Fell, who I was able to help through his last, precious days with a green fairy oil. My feelings about Grant – and my strong sense of offence that the people who helped me help him were classed as criminals – has a lot to do with why I've been doing this too.

Later in the piece, we were offered digital billboard inventory by MBM, Lumo, Locky Docks and Go! Media and, with multiple national outdoor campaigns, we've wound up looking quite a lot bigger than the four or five munters trying to keep up with their day jobs that we actually are.

The campaign evolved as we rolled it out. The plan to generate most of our campaign material in a single day – by photographing our 60-odd volunteers and asking most of them of why they were voting "Yes" – turned out to be a good one. Our volunteers, a really lovely and diverse bunch, from students to seniors, gave us a lot to work with. And it was work: Roxanne in particular has done an unbelievable amount, not only in generating the visual collateral but guiding what we'd do next.

Most of the words have been me. People wanted more detail, so I wrote up more detail for our website. We also did something I hadn't initially anticipated: we started telling people who the other side was. It turned out that in 2020, people aren't very good at parsing information and where it comes from. So I wrote a page with some background on SAM-NZ, Say Nope to Dope and Family First. It covered the involvement of Scientology front organisations in SAM-NZ and the fringe religious conservatism of its principals.

We didn't really want to get involved in a culture war, but that's what happened. Since I wrote that page, other parts of the picture have emerged.

New Zealand-born researcher Brent Allpress spoke last week to Kathryn Ryan on Nine to Noon. Allpress did some of the key research for the new documentary People You May Know, which exposes a network based around what he characterised as "oil interests, large extractive industries and evangelical activists and dominionists who seek to end the separation of Church and State". Part of the network is a software company called Gloo, which uses masses of personal data to help evangelical churches target vulnerable people for conversion, an activity which is at least unethical and possibly illegal.

He also thought he'd identified a link between this network and our referendum campaign. Gloo also works for the US opioid rehab industry, which makes many millions from the country's opioid addiction crisis, and has helped with campaigns against cannabis legalisation in various US jurisdictions. Gloo's recovery services director, Steve Millette, is on the board of Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM), which this year bestowed its name on SAM-NZ, bringing together Family First and its offshoot Say Nope to Dope, the Scientologists and others.

Allpress says there is a lot of "dark money" flowing through this network, which already has a presence in Australia. Is that what we're seeing here? We can't really tell. The fact that Family First's income from donations has doubled in the past two years, and is triple what it was four years ago, may be material.

This isn't a quarrel with faith: I am friends with many believers and I respect, even envy, what they have in their communities. But it feels unnerving. Our campaign hasn't really had much grief (there's a silly ASA complaint waiting on publication of a decision) but I know the New Zealand Drug Foundation has been harassed and that the Make It Legal campaign had to roster moderators for 18 hours a day on its Facebook page in the face of a tide of aggressive commentary, much of it from American evangelicals. Everyone's pretty exhausted.

Will the referendum pass? I don't know. But there has been a mood shift in the past two or three weeks. It would have helped if the Public Health Association and the public health experts who published their emphatic call for a "Yes" vote in the New Zealand Medical Journal had come along sooner. It would have helped if the whole thing hadn't become a matter of partisan politics and MPs like Chris Bishop had been allowed to speak honestly. It would have helped if the chair of the NZMA had displayed even a minimal sense of responsibility, instead of creating this debacle. It would have helped if the popular Prime Minister had expressed a view – although in a year when protesters have carried signs likening her to Hitler, there could also have been undesirable impacts. But, again, there has been a shift and I'm a lot more optimisic than I was even three weeks ago.

The Ministry of Justice team which has done most of the work on the Cannabis Legalisation and Controll draft bill has done a remarkable job – this is thoughtful, careful legislation that takes on board the lessons of other jurisdictions and places public health and harm reduction at its centre.

If "Yes" prevails and it goes to select committee, I wouldn't want to make it any more onerous to provide and purchase cannabis legally: it's extremely tight as it is. But I'd get behind working on the already world-leading market allocation and licensing provisions to make it even harder for "Big Cannabis" to appear. I've thought all along that these are the most important parts of the the bill.

A few weeks ago, I took part in a respectful and useful debate on the referendum. Our opponents were good people, but they barely engaged with a policy point and leaned far too heavily on the idea that it's fine to carry on with the "soft decriminalisation" of the past decade.

But if it's no longer acceptable to prohibit, to prosecute and punish thousands of people over cannabis – and, in truth, I think even most "No" voters accept that – then the solution is not to keep on selectively applying the law. It's wrong and unfair and it produces racist and harmful outcomes. Let's do this honestly and properly.

A "No" vote in this referendum would be a vote for no solution in an environment where the need for sensible, honest law is becoming more acute. The cannabis market isn't standing still and voting to just keep doing what we're doing won't stop or change anything about it. It is, in the end, just a vote against change.

To return to where we started, there was a famously noisy debate on homosexual law reform in 1985. It wasn't the only such event around that time. The year before saw The Great Marijuana Debate, which was chaired by the late Peter Williams QC. The two events even had an antagonist in common – Invercargill MP Norman Jones, who predicted that homosexual law reform would make New Zealand "the sodomy capital of the South Pacific".

One law reform soon found its way to success; the other has drifted for decades since. I'm hopeful that on Saturday we will finally signal we're ready to deal with that unfinished business.

Please vote "Yes" to say you do support the Cannabis Legalisation and Control draft buill and, if you feel able, talk to friends and family about it. If you need more to read on why, visit the We Do website.

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