National and Labour are “irresponsible” in their continued refusal to tackle the issue of reforming the laws governing cannabis – and other currently illicit drugs – Drug Foundation head Ross Bell says.
Mr Bell’s broadside is prompted by Gareth Morgan’s launch of The Opportunity Party’s policy on pot, which takes a regulatory approach much like several states in the US that have recently legalised the drug.
“I think it’s right to start talking about that,” Mr Bell says, although he acknowledges that it’s difficult to give the policy a hard rating beyond that given “we’re in new territory here” and that “once you reject prohibition and then try regulations, the devil is in the detail.”
“There is only initial experience to learn from in terms of regulating cannabis in the way The Opportunity Party is talking about … it’s early days in the US to see how that’s going.
“But I think this party has put enough thought into whatever reform, whatever regulations you put in place, you do in baby steps. And I think that’s the right approach.”
Several other minor parties also get praise from Mr Bell for their positions on cannabis law.
“I think the Green Party has a sensible policy where they’re looking at a Portugal-style model of decriminalisation for all drugs and then, over time, a regulated approach,” he says. “I think that’s very thoughtful."
Then there’s the Maori Party, which — having long been “very conservative on this — is now saying, look, they won’t want to talk about legalisation but decriminalisation is on the table.”
And United Future’s Peter Dunne, “our drug policy minister, has put out a very thoughtful framework for the kind of staged approach he would like to see.”
“I think that’s a good sign because we’ve never been in this position before where politicians are willing to talk about drugs in a thoughtful way in an election year,” he says.
Major parties’ silence
However, these politicians’ positions are in stark contrast to the “absolute silence from the Nats and Labour, which I think is an untenable position for them to hold,” Mr Bell says.
“You’ve had National for a long time put up all these straw men about why the status quo is good enough and Labour telling us, ‘oh no, we’ve got more important things to think about — if we were government, we might do something around drug law reform in term two.’
“Well, I’ve become a very impatient person and I don’t accept any of those positions anymore,” Mr Bell says.
He acknowledges, nonetheless, that drug reform will not advance until “one of those big parties to play this game as well, to join the conversation.”
“The onus now goes on them to prove to us why they think the status quo is the right approach.”
Road to reform
Mr Bell believes New Zealand needs “a clear timeline from this election forward for how and when we should reform our drug law.”
He envisages this involving:
“That will allow all the noise to settle down ... by 2020 we'll have a new law, everyone’s happy and relaxed, the sky hasn’t fallen in and we can move onto other issues.”