No chance of cannabis liberalisation in short term
The next 12 months will not be fruitful for those wanting a serious policy debate about possible changes to our cannabis laws, but there may be an opening for such a debate during the 2008–11 Parliament.
Those wanting to lobby for policy change need first to understand the cardinal rule of politics: politicians care about nothing except getting elected and re-elected.
Most people suspect that this rule is true but they don’t understand the extent of it, and they can be shocked when initially confronted by its savagery. In fairness to our politicians, it could be argued that the rule is highly democratic in that it demands they reflect the will of the people. Politicians also justify themselves by saying that, unless they are elected and re-elected, they can do nothing to put in place their brilliant plans for our futures.
When it comes to cannabis, the basic political assumption is that the public is either conservative or indifferent on the question of law reform. Those in favour of liberalisation are seen as a minority of mostly youngish Green or Labour voters, or libertarian ACT or National voters, who take their policy guidance from the pro-legalisation Economist magazine. Neither of these groups is seen as swing voters, who politicians care most about because they ultimately decide elections.
This basic assumption may be discouraging for proponents of decriminalisation or legalisation and, in fact, may even overstate the public’s appetite for liberalisation of existing laws.
A brief poll carried out exclusively for the New Zealand Drug Foundation by New Zealand’s most-respected polling company, UMR Research Ltd, suggests that fully 25 percent of the population agree that existing laws should be made “a lot tougher”. Another 9 percent believe the law should be made “a little tougher”.
|Toughening laws on marijuana|
Using a 1-5 scale (1 means make the law a lot tougher, 5 means make the law more liberal and 3 means no change) to what extent do you think the current law on marijuana should be changed?
|1 - Make the law a lot tougher||25|
|2 - Make the law tougher||9|
| 3 - Make no change to the current law
|4 - Make the law more liberal||8|
|5 - Make the law a lot more liberal||11|
| Total "more liberal"
That means more than a third of the population say they want tougher laws. In contrast, just 11 percent say the law should be made “a lot more liberal”, and another 8 percent think it should be “a little more liberal”. Nearly half of us, 46 percent, believe there should be no change at all.
Most significantly, these proportions are relatively stable across income groups, gender and geography – although far fewer Wellingtonians than the national average want the law made tougher, reflecting how out of touch with the rest of the country the capital city often is.
When it comes to age groups, there is the expected general trend of people becoming more conservative as they get older. Interestingly, however, 20 percent of people under 30 say they want tougher laws.
There is no majority for liberalisation in any demographic group.
Professionals in the cannabis abuse and public policy industries argue that a simple polling question is not a sound basis on which to develop public policy, and they are right. But they are experts in a particular field, not politicians having to develop policy across the full range of topics and needing it to be popular in order to be elected. All our political parties will receive roughly the same polling data telling them that the net result from adopting a policy of more liberal cannabis laws will be to lose votes, and none of our important political parties has any room to lose votes over the next 15 months.
National is sitting on 50 percent support but with no obvious coalition partners. To be assured of becoming the government, it can’t afford to lose even a few percentage points.
Labour is now sitting in the low 30s. It knows that, should a poll be published giving it a result with a two at the front of it – even 29.9 percent, the media will talk of the risk of a “collapse”, and that such talk will become self-fulfilling, driving its support to levels from which it cannot recover.
The Green Party, usually seen as the most likely to push for liberalisation, sits at around MMP’s five percent threshold. Should it fall below five percent, it is out of parliament altogether, and its strategists believe that Nandor Tanczos’s association with cannabis law reform in previous elections cost it support from the sort of worried suburban mums that Sue Kedgley might otherwise appeal to.
The Maori Party draws its funding and many of its votes from more traditional Maori society, many of whom perceive that colonisation has poisoned their people with alcohol and tobacco. They will oppose anything that risks being seen as condoning the use of any drug. While the party’s leading figure, Tariana Turia, has said there should be a level of cannabis reform, she says she cannot support full legalisation. She will not want cannabis to be an issue for her party, which seeks every vote possible in order to hold the balance of power after the next election.
The centre parties, New Zealand First and United Future, reflecting their elderly and conservative voters, are staunchly opposed to liberalisation. The Jim Anderton and ACT parties do not count.
If advocates for liberalisation want to make progress politically, they will first need to convince the public, in order to shift the polls. Labour’s Electoral Finance Bill, however, will make it illegal for the New Zealand Drug Foundation or anyone else to effectively communicate with the public on this or any other political issue in 2008.
There is one opening ahead, however. Our likely next Prime Minister, John Key, has staked his political career on addressing the issue of the so-called “underclass”, reversing social exclusion and building social cohesion. Key knows that, when he is seeking re-election in 2011, he will be accountable against those goals.
In the lead-up to the 2011 election, our media will return to McGehan Close (which is in the Mt Roskill electorate of likely opposition leader Phil Goff) to interview Aroha Ireland, who Key took to Waitangi this year. The media will ask her and her neighbours what has changed in the three years Key has been Prime Minister. If the answers are not satisfactory, Key knows he will be a one-term Prime Minister.
Those who believe in the principle of harm minimisation rather than criminalisation have an opportunity to demonstrate to the new Prime Minister that reform of cannabis laws is necessary to break the influence of criminal gangs, allow effective treatment for drug abuse and improve the quality of information available to young people.
Reform advocates need to show Key that only by acting on this issue, will he be able to make progress in reducing the underclass. In short, they need to show Key how liberalisation will help him get re-elected, notwithstanding what he reads in the polls about public attitudes towards cannabis law reform.
Some will read this as a pessimistic assessment of New Zealand politics. But if it is true that liberalisation will help tackle wider social issues, then it should not be beyond the New Zealand Drug Foundation and others to make that case to help secure the social gains that are claimed. If those gains cannot be demonstrated conclusively to the new Prime Minister, then it is only right that any government should proceed cautiously.
- Matthew Hooton is Managing Director of Auckland public relations company Exceltium Ltd, and a prominent political commentator.