NZ pot reform gets shafted

New Zealand’s recent federal election produced bad results for the Kiwi cannabis culture. The governing Labour party was re-elected, forming a coalition government with United Future, a born-again Christian party. A key point in the coalition agreement was continued repression of marijuana users.
“The government will not introduce legislation to change the legal status of cannabis and will implement a comprehensive drug strategy aimed at protecting young people and educating them on the dangers of drug use.” This was one of the two conditions which United Future won from Labour in return for its support. The other was the creation of a “Commission for the Family.”

United Future was the surprise winner in this election, going from one member of Parliament to seven. The boost to its fortunes was largely the result of party leader Peter Dunne capturing the media spotlight in a televised party leaders debate. This was a turning point in a media-driven campaign that elevated image over substance and poll numbers over issues.

The campaign featured a celebrity boxing match, an art forgery scandal, a contaminated corn scare, and Prime Minister Helen Clark walking out of a live TV interview. American-style personality politics continued its encroachment into New Zealand, and any issue that could not be reduced to an easily digested soundbite was swept under the table ? particularly the cannabis issue.

New Zealand’s cannabis community had pinned its hopes on the Green Party, the only party of the seven in Parliament to adopt cannabis law reform as its policy. The Greens had held the balance of power before the election, which was called early on the strength of polls indicating Labour had a chance of winning an outright majority in Parliament.

Prior to the election, the Greens enjoyed a groundswell of support for their firm stand against the introduction of genetically engineered crops. A moratorium on GE crops is due to expire in October 2003, and Clark has been promoting biotech as a growth stimulant for New Zealand’s largely rural-based economy. At the same time, the New Zealand government has been negotiating a free trade agreement with the United States.

Kiwi cannabis activists believe it is no coincidence that the government is resisting pot law reform. The free trade agreement is supported by powerful business interests, and toeing the American line on prohibition may well be part of the deal – along with ending New Zealand’s GE moratorium.

Shortly after the 1999 election, the NZ government agreed to a select committee inquiry into the legal status of cannabis, in return for Green support. It then proceeded to thwart the inquiry at every turn (CC#27, Parliament’s pot position). The committee did not produce a report before the election and the evidence presented at the hearings overwhelmingly in favor of liberalising the law remains unpublished.

In 1994, as leader of the opposition, Clark said apropos of cannabis law:

“I reject the view that our approach should be one of prohibition. It does not work.”

Clark has now committed her government to pursuing policies she denounced eight years ago. She could have formed a government with Green backing – the Greens increased their seats from seven to nine – but chose instead to choose the United Future as her allies, thereby sacrificing the best interests of New Zealand in favor of subservience to the USA.