Cannabis reform frustrated

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Parliament’s so-called “progressive” majority fails to support Swarbrick’s medicinal cannabis reform

Within two days Parliament has considered two Bills on medicinal cannabis. The net result falls far below the reform of cannabis prohibition that the public wants and had a right to expect.

An extremely timid Government Bill passed its First Reading with all-party support. All it does is allow legal dispensation for only the terminally-ill to use regulated, commercially-produced cannabis products.

The second, a Private Member’s Bill piloted by Chloe Swarbrick, went beyond the Government’s as it would allow the use of cannabis in medically-certified cases of chronic pain. The patient, or their nominee, would have dispensation to grow cannabis, which would alleviate the problem of the prohibitive cost of commercially-produced medicinal cannabis products. This was too much. Parliament voted the First Reading of Swarbrick’s Bill down by 73 to 47.

Criticism has been levelled against the National Party for taking a party position against Swarbrick’s Bill – all National MPs voted against. National should be condemned of course, but the real question is why the so-called “progressive” majority did not pass this mild reform that had the support of Grey Power and, almost certainly, the majority of the general public.

When we were under the National-led government we were constantly told by the media, commentators, and even trade union leaders, that New Zealand First was part of the Left. We of the ISO constantly warned against this illusion by pointing out that NZF was a reactionary party of the petit-bourgeoisie, fearful of both big multi-national capital and the organised working class. Events bear out this analysis. One week we are told that on NZ First insistence the Government’s employment relations proposals would have to include keeping the 90-day trial period law for small businesses. The following week all NZ First MPs vote against Swarbrick’s medicinal cannabis Bill. Labour is failing to bring its junior coalition partner into line. One suspects that the Labour leadership is quite comfortable with allowing the tail to wag the dog. NZF provides Labour with a constant alibi for not pushing against the weight of bourgeois opinion that it feels on its shoulders.

But it was not just a matter of failing to hold a coalition Government line in support of Swarbrick’s Bill. Not only National and NZ First voted against relief for those in chronic pain. The Labour Party allowed its MPs a conscience vote. You may well ask why. The answer may be twofold. By making this a conscience issue Ardern masked the problem of enforcing NZ First into coalition unity. Secondly, the Labour leadership may not have had the political courage to enforce party discipline over the caucus’s socially-conservative rightwing. Eight Labour MPs voted against the Swarbrick Bill. They deserve to be named, shamed, and remembered for future reference for their inhumane stand: Peeni Henare, Willie Jackson, Anahila Kanongata’a-Suisuiki, Stuart Nash, Greg O’Connor, Jenny Salesa, Meka Whaitiri and Poto Williams.

Chloe Swarbrick blames her Bill’s defeat on MPs being out of touch with public opinion. I don’t buy that. MP’s are very much in touch with public opinion, but the parliamentary pretence of representing the people conflicts with the politics of drug prohibition. From the standpoint of the ruling class drug prohibition is a useful weapon for keeping the working class disorganised. The black market that the bourgeois class professes to abhor works perfectly for them by providing a continual excuse to bring working-class youth, particularly Māori and Pasifika youth, embroiled in the criminal justice system and often jailed. At the same time, the criminalisation of the same youth, preponderantly brown-skinned, is used ideologically by the bourgeois media to divide the working class by alluding to race and illegality. It is for these reasons that the National Party, the main political representatives of the bourgeoisie, opposes the relaxation of cannabis prohibition for fear that one step of liberality may follow another and the whole house of prohibition will evaporate. It was a political necessity for National to allow controlled cannabidiol products for the terminally-ill, but they draw the line at any further relaxation.

On the Government side this episode provides further evidence of New Zealand First’s rightwing politics and of Labour’s timidity. This combination seems to be the shape of things to come.