Medicinal cannabis: National MPs' last-minute backtrack

A handful of National MPs conducted a last minute U-turn on medicinal cannabis, deciding not to cross the floor and vote in favour of a Bill that would go further than the Government's in widening access.

Chloe Swarbrick's Bill would allow doctors to prescribe raw cannabis to people with "any debilitating condition".

The Bill was defeated heavily, voted down by 73 to 47 votes.

It was supported by all the Greens, ACT's David Seymour, and most of Labour, but it needed support from members of National or NZ First to pass through First Reading at Select Committee, where Bills go through a refining process.

On Tuesday, Opposition leader Bill English said a "small number" of his MPs who felt strongly about the issue were permitted to cross the floor and vote against the National bloc on the issue.

But when it came to the vote on Wednesday night, all 56 National MPs voted against it.

So what changed for that handful who were given permission to cross the floor?

It's speculated some of the younger, more socially liberal MPs in the National caucus wanted to vote in favour of Ms Swarbrick's Bill. 

On Wednesday morning, National member for Hutt South Chris Bishop said he would be supporting Chloe Swarbrick's Member's Bill. By evening, he had changed his vote to a no.

"Some will say it's embarrassing to say one thing in the morning and do another later," he wrote on Facebook on Thursday morning.

"That's probably true. But I decided it would be worse to do the wrong thing than to just follow what I'd said just to be consistent".

He told Newshub on Wednesday night he believes the way to "establish a legal, regulated market that makes medicinal cannabis easier to access and cheaper" is through widening the Government's Bill, which will allow the terminally ill to use cannabis plants as an interim measure, while a pharmaceutical cannabis market is established in New Zealand.

It's unlikely the Select Committee process will see the Government's Bill widened to the extent of Ms Swarbrick's Bill, but the NZ Drug Foundation believes there is scope for improvement.

Newshub understands another National U-turner was Auckland Central MP Nikki Kaye, who delivered a lengthy, hand-wringing speech, in which she said the 'no' vote was the most difficult decision of her political career.

When asked by Newshub's Jenna Lynch whether Wednesday's leadership spill speculation put pressure on the National caucus to present a unified front, Mr Bishop said that's not the case.

"Gossip today has been a coincidental occurrence in the background," he insisted.

"I changed my mind. I intended to vote for the Bill this morning. I reflected on it during the course of the day, and I changed my mind. Politicians do do that."

"I talked to Nikki Kaye, who is in a similar position to me. I feel very strongly about the issue... I think we can and should do a better job for people who want to access medicinal cannabis".

Ms Swarbrick, who picked up the Member's Bill from colleague Julie Anne Genter, says she's gutted.

"This was [always] about the people who are in pain and suffering and criminalised because of archaic and demonstrably unfit for purpose law. 

"I wish that the MPs who voted this down could have heard the stories of the people whose lives their decision materially affects. It was emotional and hard discussing the outcome with those people after this vote. 

"It doesn't end here," she said.

Amongst those disappointed with the Bill's failure to pass to Select Committee is former Prime Minister Helen Clark.

"Often MPs will give a Bill a chance to progress so that at least the evidence can be heard," she said on Twitter. 

"All is not lost in this case, as submissions can be made on broadening the effect of the Government Bill."