National's U-turn on medical marijuana gets cautious approval from experts

Supporters of drug reform are welcoming National's change of heart on medicinal cannabis, but questioning why the party didn't bring up its ideas at the health select committee.

A Member's Bill in the name of Shane Reti, the MP for Whangarei, has been put in the ballot. It goes further than the Government's own medicinal marijuana Bill in that it outlines what products will and won't be available, and how they would be dispensed.

"Among other things, our Bill is going to make clear who can buy medicinal cannabis, who can sell it, and exactly how that will work," said leader Simon Bridges.

A more liberal approach put forward in a Bill by the Green Party's Chloe Swarbrick was voted down earlier this year.

Ross Bell, executive director of the Drug Foundation, says Mr Reti's Bill "provides the detail a lot of people wanted".

"The Labour Bill said 'pass the Bill and we'll do the detail later'. The beauty of the National Bill [is] they've done a tonne of work and it lays out quite a few things.

"I think the frustration though is, why couldn't they have done this through the select committee process? They've been sitting, hearing public submissions - both parties - sitting, hearing public submissions. That was the time to negotiate this level of detail. I wish it had been sorted out at select committee."

Ross Bell.
Ross Bell. Photo credit: The AM Show

The select committee recommended no changes to the Government's Bill, which Mr Bell says was "rushed" as part of its 100-day plan.

"If they hadn't rushed it they could have presented to the select committee the Bill with all the regulations that builds the scheme that they [wanted]."

Through it contains "some strange things", Mr Bell says Mr Reti's Bill shows it wouldn't have been very difficult for the Government to be more specific about how a medicinal marijuana regime would work.

"Canada's been doing this for ages, parts of the US, lots of European countries have been doing this - it's not rocket science."

The vast majority of submissions to the health select committee were in favour of liberalising the current regime.

"A lot of medical cannabis patients who had never engaged with politics before got brave, told their very powerful stories in a process that's quite alien to them, and they weren't listened to," said Mr Bell.

Ms Swarbrick also criticised National's unwillingness to engage with the health select committee. She told Stuff on Wednesday her party is yet to see what's in Mr Reti's Bill.

"It's better late than never, but I urge the Nats to put the political football in the bin and progress crucial change, because people are presently in unnecessary pain and suffering under a status quo demonstrably unfit for purpose...  I'm gutted they have wasted time and public money by voting against my Bill which would've open the scope just six months ago."

Previous National leader Bill English said there was no need to change the current system.

"We don't want an official marijuana industry. We're not going to be legalising it," he said in 2017.

A recent poll commissioned by the Drug Foundation found 87 percent support for legal or decriminalised use of marijuana for pain relief, and 67 percent support for legalisation or decriminalisation for personal recreational use.

Mr Reti's Bill does not allow for loose-leaf or edible products. The Government's Bill does, but doesn't yet specify how it would be grown or purchased, considering it remains illegal.

But as a Member's Bill, debate on National's proposals will only happen if it's drawn randomly from the ballot. That could happen very soon, or never.