Cannabis referendum: Paula Bennett on why she won't debate Chlöe Swarbrick

Paula Bennett has defended her decision to refuse a debate with Green MP Chlöe Swarbrick on cannabis law reform.

Bennett, the National Party's drug law reform spokesperson, recently missed two opportunities to debate the Green MP, who has strongly advocated legalising recreational cannabis.

She declined to appear alongside Swarbrick on The Project last Monday and refused to appear on TVNZ's Q&A a week later where she again would have faced Swarbrick.

When asked why she didn't appear on The Project, a spokesperson said Bennett had a longstanding commitment in her diary and couldn't make it that day.

As for not appearing on Q&A, Bennett said: "This is a really important decision for the country to decide in about 18 months' time. It's not about Chlöe or me; it's about the public being as well informed as they can."

Bennett told Newshub: "Locking us into a 'for and against' argument at this time is not the best way for the public to get the best information."

The pair hasn't debated head-on since January after Bennett was given National's new drug law reform portfolio as the prospect of a referendum on cannabis loomed.

National MP Paula Bennett.
National MP Paula Bennett. Photo credit: Getty

Bennett, 50, defended her position on Twitter, after journalist Russell Brown said: "She's refusing to appear with a 24 year-old MP, apparently because she thinks she'll come off badly if she does. This is beyond ridiculous."

The National MP replied: "And what's her age got to do with it?"

Swarbrick said she's "always keen to discuss and engage with the public and Parliamentarians of whichever stripe on all important issues. That's why we've long advocated for cross-party dialogue and work".

Bennett has raised concerns around the connection between cannabis use and poor mental health, and questioned why the proposed legal age has been set at 20, when the human brain is still developing up to the age of 25.

She also raised concern about cannabis-infused edibles that could be "dressed up" to appeal to young people. But Swarbrick brushed that off last week, suggesting edibles targeted at children would be banned.

Swarbrick, the Green Party's drug law reform spokesperson, wants to see cannabis regulated in New Zealand to bring it out of the control of gangs and to stop the spread of harmful, unregulated substances. 

Green MP Chlöe Swarbrick.
Green MP Chlöe Swarbrick. Photo credit: Getty

"The Green Party has worked hard to ensure next year's referendum will be on a detailed proposed law, so New Zealanders will know exactly what they're voting for," she told Newshub.

She welcomed the Government's announcement earlier this month that New Zealanders will vote on legislation to legalise recreational cannabis at the 2020 election, despite National leader Simon Bridges criticising it as non-binding.

The Government's proposed legislation would only become law if the current coalition partners were voted in again in 2020 - but National would not be obliged to do so.

Bridges refused to commit, telling Newshub last week: "I would need to see the law and I'd need to have answers to some basic questions like, what's the tax rate going to be, will gangs be able to legally sell drugs in New Zealand?"

Swarbrick said voters "deserve to know that each political party will honour the result of the referendum".