This week Parliament took a double hit of cannabis legislation; it was enough to make you see a blue, blood supermoon.
The two cannabis bills have a single history but very different futures.
Two bills in one week on the same topic is unusual and two potential personal votes are rare indeed (a personal vote is one when MPs are expected to vote their conscience rather than a party line).
The Government Bill enables medicinal cannabis via a pharmaceutical approach, while the Member’s Bill allowed a grow-your-own-medicine solution.
So What Now?
Well, despite the failure of Green MP Chloe Swarbrick’s Member’s Bill, both approaches still have a future.
The Misuse of Drugs (Medicinal Cannabis) Amendment Bill in the name of the Minister of Health David Clark, will:
- Introduce a medicinal cannabis scheme to enable access to quality products
- Introduce a statutory defence for terminally ill people to possess and use illicit cannabis
- Remove cannabidiol (CBD) from the schedule of controlled drugs
Having passed a first reading the Bill is sent to one of Parliament’s sub-committees - the Health Select Committee which will ask the public to send it feedback on the Bill.
The MPs on the committee will want to know what works, what doesn’t, and how it could be changed to be more effective.
Anyone can write a submission and you can also turn up to give evidence and answer questions from MPs.
“Introducing this bill is really relevant to a whole lot of people, and this is why it's important for us to pass it on after first reading,” said Labour MP Jenny Salesa.
“It is incumbent on us to ensure in terms of the legislation we end up with, not just as Government but as an Opposition, that members of the public can come and let us know how it is that they would like us to move forward.”
While the bill was being debated on Tuesday, MPs were already making notes about the things they think need to be discussed.
“Although this is a poorly designed, politically-driven bill, on balance we have to be mindful of the needs of those terminally ill people,” said National’s Jonathan Coleman who was formerly the Minister of Health.
“National will be supporting this bill but we're expecting to see some big changes, some big improvements, and we will have some very big questions when this comes to the select committee,” he said.
New Zealand First MP Jenny Marcroft said the Bill was “a good start” and will enable “more time to investigate all aspects of this issue.”
In six months or so the Committee will send its findings back to the House for a second reading, probably with a few recommendations for adjustments.
National MP Simon O’Connor said he hopes a strong framework is developed that treats the product like “any other real medicine”.
“I want to put on the record that there is absolutely nothing exceptional about cannabis compared to any other plant that we derive pharmaceutical products from,” he said.
“We have a real opportunity here, Minister, to be able to create a proper framework, because real medicine works in a scientific framework. It's a framework that's rational. It's repeatable. It's measurable. As I say, it's a framework that's scientific. It's medical. It's pharmacological.
One of the things that may be detailed more in committee is the regulation-making power the Bill includes for decisions on things like pharmaceutical quality.
“A major part of this Bill is the development of a medicinal cannabis scheme,” Dr Clark told the House.
“This will include an advisory committee to review the current requirements for prescribing medicinal cannabis, setting minimum product quality standards to improve patient safety and give medical practitioners confidence, and allow for the domestic cultivation and manufacture of medicinal cannabis products.”
He said in time the scheme will allow a greater supply of medicinal cannabis products worldwide.
The other bill, under Green MP Chloe Swarbrick’s name, failed to pass its first reading on Wednesday with a vote of 47 to 73 despite Ms Swarbrick appeals to her fellow MPs’ consciences before the vote.
“Surely, the point of our laws is to keep people safe and prevent them from suffering,” she said.
“I believe it is Parliament's moral obligation to change that law or, at the very least, be brave enough to listen to those who it is hurting, to open our hearts and our minds.”
Strictly speaking, a bill rejected by the House has no further life but it can still have influence.
It is highly likely that many people who would have made submissions on the Swarbrick Bill, whether they supported it or not, will instead make submissions on the Government Bill.
And there’s another kind of influence it may have, as indicated by National MP Nicky Kaye during the debate.
Ms Kaye voted with her party and against the Bill, but indicated she would have voted for it if doing so would have made the difference.
“I'm not going to cross the floor on a bill that I know, even with my vote from the National Party, we don't have the numbers for,” she said.
“What I will do, is I will work with Chloe Swarbrick, I will work with the Prime Minister, I will work with those other members of New Zealand First that want change around those people who have chronic pain or debilitating conditions to provide greater access for either cannabis products or loose leaf.”
She also had a message to members of the public.
“ It's very easy to look at parliamentarians and think they don't care. That is not my experience of this place. People do care. There is a pathway through, and I'll be fighting for that.”