The Week in Politics: The cannabis conflict has just begun

7:47 pm on 6 December 2019

By Peter Wilson *

Analysis - When Andrew Little was asked at his press conference on Tuesday what 14 grams of cannabis looked like, he had no idea.

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Justice Minister Andrew Little, pictured here flanked by Green co-leader James Shaw, has had quite a busy week. Photo: RNZ /Dom Thomas

The justice minister explained that because he didn't use it, he didn't know. That was the first indication of how hard his task is going to be as he sets out to draw up a cannabis legalisation bill that will be put to a referendum at the same time as next year's election.

Mr Little released a draft bill, the government's first stab at it. Among many pages of controls and limitations covering sale and use, it sets the amount a person aged over 20 can buy per day at 14 grams. That's based on an estimation of the amount a regular user would smoke in a week.

Green Party co-leader James Shaw said he hoped there would be a constructive and mature debate around the details. There was no way that was going to happen.

In Parliament the next day National's Paula Bennett held up a 14 gram bag of oregano, which she described as look-alike cannabis, and asked Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern: "Does she think it promotes the wellbeing of New Zealanders when, under her government's legislation, people will be able to purchase up to 14 grams a day of weed?"

Paula Bennett in the House of Parliament with 14 grams of a cannabis lookalike.

National deputy leader Paula Bennett with a 14-gram bag of oregano in the House. Photo: Parliament TV

The opposition has made it a political issue with the apparent aim of showing up Labour as recklessly irresponsible.

There's not much doubt the 14 gram limit will be lowered. New Zealand First will have its say and probably claim the credit.

According to Mr Little, 14 grams is about half the amount Canada decided on when it legalised cannabis. According to Stuff, which cited a University of Pennsylvania study, cannabis smokers roll about three joints per gram - meaning 42 joints from 14 grams.

How it would be possible to limit a person's purchase or possession of cannabis to 14 grams a day isn't clear, nor is it clear how a person would be limited to growing two plants - or four in a household of two or more people - another provision in the bill.

Mr Little hopes to have a bill in its final form early next year. The referendum will be a simple yes/no question on it.

Unlike the End of Life Choice Bill, it will not be passed before the election. It will be up to the incoming government to put it through Parliament and that's sure to be another long-running and controversial exercise in public consultation.

Mr Little fronted another bill this week, one that effectively bans foreign donations to political parties by lowering the threshold from $1500 to $50.

The government put it through under urgency, amid strident protest from National. The minister said intelligence officials had confirmed the potential risk of foreign interference in New Zealand's democracy was real. National voted for it but said it was a "very minor" step and should have gone further.

Nick Smith

Nick Smith led the opposition's criticism of passing what it said was a minor bill under urgency. (file photo) Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King

From now on it will be up to party secretaries to ensure donations over $50 don't come from foreign sources.

While this was happening, two former New Zealand First party officeholders were asking to speak at a closed meeting of Parliament's Justice Select Committee.

Former party president Lester Gray and former treasurer Colin Forster wanted to reveal what they knew about the way NZ First using a foundation to handle donations, which is being investigated by the Electoral Commission.

Both men said there were personal and legal risks to speaking out, but the select committee - which is covered by parliamentary privilege - would be a safe place to do it.

National's Nick Smith, a committee member, told Parliament Labour MPs had refused to agree to the request. Committee chair Meka Whaitiri, a Labour MP, refused to comment and said she was considering laying a complaint against Dr Smith for revealing confidential committee business.

NZ First leader Winston Peters said the men didn't know anything anyway.

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NZ First leader Winston Peters Photo: RNZ /Dom Thomas

The Electoral Commission isn't saying anything about its inquiry, other than that it is under way. The commission's chair, Marie Shroff, was in front of a select committee this week for a routine annual review hearing and she was asked about the extent of its investigative powers.

Ms Shroff said she had the power when she was Privacy Commissioner to acquire documents and had been surprised to find the Electoral Commission did not. She hoped Parliament would do something about that.

Ms Shroff was being questioned by Dr Smith, who was trying to find out whether the commission's inquiry was compromised by its lack of investigative powers. Ms Shroff pointed out that it could refer cases to the police if it thought they were sufficiently serious.

* Peter Wilson is a life member of Parliament's press gallery, 22 years as NZPA's political editor and seven as parliamentary bureau chief for NZ Newswire.