Last night, the two titans of the cannabis referendum came together for their first televised debate on the issue – Paula Bennett and Chlöe Swarbrick.
This was a matchup a long time coming. Paula Bennett and Chlöe Swarbrick have skirmished on the cannabis referendum for months, with heated exchanges on social media about the issue, and Paula’s reluctance/refusal to debate Swarbrick, the Green Party spokesperson for the issue. To quote–screenshot from a few months ago:
In preparation for this debate, I decided to watch the 53 minute ‘Pub Politics’ cannabis referendum debate hosted by Martyn Bradbury at popular Ponsonby cesspit Chapel Bar, featuring the pair, alongside ACT Leader David Seymour and Chris Fowlie. Two headliners, two support acts. It’s a lively informed debate: Bennett and Swarbrick made a lot of great points – they agreed a bit, they disagree a lot, and both seemed well informed on their own views.
Needless to say, their appearance on Q&A was an improvement on that debate. One, there’s one less ACT leader. Two, both parties have had a dry run at the discussion already, and are probably as familiar with each other’s talking points as they are their own. Three, Jack Tame is quite good at letting people say their part while also calling them on their part should it be required.
I’ll be perfectly honest: I came into this expecting, and kind of wanting, an utter shitfight. Two politicians, on relatively opposing sides of an issue, on the television? Let’s break out the bubbles and get our fingersnaps ready! Leave your hat at home, because we’re going to be sitting in some shade.
What I got was instead… an informed, low heat, debate about an issue that two politicians are informed about, are passionate about, and happen to be on opposite sides of. Which is really nice, and comforting to watch.
Here’s the highlights, or talking points as I see them:
- “We are literally setting on fire $200 million dollars a year that could be better spent targeted on things that I think Paula would agree like methamphetamine or mental health and addiction treatment.”, says Swarbrick. Bennett counters this by saying the argument is the black market – “I don’t want young people going to gang headquarters” – and that legal, regulated supply has to meet demand, and be more readily available than cannabis on the black market. Liberal use of the word literally there, Swarbrick, but I’ll allow it.
- Swarbrick defends setting the age at 20 for availability of cannabis. It’s around the issue of personal responsibility, and drawing a line in the sand somewhere. “Wherever you set the age, you are going have to deal with what happens to people who are underneath that age. What we are saying with the age of 20 years old is that is a practical step that is measured to find that balance between personal responsibility and the age at which people can make informed decisions.” The point? Nobody should be consuming it under 20, but the people who are, are doing it with appropriate education and evidence base. Sure!
- Teenage use of cannabis in New Zealand is going down! Paula Bennett says with a wink: “They’re getting smarter than we were when we were young in that they’re not drinking and not smoking tobacco either. Our stats for teen use are going down without us having to legalise, and I just say, well let’s keep that going and spend some of that money on education.” She argues that New Zealand is heading in the right direction, why risk it with normalisation and proliferation of retail outfits?
- Paula Bennett clarifies, really importantly, that she does support the use of cannabis for medicinal use, including CBD oil. Important clarification! Good to know.
- Paula Bennett also believes that we’ve decriminalised cannabis through the Misuse of Drugs Act. Chlöe Swarbrick counters this and says that despite moving away from the criminalisation, we still have just than 4000 people receiving cannabis convictions. “Cannabis convictions still ruin lives and they ruin potential, whether you’re talking about employment opportunities or the opportunity to travel overseas.”
- Swarbrick states that the important thing that we get from legalisation is regulation of the supply chain, and the opportunity to impose a legal duty of care, and standards of potency. “The only way we get to control the potency is through that regulation.” She also addresses that Canada, who have, obviously, legalised cannabis, have some lessons they can learn from, namely around the number of outlets and taxation.
- Bennett says that she’s not sure if she would support decriminalisation: “I’m not sure. I would have to see what that looked like, I’d have to know there was the rehabilitation – it would be another whole debate.” Sure, just not at Chapel Bar! Why not try Metrolanes? They’ve got the space.
- There’s a lot of talk about testing in cases of drug driving – impairment versus chemicals registering in somebody’s system. Swarbrick argues for the classic walk-in-a-line test as the most effective that we’re able to do – it’s once more about education, how much can a driver consume, so on and so forth. With legalisation, we can regulate and educate people about the harms.
- Bennett counters this with the saliva test – it takes about five to eight minutes, and set the limit high. “There’s young people now, four of them going out, one sober driver. The sober driver won’t drink alcohol but all four will take some dope, and all the evidence suggests that drug driving is safer than drink driving, and of course it’s not.” The Associate Minister of Health is figuring this out, apparently! Great. Good on them.
- On the topic of whether workplaces should be able to test people, Swarbrick has this to say: “My position is that if somebody who, on their weekend, is being an adult and engaging in the activities that they choose to engage in and that activity is illegal, they come to work a few days later and they are not impaired, then it should not be within interest, it shouldn’t bear any – there is absolutely no concern that the employer should have.” Hear that, boss? If I want to torrent The Hours and watch it on my own time, that’s none of your business! Thank you for implicitly endorsing this, Chlöe Swarbrick.
- There is discussion about people turning up to work after using cannabis, like the cops, and similar. “For police they can’t turn up impaired, but for police there’s gun, and there’s different rules.” I’ve never thought about this! Imagine! Turning into a political debate and learning things. It’s like it’s the 90s! The 1890s.
- The one moment it actually gets heated (albeit a low, scrambled egg kind of heat) is this exchange, which I will transcribe:
Jack Tame: Can I ask you about alcohol? You referenced alcohol before the ad break and said you were concerned about the level of alcohol harm in New Zealand. Would you support regulations or a type of around alcohol advertising?
Paula Bennett: It’s so difficult in that area because we’ve… kind of let that cat out of that bag.
Jack Tame: It’s pretty easy to change–
[Some legitimate, untranscribable crosstalk. Believe me, I tried.]
Paula Bennett: How are we gonna do it actually then with marijuana, with cannabis?
[Crosstalk, of a Tame flavour.]
Paula Bennett: We’re discussing cannabis at the moment – so are we going to have as many outlets? Can you buy cannabis in the same retail outlet?–
Chlöe Swarbrick: I can actually, I’d love to answer that.
Paula Bennett: But we don’t have the answers. It’s all good that you’re giving them Chlöe, but where’s the minister that’s actually writing this legislation. Where’s the responsibility from the actual government and the ministers and giving the right information to New Zealanders?
Fair! A bit hard to argue with that, but if Q&A had more time to let these two people spend arguing about it, I’d happily watch it. Look, it’s just nice in this era where heads of state can barely send letters to fellow heads of state without fucking it up, to see two politicians engage with each other, respectfully and without any personal poison involved.
In the interest of balance, I’ll leave you with their closing statements:
“The point that I want to leave people with is that right now we have the worst possible situation. We are empowering the criminal underground and we know for a fact that 400,000 New Zealanders are using cannabis on an annual basis and 10% of New Zealanders will have tried cannabis by the time they’re 21. The majority of people will have been exposed to it while they’re at high school. We have the opportunity to have some kind of control over what is currently chaos and the best way to do that is to legally regulate cannabis and to ensure that we’re providing those wrap-around supports and that potential for the disruption in the supply chain with that duty of care imposed on those who are purchasing.” – Chlöe Swarbrick.
“We’re kidding ourselves if we think that our teens are all of a sudden going to stop consuming cannabis because we legalise it. They’ll still get it from the black market because they won’t be able to get it legally because they’ll be underage, and the harms and the dangers will still be there with them. There are real issues around impairment, drug driving, what it’ll mean. What I saw in Canada was that the 25 stores that were in one province were not enough, they were estimating going to 1000 within eight years because actually people have a right to have access to it. I’m not sure if I want that in New Zealand, I think we should wait, get more evidence from places like Canada and then debate it and decide as a country.” – Paula Bennett
If only all our debate was as informed, respectful and free of mud-slinging as this one was. May it remain until 2020.