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The Government's uneasy position on cigarettes and cannabis

A new poll shows wide public acceptance for decriminalising cannabis, though not for dealing it. Photo/Getty Images

While cigarettes are hounded to extinction, cannabis is en route to becoming an acceptable social drug – and the Ardern Administration is caught in the middle. 

To take it from Acting Prime Minister Winston Peters, he tenses whenever his phone rings in case it’s Jacinda Ardern telling him to hang on to her job for a bit longer. He told Parliament this week he’s worried he makes the job look “too easy”, so she might opt to keep her feet up and let him lead us indefinitely.

In further evidence that hubris has got its brogues well and truly under the New Zealand First table, Peters’ colleague Shane Jones now routinely refers to himself as “the provincial champion”, “something of a hero on the West Coast” and “my good self”.

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This is all more of a comedy routine to bait the Opposition than genuine conceit. It’s also swaggering fuelled by internal party polling suggesting NZ First is not, as published polls have suggested, on the skids, and that National’s support no longer exceeds Labour’s. But in politics quite as much as in Greek tragedy, hubris is always visited by nemesis. Dare to think you’re doing well even if you are and you will be punished.

A classic example of this is the cigarette tax, a rampantly successful public-health measure that has nevertheless jack-knifed to thwart the best of political intentions. The Government has just announced it’s reluctantly reviewing the long-standing policy of hiking tobacco tax by 10% a year because it’s having perverse consequences. As the rate of dairy owners robbed, bashed and even murdered suggests, tobacco is now a currency of organised crime.

Jenny Salesa. Photo/Getty Images

Die-hard smokers

But perhaps the biggest surprise is that there’s a stubborn rump of smokers who will keep smoking it whatever the cost or source – and who happen to be statistically more likely to be Māori or Pasifika and to be low-income. That really is a kicker. For those people, the tax has become quite viciously regressive, as addiction will lead them to scrimp on food, heating and other basics, doubling down on their poor-health spiral.

Thus a highly effective policy has hit its expiry date with a thump, with no satisfactory solution in evidence. Yet there’s an overarching mission, supported by a majority of Parliament, to eradicate smoking altogether in the coming decades.

Pity Associate Health Minister Jenny Salesa. Who wants to be the politician who eased up on tobacco? But to continue with the current policy would be stupid and cruel.

Concurrently, a new poll shows wide public acceptance for decriminalising cannabis, though not for dealing it, and the Government is to hold a referendum.

There’s a mountain of evidence that people’s lives have been blighted out of all proportion to petty weed offences. If used extremely moderately and judiciously, it doesn’t appear to do most adults much harm. It also appears to alleviate pain and other symptoms of some medical conditions.

But there’s no reconciling these two policy trajectories: cigarettes being hounded to extinction, yet cannabis en route to being an acceptable social drug. Both products are bad for your lungs, but at least tobacco doesn’t dull people’s reflexes, nor does it impair brain development in people up until their mid-twenties. Cigarettes make people smelly, but cannabis can make them boring as well. Put both up alongside alcohol, which can make users noisy, noisome, boring and homicidal, and the policy puzzle is insoluble.

Cue the Wellington police. They’re having a compliance binge on bowling clubs, bridge societies and the like in the latest round of alcohol licensing renewals. This follows a controversial practice of opposing new retail liquor licences almost as a matter of course. They’ve produced no evidence that inebriated bridge pairs are rampaging through the streets puking and brawling, or that violently aggressive lawn bowlers are terrorising A&E staff.

But the law requires the police to inspect the circumstances and conditions of all liquor licences. And if we want them to get tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime, then there’s no denying booze is at least in the postcode of crime’s Ground Zero.

But would crime-fuelling drinking abate if there were far fewer places to get booze, and if, as some health campaigners advise, it was made significantly more expensive? Or would this merely irritate and inconvenience responsible drinkers, while the problem-drinker end of the market went the way of tobacco towards criminality?

All of which makes what Sir John Key once said about Whānau Ora resourcing for Māori seem quite profound: it’s like a waterbed – and if you press down on it in one place, it’ll only bulge somewhere else.

Debt is debt is debt

For light relief, let’s exit this maze of moral and behavioural second-guessing and contemplate the public-debt policy. The Government has tightly laced itself to the martyrish mast of 30% of GDP, falling to 20% in three years. Alongside comparable economies, this discipline makes ours almost ostentatiously spartan. Yes, again with the ancient Greeks – but the Spartans knew a thing or two about stringencies to keep one battle-ready. This battle being next election, the Government has out-frugalled National to reassure the business community it’s not loopy, hoping continued business vigour will maintain economic growth.

It hasn’t worked. Business is still pouting and a (Greek) chorus of economists, unions and local councils is adding salt by pointing out all the things the debt girdle is preventing the Government from advancing, such as infrastructure and pay rounds – aka votes.

So the Government is now deep into contortions to get these projects going, but “off the books”. Besides the regional fuel tax, this looks set to entail new tolls, “value capture” charges, rates add-ons and specially created stand-alone funding entities. Alas, the charges are highly visible and unpopular with voters in a way Government debt is not, and the artificial funding vehicles will likely be costlier than good old Government borrowing. And all of the above differ not a jot from Government debt funding in one supreme particular: the public pays for it just the same.

That’s without factoring in the possibility of private-equity funding. Since the Government Superannuation Fund’s to be let in on the Auckland tram project, that slope is officially greased.

For this Government, even the whisper of privatisation is the very definition of nemesis.

This article was first published in the August 4, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.