In a retreat from the New Zealand Green Party's formal position that marijuana should be legalized, Member of Parliament (MP) Nandor Tanczos Tuesday introduced a bill that would decriminalize possession of small amounts of the herb. Under the proposal, those caught with small amounts would no longer be arrested and burdened with a criminal record, but would instead by ticketed and fined. But with every other major party quick to condemn the bill, even this half-way measure appears doomed from the get-go.
Under the bill, adults with up to an ounce of marijuana or five grams of hashish would be hit with $100 New Zealand fine, currently equivalent to about $67 US. People growing up to five plants at home would face the same fine. But current penalties for possession of more than an ounce, sale of any amount, and growing more than five plants would remain in place. And in concessions to the "concerns" Tanczos alluded to above, his bill has new provisions mandating drug education for teenagers ticketed for possession and a five-fold increase in the fines for anyone caught smoking or growing within 100 meters of a school or other area used primarily by children.
"There is widespread agreement across the political divide and throughout the community about the problems of prohibition," Nandor said. "I have spoken to people all over New Zealand about their concerns and I have listened to them. Some politicians want to polarize the debate for their own political ends. The Greens are looking for consensus around points of agreement. This is mainstream stuff."
Not for the governing Labor Party it isn't. "Labor is against legalizing marijuana," said Justice Minister Phil Goff in a statement responding to the Tanczos bill. "Labor Party policy does not include support for legalizing marijuana and it does not support taking any action that might promote its use. The Labor government has not introduced, and will not introduce, legislation to legalize it."
Police often don't charge small-time offenders, anyway, said Goff. "The police already have discretion not to bring charges for possession of small amounts of marijuana and use that discretion frequently."
The Progressive Party, which takes a strong anti-drug stance and is part of Labor's governing coalition, also denounced the Tanczos bill. "All serious parties have issued a statement to reject the Greens' latest attempt to trivialize the known negative health effects of cannabis on vulnerable people in our society, especially still-developing young teenagers," said party leader Jim Anderton. "There is plenty of medical and scientific data that points to cannabis being a serious health threat, particularly for some vulnerable people. Given that body of evidence, there is no reason to downgrade sanctions against cannabis unless or until an overwhelming consensus emerges in the health and medical world that cannabis is not a health risk," he said.
The Greens would like to replace the Progressives in a governing partnership with Labor after the next election, and the decrim bill will be a subject of discussion then, said Tanczos. "This very moderate step will be on the table in any post-election negotiations between the Greens and Labor.
Tanczos was recently demoted from fourth place on the Greens' election list to seventh, and there has been speculation his forthright stand for marijuana legalization made some party members uncomfortable, the New Zealand Herald reported. The decrim bill could be part of an attempt by Tanczos and the Greens to broaden the party's appeal, even though it marks something of a retreat for the party. "It doesn't go as far as I would personally like," Tanczos admitted, "but it deals to the greatest problem, which is the criminalization of huge numbers of New Zealanders."