Leader's cannabis stance opens rift

ANDREA VANCE
Last updated 05:00 27/09/2011

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ACT leader Don Brash has opened up a rift in his party over the decriminalisation of cannabis.

Epsom candidate John Banks – the party's ticket into parliament – yesterday expressed surprise at Dr Brash's call.

And the former police minister said he could not support a relaxation of marijuana laws. "I've always been opposed to drugs and I always will be opposed to drugs," he said.

ACT's president Chris Simmons said decriminalising the class C drug was "a step too far" and was not likely to become policy.

But Dr Brash received a surprise backer in former Federated Farmers boss Don Nicolson, the party's agriculture spokesman.

"Don Brash ... is saying that the cost is prohibitive and we are not winning the battle.

"He is asking is there a better way and I support him in that quest.

"I want New Zealand to have the debate. Because actually there is a massive potential in primary industry for growing pharmaceuticals."

He added: "The moral debate about the decriminalisation of cannabis is a completely different story. I haven't got an opinion on it and I'd like to hear other sides of the story."

Dr Brash said in a speech at the weekend that marijuana should be decriminalised.

Yesterday, he said: "There are many people in the ACT party who strongly support decriminalisation".

"I've talked to John Banks, of course. He doesn't agree with me and he made that quite clear .... I respect that. In the ACT party there's been a long tradition of people having different views on important issues."

On Saturday, parliamentary leader John Boscawen announced his decision to quit at the election. He said he wanted to spend more time with his partner Jane, and yesterday denied it had anything to do with Dr Brash's speech.

His departure means no current ACT MPs will be returned to Parliament. Former leader Rodney Hide, Sir Roger Douglas, Heather Roy and Hilary Calvert are also stepping down.

Mr Simmons agreed losing Mr Boscawen was "a blow" and came as a "total surprise." The board will decide at the weekend how to plug gaps in their list – which also has an unnamed number three. The most likely solution is to move candidates up a spot. He was confident the party could soon confirm the mystery candidate, widely expected to be former president Catherine Isaac.

Yesterday, Prime Minister John Key rejected Dr Brash's views on cannabis. "He doesn't sound like he's raised it with the ACT caucus either."

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