National may let MPs vote conscience on medicinal cannabis bill

"I'd like to see MPs actually listen to the wishes of the public in New Zealand. At the moment it sounds like MPs are a ...
DEAN KOZANIC/FAIRFAX NZ

"I'd like to see MPs actually listen to the wishes of the public in New Zealand. At the moment it sounds like MPs are a little bit more conservative than the public - a little bit more afraid - but now is the time to be brave," Genter said.

Green MP Julie Anne Genter's medicinal cannabis bill may get through its first reading thanks to the National Party.

The member's bill would make it legal for the terminally ill and those suffering a debilitating condition to grow, possess, and use cannabis with the support of a doctor.

It was drawn from the ballot in June and could squeeze in a first reading before the election. 

If a bill makes it past first reading - a simple majority vote in the 119-seat Parliament - it is sent to select committee where the public can submit on it and the bill can be modified. It then must pass two more votes to become law.

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Those second two votes will definitely take place after the election - that is, if the bill does make it through the reading.

Prime Minister Bill English said on Tuesday the National Party had been discussing it but had not yet come to a decision.

"We've had some discussion but we haven't finalised all the issues," English said.

The party had not yet decided if they would whip the vote or not.

"We'll wait and have that discussion, but generally we have a party vote if thats possible."

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A conscience vote would allow National's 58 MPs to vote however they liked on the bill individually, instead of together as a party.

Government leader of the house Simon Bridges said last Wednesday the issue was still under discussion.

ACT's single MP, David Seymour, has signalled his support for the bill as have Genter's Green party, who have 14 MPs.

Labour has committed its 31 MPs to getting the bill past the first reading, and the Maori Party have indicated a willingness to use their two votes to get it there too. 

That gets the bill to 48 votes - 12 votes short of the 60 seat majority needed just for the first reading.

NZ First have ruled out allowing a conscience vote on the bill, and while they support medicinal marijuana in principle, they have indicated discomfort with Genter's proposed law.

Associate Health Minister Peter Dunne, who was responsible for a slight law change allowing an cannabis-based oil to be prescribed earlier this year, is yet to decide whether he will support it.

That leaves the Government's expansive and ideologically diverse list of MPs as the best bet to getting the bill anywhere.

Genter said she has been lobbying MPs left right and centre to get the bill over the line.

"I've certainly been approaching MPs directly, by letters, emails, and in person, encouraging support and giving any information about the bill," she said.

The fact that socially conservative Bill English was prime minister could hurt the bill's chances in National.

"I don't want to pre-judge how Bill English is going to treat it, I do think that if John Key were still leader it would have a higher likelihood of winning support in the National Party," Genter said.

"I'd like to see MPs actually listen to the wishes of the public in New Zealand. At the moment it sounds like MPs are a little bit more conservative than the public - a little bit more afraid - but now is the time to be brave."

"The polling shows an overwhelming majority of New Zealanders support such a law change.

"The specific question about whether or not people should be able to grow and use cannabis for medicinal purposes had almost 80 per cent support amongst all New Zealanders - including really high support across all parties' voters, so more than 75 per cent of National voters and 78 per cent of New Zealand First voters supported such a law change."

Genter acknowledged that there was a risk that the bill would be supported by the National Party before the election - neutralising it as an issue - and then dropped afterwards.

"But to me this isn't about winning votes in an election campaign. It's about changing the law so that it's more compassionate and it enables sick people who are suffering right now to alleviate their suffering without breaking the law."

The bill still needed a lot more precision - Opposition MPs don't have acess to the legal drafting services that Government MPs do till later in the process - but Genter said this was by design.

"There is a lot of detail that needs to be determined at the select committee process. I deliberately left the bill vague on those issues because I thought it wasn't for me to determine, that that would need impact form medical experts and people from across the political spectrum."

 - Stuff

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