On the more difficult issues in national life, the politicians are often the last ones to act. They wait for a decisive break in public opinion before venturing a change. Sometimes not even such a swing will do it.
So it seems to be going with any hint of reform to the laws on cannabis.
By now, after a year of well-publicised campaigning by people suffering terminal and other debilitating illnesses, the case for allowing the very sick to access cannabis should be clear.
Many such patients find cannabis use to be a great help, and a superior form of pain relief to heavy-duty drugs like morphine.
The public is certainly convinced: in a Drug Foundation poll out this week, 80 per cent of people supported allowing use of the drug by the terminally ill and even those with lesser medical complaints.
This is the humane position to take it offers relief to a suffering minority, with few likely costs. The Government ought to support it. Instead, it prevaricates with talk of health bureaucracy and police discretion effectively palming off those in pain.
Beyond the case for sick people, the public also backs a more general softening of the cannabis laws. Here the debate is more difficult.
About two-thirds of people support either decriminalising or legalising possession of a small amount of the drug. Interestingly, however, about as many are opposed to any commercial sale of the drug.
The politicians are extremely reluctant. Prime Minister John Key invokes the Government’s experiments with regulating synthetic highs and the community backlash. Labour’s Andrew Little, who has backed medicinal cannabis, worries about the drug’s effect on the teenage brain.
These are both fair points. It is reasonable to ask how supportive the community will be if cannabis supply increases in their neighbourhoods. And there really are some health concerns linked to cannabis, especially for young people. It seems likely that loosening the law will increase such use and such harms. That is the single biggest argument for continued prohibition.
Nevertheless, the current system is clearly failing too. It still sees thousands of people arrested annually and unevenly (evidence suggests that Maori, in particular, are heavily targeted). It still funnels millions of dollars to gangs. It still penalises a practice that nearly half of New Zealanders admit to trying.
There are, then, real reasons to consider reform. That doesn’t need to mean “a tinny house on every corner”, as Key put it.
It might mean modest fines for possession of small quantities of cannabis. It might mean allowing tightly regulated sale, with substantial taxes, strict age limits and location restrictions, and quality and strength controls. (Among the losers from the latter approach would certainly be New Zealand’s gangs).
There is no case for carte blanche legalisation when the drug has real harms and when so much work goes into reducing harms caused by legal drugs.
But that doesn’t mean full prohibition works either. It doesn’t. There’s room for something in between, with plenty of time to debate the details. Now is a good time to have that debate.