Pubdate: Fri, 02 Oct 2020
Source: New York Times (NY)
Copyright: 2020 The New York Times Company
Author: Damien Cave


SYDNEY, Australia - The question from the debate moderator in New
Zealand was simple and to the point: "Jacinda Ardern, have you ever
used cannabis?"

"Yes I did," said Ms. Ardern, the country's popular prime minister, "a
long time ago."

The moderator paused, looking surprised. Then the audience

Ms. Ardern later declined to say whether she supported the
legalization of marijuana, which New Zealanders will decide in a
referendum with the national election on Oct. 17. But by that point in
the debate on Wednesday, she had already won another smiley-face emoji
from the global left, while reminding voters that she hadn't always
been so earnest.

Before leading the coronavirus lockdown that worked and becoming New
Zealand's unifier-in-chief after the deadly shootings last year at two
mosques in Christchurch, Ms. Ardern was, it seemed, like most of her
constituents: a toker, at least once or twice.

Roughly 80 percent of New Zealanders have tried marijuana, according
to independent studies - more than double the rate for Australians,
and far above what Americans report, too. So when Ms. Ardern, 40,
acknowledged her own past drug use, the nation of five million - where
a lot of things are green and dank - simply shrugged.

"Most people will have just smiled to themselves, as most have had a
puff," said Peter Williamson, 67, a Methodist minister in South
Auckland. "I'm probably one of the few people who's never actually had
the opportunity."

That's New Zealand for you - democracy's relaxed parallel universe.
While President Trump and Joe Biden were drawing comparisons to
dumpster fires inside a train wreck this week, Ms. Ardern and her
opponent, Judith Collins, leader of the conservative National Party,
were engaging in an intense debate with just a few interruptions (and
a call at one point for "manners").

New Zealand's upcoming election is an anomaly in other ways as well.
It has the potential to be historic - as a marker of consensus, not

Ms. Ardern is such a favorite that the only question is whether her
Labor Party will win enough support to form New Zealand's first
majority government since landmark electoral reform in the 1990s, or
whether she will need to form a coalition with the Greens.

Marijuana has become a hot issue precisely for that reason. With a
majority in reach, Ms. Ardern has been reminding the world that her
politics of kindness also includes steely calculation.

Helen Clark, the former Labor prime minister who is a vocal supporter
of legalization, said "the indication that she has used it is in
itself a powerful signal."

But polls show a closely divided electorate on legalization. Some
observers see that as the reason Ms. Ardern has refused to say which
way she leans on the issue.

"She needs center-right voters," said Richard Shaw, a politics
professor at Massey University in Palmerston North. "The concern might
be that the National Party would use it against her as a weapon."

For now, her "I smoked but may not want you to" approach has flummoxed
her critics on both the left and the right.

During the debate on Wednesday night, Ms. Collins, a lawyer who is the
second woman to lead the National Party, interjected a sarcastic "come
on" when Ms. Ardern said she wanted to let the public decide whether
marijuana should be legal.

Her own answer was more definitive: Ms. Collins, 61, said she had
never used cannabis and would vote no on the referendum.

"I want to protect the mental health of young people in particular,"
she said.

Many New Zealanders seem, like Ms. Ardern, to be arguing not about the
intent of the law, but how far it would go and how it should be passed.

Mr. Williamson, the Methodist pastor, who is also a former criminal
barrister, said he would prefer that marijuana possession be
decriminalized. Indigenous New Zealanders are three times as likely to
be arrested and charged with marijuana offenses as white New
Zealanders are.

"An ordinary person with a small amount of marijuana should not be
afraid of being stopped by police," he said.

Even supporters of legalization have wondered aloud if the referendum
was the best way to go. It lays out in great detail how the drug would
be regulated: Cannabis would be sold via licensed retailers; it would
be legal for those 20 and older; and people would be allowed to grow
up to four plants at home, and share up to 14 grams socially.

But given that Ms. Ardern said in 2017 that she supported a public
health approach to recreational marijuana use, many ask, why turn the
decision over to the people?

"They committed to writing a very good law, but they're letting it
hang out in a no-man's-land," said Ross Bell, executive director of
the Drug Foundation, which has worked for decades to reduce the harm
of alcohol and drugs through education and policy advocacy.

Nandor Tanczos, a former Greens party lawmaker who is now on the
district council in the town of Whakatane, and who runs a social
change organization called He Puna Whenua, agreed.

"Parliament should have just legislated these reforms, based on
science," he said.

Relying on a referendum, he argued, has allowed misinformation to
bloom. One example he cited: The anti-legalization lobby has shown
images of businesses with marijuana ads plastered on them - although
the new law would prohibit advertising.

"It's an attempt to scare people into thinking we're getting something
different than we actually will," Mr. Tanczos said.

That kind of fearmongering could have long-term consequences, said Mr.

"A 'no' vote means no politicians will touch cannabis for a long, long
time," he said. "And that law will stay, doing harm mainly to young
people and Maori."