SYDNEY, Australia – The question from the moderator of the debate in New Zealand was simple to the point: “Jacinda Ardern, have you ever used cannabis?”
“Yes, I was,” said Mrs. Ardern, the country’s popular prime minister, “a long time ago.”
The moderator was silent, looking surprised. Then the audience applauded.
Ms Ardern later declined to say whether she supported the legalization of marijuana, which New Zealanders would decide in a referendum on the October 17 national elections. But by this time in Wednesday̵
Before blocking the coronavirus that works and becoming New Zealand’s main unifier after the deadly shootings last year in two mosques in Christchurch, Ms Ardern looked like most of her voters: a tocker, at least once or twice.
Approximately 80 percent of New Zealanders have tried marijuana, according to independent studies – more than twice as high for Australians and far above what Americans report. So when Ms. Ardern, 40, admitted her own drug use in the past, the nation of five million – where many things are green and wet – just shrugged.
“Most people will just smile at themselves because most of them are blown away,” said Peter Williamson, 67, a Methodist minister in South Auckland. “I’m probably one of the few people who never really had a chance.”
This is New Zealand for you – the peaceful parallel universe of democracy. While President Trump and Joe Biden made comparisons to container container fires this week, Ms. Ardern and her opponent, the Conservative National Party leader Judith Collins, engaged in an intense debate with only a few breaks (and call at one point for “Manners”).
The upcoming elections in New Zealand are an anomaly in other ways as well. It has the potential to be historical – as a marker of consensus, not division.
Ms. Ardern is so popular that the only question is whether her Labor Party will gain enough support to form New Zealand’s first majority government after the remarkable electoral reform of the 1990s, or whether it will have to form a coalition with the Greens.
Marijuana has become a hot issue for this very reason. With a majority reached, Ms. Ardern reminds the world that her policy of kindness includes steel calculations.
Helen Clark, a former Labor prime minister who is a strong supporter of legalization, said that “the indicator that she has used it is in itself a powerful signal”.
However, polls show a closely divided electorate on legalization. Some observers see this as a reason for Ms Ardern to refuse to say how she addresses the issue.
“She needs center-right voters,” said Richard Shaw, a professor of politics at Massi University in Palmerston North. “The concern may be that the National Party will use it against it as a weapon.”
For now, her “I smoked, but I may not want you” approach has confused her critics on both the left and the right.
During Wednesday’s debate, Ms. Collins, a lawyer who is the second woman to lead the National Party, intervened sarcastically “come on” when Ms. Ardern said she wanted to let the public decide if marijuana should be legal.
Her own answer was more emphatic: Ms Collins, 61, said she had never used cannabis and would vote against the referendum.
“I want to protect especially the mental health of young people,” she said.
Many New Zealanders, like Ms Ardern, seem to be arguing not about the intent of the law, but about how far it will go and how it should be passed.
Mr Williamson, a Methodist pastor who is also a former lawyer, said he would prefer marijuana possession to be decriminalized. New Zealanders are three times more likely to be arrested and charged with marijuana crimes than white New Zealanders.
“An ordinary person with a small amount of marijuana should not be afraid of being stopped by the police,” he said.
Even proponents of legalization have wondered out loud whether a referendum is the best way. It explains in great detail how the drug will be regulated: Cannabis will be sold through licensed retailers; it would be legal for those aged 20 and over; and people will 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 supports the public health approach to recreational marijuana use, many ask why pass the decision on to people?
“They pledged to write a very good law, but they left it hanging in no one’s land,” said Ross Bell, executive director of the Medicines Foundation, which has been working for decades to reduce alcohol and drug harm through education and political advocacy.
Nandor Tanchos, a former Green Party lawmaker who is now on the district council in the city of Wokatane and heads a social change organization called He Puna Whenua, agreed.
“Parliament just had to legislate these reforms on the basis of science,” he said.
Relying on a referendum, he said, allowed misinformation to flourish. One example he cites: The anti-legalization lobby shows images of rural dairy farms with plastered marijuana ads – although the new law would ban advertising.
“It’s an attempt to scare people into thinking we’re getting something different than we’re actually going to do,” Mr Tanzos said.
This type of payment of fear can have long-term consequences, Mr Bell said.
“The ‘no’ voice means that no politician will touch cannabis for a long, long time,” he said. “And this law will remain, mainly to the detriment of young people and Maori.”
Amanda Saxton contributed with reports from Auckland, New Zealand.