New Zealand has a new government — led by Labour in a coalition — and that means likely changes in laws surrounding cannabis.
Much has been written about 37-year-old PM-in-waiting Jacinda Ardern since she took over the Labour leadership about 10 weeks ago. Now, on the back of what the media described as “Jacindamania”, she’s set to become New Zealand’s third female prime minister.
Ardern is relatively progressive with a focus on mental health, green energy and free university, and has also backed medicinal cannabis.
In an August debate with then-prime minister Bill English, Ardern was asked if she would legalise medicinal cannabis for pain relief or extending life. She was given 30 seconds to answer but did not need it. “The answer is absolutely yes,” she said.
In a September interview with Vice, Ardern said: “When the question of medicinal cannabis use first came up I indicated that was something I support and will continue to support.”
Ardern’s approach to recreational cannabis favours rehabilitation over incarceration.
“I don’t think people should be locked in prison for that,” she told BuzzFeed News. “We should be taking much more of a health approach than a criminal justice approach, and there are some great ways we can do that that doesn’t require decriminalisation.”
As part of the coalition deal, the Green Party NZ will be in government for the first time since 2005. It campaigned heavily on complete cannabis reform, with a push towards recreational use and the promise of a referendum to determine such a matter by 2020.
Last December the party released its drug reform policy and said Labour “agreed with most of the policy direction.” But is Labour ready to commit to a referendum on the subject?
Before Jacindamania, previous party leader Andrew Little raised concerns about the effects of cannabis on developing brains. The Green policy introduces a legal age for cannabis use and allows the terminally or chronically ill to grow and use cannabis.
The third party in the coalition, NZ First, has given a green light to using the drug medicinally. The leader of the party, Winston Peters, has flirted with the idea of a referendum on recreational use before — in 2015, he promised to hold a referendum on legalising cannabis, before backtracking immediately afterward. “I didn’t say ‘I’m going to give you the referendum’,” he said. “I said our policy is a referendum and if you want one, you’ve got to go and get one.”
NZ First backs regular referendums on controversial issues, and cannabis reform would fall into this category, but Peters — who says he has never used cannabis — is personally not supportive of legalising the drug.