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Ross Bell: Why I believe Jacinda Ardern is a 'yes' voter on cannabis

8 Oct 2020
This article was published 4 years ago. Content may no longer be relevant.

The Prime Minister was at the polling booth last Saturday, and her party vote was a given. Yet still, on the cannabis referendum, she remains Garbo-like about her preference and it's being treated as a mystery. Is it, though? Or has she been hiding her view in plain sight all along? There are clues.

Threading together her comments over the years, what emerges is a picture of someone who would surely be drawn to voting yes.

In election debates she has invited people to "read between the lines." Last week she elaborated on the comment "I was once a Mormon, then I wasn't" to confirm she had, "a long time ago" done the same thing more than two thirds of her fellow New Zealanders have done.

In particular, there are her words last year on The AM Show: "I grew up in a town where I saw young people easily access cannabis, and I saw the impact it had on their education, so that worries me. At the same time, I don't think people should be criminalised and imprisoned."

It's a recurring theme in her speeches and interviews that she doesn't want to criminalise or jail people: "the question for me is what does a better job of helping and not exacerbating problems for people having those issues that may already exist."

And last election: "I do want to see some change. I want to see us dealing with this as a health issue and not a justice issue. Locking someone up for smoking weed is a waste of money and doesn't help fix an individual's problem. Putting them into rehab does."

Locking someone up for smoking weed is a waste of money and doesn't help fix an individual's problem. Putting them into rehab does."

Prime Minister Jacinda Adern

She has an enduring interest in criminal justice. Fresh to Parliament, she asked for the role of Youth Justice spokesperson. That, she has said, deepened her belief that to mend the justice system you also have to mend New Zealand and the conditions that can set people up to fail: problems with literacy and learning difficulties, with mental health, with abuse and violence and in very many cases: addiction.

That's the same perspective she offered at the UN when she turned down the invitation to join a US war on drugs initiative, saying it looked hard-line, and that she preferred a health approach. "We want to do what works, so we are using a strong evidence-base to do that."

Alongside that health approach is her familiar stance of caution. She has made it clear she worries about the harm cannabis can cause. She has spoken often about harm and use reduction, trying to get gangs out of the production of cannabis, getting the product into a heavily regulated market.

You can surely hear her speaking both as a politician and parent when she says "there are very strong arguments on both sides. I've never wanted to see people criminalised for cannabis use, but equally I've always been concerned about young people accessing it."

Taking all the speeches and all the interviews they essentially distil to this position: A lot of harm is being done, and what's the best way to deal with it? So where does a politician who believes in a health approach but who is also worried about the risks come to land on this question? She asks for the evidence: what does the evidence tell us, where does it take us?

And that was the task she gave her chief science adviser: "to ensure that New Zealanders can make their decision on their own with the best information possible."

What did she find? At the risk of taking an executive summary too far, we would say that essentially she found there would be less harm at work in a legalised regime than one that leaves things as they are.

For example: Enforcement changes would be felt most significantly by Māori and young men. People under 20 caught with cannabis would not be convicted of a crime and would instead receive a health-based response or pay a fine. Cannabis-related enforcement would not be necessary for now-legal activities such as adult use of cannabis and limited home growing.

And she reported that if the law is left as it is, an illegal and unregulated market would be enabling greater degree of health risks and an absence of information, education and guidance on safer-use practices and a lack of awareness of how to reduce risk or limited access to the professional help/treatment for people who need it, including parents of young users.

We saw, during this pandemic, how substantially the PM was prepared to be guided by expert science advice. We see no reason to imagine she would not put the same reliance on the advice here.

The question that's going to New Zealand is: do they believe that harm reduction is best achieved through the current status quo or best achieved through a heavily regulated environment, as is proposed by the bill. We're guessing the Prime Minister's answer would surely be "go with the bill". 


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