Jacinda Ardern does not view decriminalisation of cannabis as rejection of referendum

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern says she does not view decriminalisation of cannabis as a rejection of last year's referendum on whether it should be legalised. 

"I do see them as separate issues," Ardern said at her post-Cabinet press conference on Monday, describing decriminalisation as "just a rung below" legalisation. 

It comes after a poll conducted by market research firm UMR for the Helen Clark Foundation found 69 percent of people who voted in the referendum last year either support legalisation or decriminalisation of cannabis

Just over 48 percent of voters supported legalising cannabis in the referendum, and the new poll found 49 percent in favour - so no change. But the poll also found 20 percent who voted 'no' would support decriminalisation. 

Ardern did not reveal her stance on cannabis legalisation during the election campaign, but after the results came through she confirmed that she voted in favour. Last week she revealed her view hasn't changed since then. 

"I share the view of many that the idea of individuals being criminalised for possession is not something I think most New Zealanders support," she told reporters last Tuesday. 

"That's why we've already made substantial changes to our drug laws so that if police find someone in possession of cannabis, the assumption has to be that it's treated as a health issue rather than a criminal issue." 

Justice Minister Kris Faafoi said last week Labour would honour the results of the referendum, but if a Members' Bill - legislation put forward by MPs who aren't ministers - was introduced to decriminalise cannabis, Labour MPs would be able to vote with their conscience. 

As Labour holds a huge majority in Parliament and has support from the Greens, it's likely such legislation would pass. But as Ardern pointed out, Members' Bills being pulled from the ballot comes down to luck. 

"We always wait for a Bill to be pulled because otherwise you're debating in caucus a hypothetical of 120 Bills that could sit there for a very long time," she said. 

"For us, any time that a Members' Bill comes up, we will take it to caucus - caucus will determine whether they see it as a conscience vote and therefore whether individual members will vote according to their conscience."

Green MP Chlöe Swarbrick, who led the campaign to legalise cannabis, told Newshub last week she did not have a proposed law drafted to decriminalise cannabis. But she's open to the idea of decriminalisation if it helps to reduce drug harm. 

"There's been conversations ongoing in drug harm reduction, as there always is. If something were presented, I would prefer MPs across the aisle had the courage to also put their name on it," she told Newshub. 

Speaking to reporters on the way into Parliament, Swarbrick said: "Decriminalising is simply about removing criminal penalties for people who use the substance. It doesn't deal with the issue of supply."

Swarbrick hit out at Ardern last year for holding back her view on cannabis legalisation, because the referendum could have swung in the 'yes' vote's favour if the Prime Minister had been open about her stance. 

And she's not alone. In an article for medical journal Drug and Alcohol Reviewtwo Massey University doctors say Ardern's refusal to publicly back the 'yes' campaign "may have been a decisive factor in the narrow defeat". 

Ardern said last year she believed her role as Prime Minister was to facilitate the referendum without influencing the public's vote because she wanted to enable the outcome whichever way it went.