Jacinda Ardern 'shares the view of many' that possessing cannabis should not be a crime

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern says she "shares the view of many" that possessing cannabis should not be a crime, after a new poll found that most Kiwis support decriminalisation. 

A poll conducted by market research firm UMR for the Helen Clark Foundation has 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. 

Helen Clark Foundation executive director Kathy Errington says the poll proves there is a strong public appetite for drug law reform.  

"The poll really shows how much New Zealand culture has changed in their attitude to drug policy and that we are, as a country, moving away from an approach to drugs that is rooted in criminal law and prohibition."

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. 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," Ardern told reporters on 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," she said. 

"What I'll be interested to see is how that law is working in practice now that we've had it in place for just over a year."

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern speaking to reporters in Parliament.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern speaking to reporters in Parliament. Photo credit: Newshub / Zane Small

National MP Simeon Brown said the results of the referendum should be honoured. 

"Some people seem to be sore losers," he wrote on Twitter. "The reality is that decriminalisation wasn't the question New Zealanders were asked in the referendum last year."

Justice Minister Kris Faafoi said while the results of the poll are "interesting", the Government made a commitment to honouring the results of the referendum. 

"It's an interesting poll but it's not in the work programme," he told reporters. "We said that we'd honour the referendum at the last election and that's what we'll do."

But Faafoi said if decriminalisation of cannabis came up as a Members' Bill - legislation proposed by MPs who are not ministers - it would be a conscience issue. That means Labour MPs - who hold a huge majority in Parliament - could vote in favour of it.  

"As we have said before, in terms of the harms being done, we're going to be taking a health approach now," Faafoi said. "If you're going to ask the question again about whether we're going to reconsider given the results of the poll, no we're not. If someone wants to bring it up as a Members' Bill, that's their own issue."

Faafoi said he would vote in favour if a Members' Bill was put forward. 

Justice Minister Kris Faafoi.
Justice Minister Kris Faafoi. Photo credit: Newshub / Zane Small

Green MP Chlöe Swarbrick led the campaign to legalise cannabis. The Greens were promised a referendum on cannabis as part of their confidence and supply agreement with Labour in 2017. 

Swarbrick confirmed to Newshub she does not have a proposed law drafted to decriminalise cannabis. But she's open to the idea of decriminalisation over legalisation if it helps to reduce drug harm in New Zealand.

"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."

Green MP Chlöe Swarbrick.
Green MP Chlöe Swarbrick. Photo credit: Getty

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 Review, two 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.