Judith Collins pours cold water on Jacinda Ardern's hope for bipartisanship on drug law reform

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern's hope for bipartisanship on drug law reform looks unlikely, with Judith Collins saying National cannot take a "soft on drugs" approach. 

It comes after more than 25 services and charities - including the Mental Health Foundation and the New Zealand Medical Association - urged the Government in an open letter to overhaul the Misuse of Drugs Act and treat all drug usage as a health issue. 

The Government changed the law in 2019 to give police power to exercise discretion over personal possession of illegal drugs, with instructions to treat it as a health issue rather than pressing charges and treating it as a criminal offence. 

"We've already seen quite a change in a way that personal possession is being treated," Ardern says. "For instance, personal possession of meth, you're only seeing 40 percent of those cases going to court - we're seeing health referrals for those remainder."

But the open letter says recent tweaks to the Misuse of Drugs Act have failed to shift unequal outcomes in criminalisation for low-level drug offences, with hundreds of people still facing criminal charges for cannabis possession. 

Ardern said last month she "shares the view of many" that possessing cannabis should not be a crime, after a new poll found that most Kiwis support decriminalisation. 

But speaking to reporters before caucus on Tuesday, Ardern said Labour has an "obligation" to respect the outcome of the cannabis referendum. She'd also want bipartisan support from National before acting on any further changes to drug laws. 

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. Photo credit: Newshub / Zane Small

"The issue of decriminalisation, we've already made some moves. That was already on the table. I want to check that it is working as the last Parliament intended," she said, referring to the 2019 law change. 

"And on that space, I would be interested in there being a bit more of a bipartisan approach. When we did that work, the National Party criticised us."

But Ardern's hope for bipartisanship was crushed by Collins, who told reporters her party cannot support a "soft on crime" approach. 

"There is already a very strong health approach when it comes to people who are addicted or use particular drugs. In fact when we were in Government, I put an enormous amount of effort into rehabilitation in our prison system," Collins said. 

"But ultimately, we cannot take a soft on drugs approach."

Collins criticised Ardern for not revealing her views on cannabis during the election campaign. Kiwis voted against legalising cannabis, and some supporters blamed Ardern for not expressing her view in favour of legalisation until after the result was announced. 

"I was very clear on drug issues, unlike the Prime Minister, during the election campaign. You'll recall I was very clear on this and see not so much," Collins said.  

"I think it's really important that we understand that the New Zealand public has voted against the changes in laws that she was obviously contemplating around cannabis."

National leader Judith Collins.
National leader Judith Collins. Photo credit: Newshub / Zane Small

Collins said given Kiwis voted against legalisation of cannabis, "I can't imagine for a moment that they're going to be excited about the prospect of methamphetamine or other drugs being more freely available". 

Green Party drug law reform spokesperson Chlöe Swarbrick, who led the campaign to legalise cannabis, says Misuse of Drugs Act is "demonstrably unfit for purpose". 

"Drugs are a health, housing, employment, and education issue and criminalising people doesn't solve any of those problems," Swarbrick said. 

"We're now 10 years down the track from the Law Commission's 2011 report submitted to the then-National Government asking for decriminalisation of users caught in the web of addiction. What will it take for politicians to finally follow the evidence, protect our communities and ensure wellbeing?"

Justice Minister Kris Faafoi said last month 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.  

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

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.