Janinda Ardern used cannabis. New Zealand shrug: ‘Us too.’

Sydney, Australia – The question from the Debate Moderator in New Zealand was simple and to the point: “Jacinda Ardern, have you ever used cannabis?”

“Yes, I did,” said Ms. Ardern, the country’s popular Prime Minister, “a long time ago.”

The operator was surprised, surprised. The audience then played applause.

Ms Ardern later declined to say whether she supported the legalization of marijuana, which New Zealanders would decide in a referendum with the national election on 17 October. But by that point in the debate on Wednesday, she had already won another smiley-faced emoji from the global left, reminding voters that she was not always so weak.

Those who worked before leading the chronovirus lockdown and became New Zealand’s unilateral chief after deadly shootings at two mosques in Christchurch last year, Ms. Ardern was, it seemed, like most of her constituents: at least one or two times. .

According to independent studies, 80 percent of New Zealanders have tried marijuana – a rate more than double that for Australians, and far above what American Americans report. So, when 40-year-old Ms. Ardern acknowledged her own past drug use, the nation of five million – where a lot of things are green and blue – simply shrunk.

“Most people would have just smiled to themselves, as most people have done,” said 67-year-old Peter Williamson, South Auckland’s Methodist minister. “I’m probably one of the few people who never really had the opportunity.”

This is New Zealand for you – the relaxed parallel universe of democracy. While President Trump and Joe Biden were comparing the dumper fire inside a train wreck this week, Ms. Ardern and her rival, the conservative National Party leader, Judith Collins, were engaging in intense debate with just a few interruptions ( And call at one point for “etiquette”).

The upcoming election of New Zealand is also a discrepancy in other ways. It has the potential to be historical – as a marker of consent, not division.

Ms. Ardern is such a favorite that the only question is whether her Labor Party will win enough support to form New Zealand’s first majority government after land reform in the 1990s, or whether it will need to form an alliance with the Greens.

Marijuana has become a hot issue for that reason. With a majority in reach, Ms. Ardern continues to remind the world that her politics of kindness also includes steely counts.

Helen Clarke, the former Labor prime minister who is a vocal supporter of legalization, said that “the signal she has given is a powerful gesture in itself.”

But elections show closely divided voters over legalization. Some observers noticed that the reason Ms. Ardern has refused to say what issues she lies on.

“They need center-right voters,” said Richard Shaw, a professor of politics at Massey University in Palmerston North. “It may be of concern that the National Party will use it as a weapon.”

For now, her “I used to smoke, but maybe you don’t want to” approach has lambasted her critics on both the left and the right.

During the debate on Wednesday night, Ms. Collins, a lawyer who is the second woman to head the national party, dismissed the satirical “on” when Ms. Ardern said she wanted to let the public decide whether marijuana Should be legal.

Her own answer was more definitive: 61-year-old Ms. Collins said she had never used cannabis and would not vote on the referendum.

“I especially want to protect the mental health of young people,” she said.

Many New Zealanders feel, like Ms. Ardern, not arguing about the intent of the law, but how far it will go and how it should be passed.

Mr. Williamson, a Methodist clergyman who is also a former criminal barrister, said he would like marijuana to be less dominated. Indigenous New Zealanders are three times as likely to be arrested and charged with marijuana offenses as white New Zealanders are.

“A normal person who has a small amount of marijuana should not be afraid of being stopped by the police,” he said.

Even if the legalization was the best way to go, supporters of legalization have also wondered. It explains in great detail how the drug will be regulated: cannabis will be sold through licensed retailers; It will be legal for those 20 and older; And people will be allowed to grow four plants at home and share up to 14 grams socially.

But given that Ms. Ardern said in 2017 that she supported a public health approach to recreational marijuana use, many people ask why give decisions to people?

Drug Foundation executive director, Ross Bell, said “they are committed to writing a very good law, but they are letting it hang in a non-man’s land” through education and policy advocacy of drugs.

Nandor Tanzos, a former Greens party MLA who is now on the District Council in Wakatane City, and who runs a social change organization called Hun Puna Aua.

“Parliament should legislate these reforms based on science only,” he said.

Relying on a referendum, he argued, has allowed misinformation to blossom. One example he cited: The antilegalization lobby has shown images of rural dairy farms with marijuana advertisements – new legislation has banned advertising on them.

“It’s an attempt to scare people by thinking that something different is happening from what we’re actually doing,” Mr. Tankzos said.

Mr. Bell said such fears could have long-term consequences.

“A ‘vote’ means that no politician will touch a hemp for a long, long time,” he said. “And this law will continue to harm mainly young people and Māori.”

Amanda Saxton contributed reporting from Auckland, New Zealand.