NZ cannabis campaign on a knife edge
Legalise cannabis campaigners in NZ want PM Jacinda Ardern to back their case at a referendum
Fifty days out from a national referendum, cannabis legalisation campaigners in New Zealand are fearful a lack of public advocates could cost them a chance at carefully crafted law reform.
And many want the country's most popular politician, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, to join the push to get the measure over the line.
Kiwis will decide whether to legalise personal marijuana use as one of two public votes - the other being euthanasia - alongside the election on September 19.
Opinion polls for the "reeferendum" show a tight contest.
Proponents have spruiked online polls showing the 'Yes' vote ahead, though the last six polls taken by broadcaster-backed public pollsters have 'No' in front.
NZ Drug Foundation executive director Ross Bell says "every vote is going to count".
"It's tracking very tight. That's what keeps me awake at night," he tells AAP.
The 'No' campaign - badged 'Say Nope to Dope' - is resolute in opposition, arguing the dangers of more widespread use through legalisation.
Mr Bell believes the more voters hear about the proposed model, the more likely they are to support it.
The final design sets the minimum age to use the drug at 20, ensures potency limits and bans both consumption and advertising in public places.
It also allows the government to regulate and tax producers and sellers, with recouped funds going towards health and harm reduction programs.
"Some people think legalising is a free-for-all. We've found undecided voters tend to skew towards 'Yes' once they learn about what's in the bill," Mr Bell said.
"Most of our messaging is about telling people what's in the law. We have eight themes running and five are just about the public health controls ... to reassure people and parents there are a lot of protections."
The referendum's leading proponent is former PM Helen Clark.
The ex-Labour leader has given her personal support, and her eponymous think tank, the Helen Clark Foundation, is campaigning for law reform.
Ms Clark sees public health benefits but also an opportunity to end a racist bias which sees a disproportionate amount of Maori given criminal convictions for cannabis use.
"It's very discriminatory," Ms Clark tells AAP.
"We end up with Maori systematically over-represented at every stage of the justice system and with respect to cannabis Maori are three times more likely to be arrested, charged and convicted.
"I say to people, 'think of your own kids and grandchildren, do you want them to be among those who are prosecuted and convicted on a dope offence which will blight their lives?'."
While Ms Clark's advocacy hasn't gone unnoticed, one voice is missing from the campaign - Ms Ardern's.
Sky high in the polls and on track to win a thumping landslide at the election, Ms Ardern has never given her opinion on cannabis legalisation.
It's a touchy issue; a request to the PM's office for the reasons behind her silence has been left unanswered for 20 days.
"The prime minister has decided not to disclose how she intends to vote," the response reads.
"The prime minister wants to see the public lead the debate and have it free of party politics. She sees her role as providing information on the referendum to voters to support their decision making, and doesn't want to compromise that role."
Her equivocation is contagious.
The country's top doctor Ashley Bloomfield and Health Minister Chris Hipkins have also deferred on giving their opinions.
True to her word, the PM has empowered Chief Science Advisor Juliet Gerrard to issue a report with a wealth of information to help inform the voting public.
But Ms Ardern's position fuels one of the major criticisms of her leadership; that she hedges on political decisions that carry risk, and amasses a great deal of political capital without spending it.
Mr Bell has urged Ms Ardern to join the campaign in the last 50 days.
"People do want to know what she thinks because of her mana, the reputation and respect that people have for her," he said.
"She has shown leadership on another public health issue, COVID-19. She's communicated clearly, shown she's willing to listen to public health advice and act on evidence.
"Maybe the calculation she's made is that 'if I say yes I'm going to piss off half the country, or if I say no I'm going to piss off half the country'."
Ms Clark agrees Ms Ardern's intervention would be powerful but says it's none of her business how her political protege acts.
"What would help would be to have more human stories," she says.
"Stories of people coming forward and saying, 'this is what the arrest, conviction and jail did to me' That can be quite powerful because this is a reality."
Fellow advocate Khylee Quince, director of Maori and Pacific Advancement at AUT and a member of Ms Gerrard's advisory group, says there's a need to build empathy if they are to win.
"Most New Zealanders try cannabis when it's prohibited ... they are users. It is prevalent. But (its illegality) doesn't affect them," she said.
"So the nugget of the debate for me, as a Maori criminal justice practitioner, is to ask people to think about the interests of others."
Ms Quince said she was "not surprised" to see government leaders opting out "but I would like them to give an answer".
"It's like a conscience vote in parliament where we get to see moral views ... I don't see why they can't give a public statement," she said.
"I think they are being unnecessarily conservative. The hardcore 'No' voter is not going to be a Jacinda Ardern voter." Originally published here: https://au.news.yahoo.com/nz-cannabis-campaign-knife-edge-003931389--spt.html