Unlikely allies eye vote to legalize cannabis in New Zealand

WELLINGTON (Reuters) - New Zealand could become the first country in the Asia-Pacific region to legalize cannabis for personal use after an unlikely alliance of populist, centrist and leftist parties put drug policy immediately on the agenda of the incoming government.

New Zealand's Prime Minister-designate Jacinda Ardern speaks as she stands next to New Zealand First party leader Winston Peters after their meeting in Wellington, New Zealand, October 24, 2017. REUTERS/Nicolaci da Costa

Recreational marijuana use is legal in several U.S. states and European nations including the Netherlands and Spain, but countries in the Asia-Pacific tend to have strict prohibitions.

Australia recently introduced laws freeing up access to cannabis for medicinal use, but does not allow recreational use.

Labour’s prime minister-designate Jacinda Ardern said on Tuesday she agreed with a Greens proposal for a referendum to legalize use of recreational cannabis.

“We agreed that what we are doing now simply isn’t working, so we have said yes to having that referendum,” Ardern told reporters in Wellington.

There is no timeframe for possible legalization, which would represent the first major reform of drug laws since the 1970s, but would depend on the public first voting to back reforms.

“Anything that helps shift New Zealand drug laws out of the dinosaur age is going to be a good thing,” Ross Bell, executive director of the charitable NZ Drug Foundation, told Reuters.

“Arguably it is better for the sustainability of the reform to have a broad church like we’ve got with this government, so that it is not just seen as some sort of fringe liberal policy,” Bell said in a telephone interview.

Drug law reforms figured in talks to form New Zealand’s new government after a Sept. 23 election failed to yield a majority for either the governing National Party or opposition Labour, although neither major party had such a campaign plank.

The center-left Labour will govern with support from its new junior coalition member, the populist NZ First, which supports holding referendums on controversial issues.

The Greens have offered “confidence and supply” and the diverse group of parties is already starting to deliver a melange of policies, from potential relaxation of drug laws to tighter immigration controls.

New Zealand’s drug use ranks among the world’s highest, a study by the NZ Drug Foundation shows. Too much money is spent on enforcement and convictions, rather than on health policies, says the body, which gets government and private funding.

Reporting by Jonathan Barrett and Ana Nicolaci Da Costa in WELLINGTON; Editing by Clarence Fernandez