Gareth Morgan's political party will soon launch a cannabis law-reform policy after its research found the issue was easily the most important to young voters.
That intention has seen the Green Party's health spokeswoman, Julie Anne Genter, warn voters against thinking Morgan's The Opportunities Party (Top) represents a realistic path to decriminalisation.
It sort of reminded me a bit about the stuff around gay marriage a few years ago - how long it takes the system - the oldies - to catch up.
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Morgan has been holding meetings around the country after starting his party in November, and told the
he had found it difficult to connect with some younger voters.
"People get their vote at 18 and they are not really even aware of any of the issues, none of the terminology. I have been finding that on the roadshows . . . the young ones will say, 'You use such big words I can't understand'. And I'm thinking, 'Shivers, these poor kids.'"
But market research commissioned by Top showed one way to interest young voters - talk cannabis law reform. That issue was "head and shoulders" above the rest for those aged 35 and under, Morgan said.
"It blew me out of the water, really, to be honest. Because I sort of thought it was a first-world problem if ever there was one. But actually when you delve into it, it's more than just they want it available, it's more like a lightning rod or symbol of the divide between young and old.
"When you talk to the young ones who are knowledgeable about it, they say to you the most annoying thing is that all the evidence suggests it should be legalised or decriminalised. And yet the system is so socially conservative it just won't respond.
"It sort of reminded me a bit about the stuff around gay marriage a few years ago - how long it takes the system - the oldies - to catch up."
Top's "deliberative democracy" approach has seen it ask its 3000-or-so members to submit on the issue, not just an opinion but the evidence backing it. More than 200 submissions came back with 80 per cent calling for full legalisation.
Options were presented to the membership and about 60 per cent called for full legalisation. Top will now go through the issue with a panel of experts before forming its policy.
In December the Green Party said it wanted to allow adults to grow and possess cannabis for personal use, and ensure people using cannabis for medical reasons were not penalised.
Genter addressed Top's interest in cannabis law reform in a recent post on Facebook, saying she'd "heard some tiny new political party" had a policy and "somehow they think they're going to implement it by working with National, who are totally opposed to drug-law reform".
Genter told the Herald it was great another party was moving on the issue, but she was sceptical of Top's ability to negotiate change. That was more likely under a Government with Labour and the Greens, she said - more so if the Greens captured 15 or 20 per cent of the party vote.
Morgan - who said "not any more" when asked if he used cannabis himself - said Top's influence would depend on support from voters, and the party would like to remain on the crossbenches and negotiate policy support with the Government of the day.
The "ground is moving pretty rapidly" around the world on cannabis reform and National had already shown an ability to "out-flank" the Greens, Morgan said.
"Look what they did with predator free New Zealand, and what they have done in terms of rivers - we can criticise what they have done - but it's certainly better than what they had done with rivers. I think National is quite sensitive to its blue-green vote."
A poll commissioned by the Drug Foundation last year found 64 per cent of respondents thought personal possession of a small amount of cannabis should be either legal or decriminalised.
Current penalties range from a $500 fine for possession to a 14-year jail term for its supply and manufacture. Cultivation of cannabis can result in a seven-year jail sentence.
Labour leader Andrew Little last year told a student radio station that his party might hold a referendum on such a move, but later downplayed the comments. National has ruled out decriminalising cannabis.
Debate about cannabis reform has been stirred by the cases of former union leader Helen Kelly and cricketer Martin Crowe, both of whom used the drug for medicinal pain relief before their deaths from cancer last year, and new approaches taken overseas including Australia.