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 moderator paused, looking surprised. Then the audience applauded.
Ms. Ardern later declined to say whether she supported the legalization of marijuana, which New Zealanders will decide in a referendum with the national election on Oct. 17. But by that point in the debate on Wednesday, she had already won another smiley-face emoji from the global left, while reminding voters that she hadn’t always been so earnest.
Before leading the coronavirus lockdown that worked and becoming New Zealand’s unifier-in-chief after the deadly shootings last year at two mosques in Christchurch, Ms. Ardern was, it seemed, like most of her constituents: a toker, at least once or twice.
Roughly 80 percent of New Zealanders have tried marijuana, according to independent studies — more than double the rate for Australians, and far above what Americans report, too. So when Ms. Ardern, 40, acknowledged her own past drug use, the nation of five million — where a lot of things are green and dank — simply shrugged.
“Most people will have just smiled to themselves, as most have had a puff,” said Peter Williamson, 67, a Methodist minister in South Auckland. “I’m probably one of the few people who’s never actually had the opportunity.”
That’s New Zealand for you — democracy’s relaxed parallel universe. While President Trump and Joe Biden were drawing comparisons to dumpster fires inside a train wreck this week, Ms. Ardern and her opponent, Judith Collins, leader of the conservative National Party, were engaging in an intense debate with just a few interruptions (and a call at one point for “manners”).
New Zealand’s upcoming election is an anomaly in other ways as well. It has the potential to be historic — as a marker of consensus, 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 since landmark electoral reform in the 1990s, or whether she will need to form a coalition with the Greens.
Marijuana has become a hot issue precisely for that reason. With a majority in reach, Ms. Ardern has been reminding the world that her politics of kindness also includes steely calculation.
Helen Clark, the former Labor prime minister who is a vocal supporter of legalization, said “the indication that she has used it is in itself a powerful signal.”
But polls show a closely divided electorate on legalization. Some observers see that as the reason Ms. Ardern has refused to say which way she leans on the issue.
“She needs center-right voters,” said Richard Shaw, a politics professor at Massey University in Palmerston North. “The concern might be that the National Party would use it against her as a weapon.”
For now, her “I smoked but may not want you to” approach has flummoxed 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 lead the National Party, interjected a sarcastic “come on” when Ms. Ardern said she wanted to let the public decide whether marijuana should be legal.
Her own answer was more definitive: Ms. Collins, 61, said she had never used cannabis and would vote no on the referendum.
“I want to protect the mental health of young people in particular,” she said.
Many New Zealanders seem, like Ms. Ardern, to be arguing not about the intent of the law, but how far it would go and how it should be passed.
Mr. Williamson, the Methodist pastor, who is also a former criminal barrister, said he would prefer that marijuana possession be decriminalized. Indigenous New Zealanders are three times as likely to be arrested and charged with marijuana offenses as white New Zealanders are.
“An ordinary person with a small amount of marijuana should not be afraid of being stopped by police,” he said.
Even supporters of legalization have wondered aloud if the referendum was the best way to go. It lays out in great detail how the drug would be regulated: Cannabis would be sold via licensed retailers; it would be legal for those 20 and older; and people would be allowed to grow up to 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 ask, why turn the decision over to the people?
“They committed to writing a very good law, but they’re letting it hang out in a no-man’s-land,” said Ross Bell, executive director of the Drug Foundation, which has worked for decades to reduce the harm of alcohol and drugs through education and policy advocacy.
Nandor Tanczos, a former Greens party lawmaker who is now on the district council in the town of Whakatane, and who runs a social change organization called He Puna Whenua, agreed.
“Parliament should have just legislated these reforms, based on science,” he said.
Relying on a referendum, he argued, has allowed misinformation to bloom. One example he cited: The antilegalization lobby has shown images of rural dairy farms with marijuana ads plastered on them — although the new law would prohibit advertising.
“It’s an attempt to scare people into thinking we’re getting something different than we actually will,” Mr. Tanczos said.
That kind of fearmongering could have long-term consequences, said Mr. Bell.
“A ‘no’ vote means no politicians will touch cannabis for a long, long time,” he said. “And that law will stay, doing harm mainly to young people and Maori.”
Amanda Saxton contributed reporting from Auckland, New Zealand.