In January 2000, a New Zealand arrest made international headlines. Peter Lewis, chairman and chief executive of Progressive Corporation, a major American insurance company, arrived in Auckland for the America?s Cup with his personal stash of about 100 grams. Busted by zealous Customs officers, he was discharged without conviction after making a donation to a local drug rehabilitation centre, and had his name suppressed.
The name supression meant nothing outside of New Zealand ? the case was reported in the US and on the Internet. Nonetheless, the New Zealand Herald, the country?s largest newspaper, instigated legal action for the right to publish Lewis’s name and details. The challenge was eventually successful, but the action was widely regarded as a self-promotional exercise for the Herald, which takes a negative, sensationalist approach to cannabis issues.
One of the reasons for the name suppression was to protect the privacy of Lewis’s daughter, who lives in New Zealand ? but the Herald published her name regardless.
Lewis has donated funds to educational institutes and helped fund US campaigns to decriminalise cannabis for medical use. He is a major backer of Americans for Medical Rights.
New Zealand’s Coalition for Cannabis Law Reform, a recently formed group consisting of doctors, students, Maori leaders, members of Parliament, and other pro-reform activists, plans to approach Lewis for funding.
Last November’s election ushered in a new government in New Zealand, and with it came high hopes for marijuana law reform. The Green Party held the balance of power in the center-left coalition, and it supports legalising possession and cultivation for personal use. This presented New Zealand with a unique opportunity to lead the world in overturning prohibition.
One of the new Green members of Parliament was Nandor Tanczos: veteran NORML member, former editor of NZ NORML News, ecological activist, and Rastafarian. With his dreadlocks, hemp suit, and avowed use of ganja as a religious sacrament, Tanczos became a media sensation. His profile was enhanced when he accused some of his fellow legislators of being “drunk in charge of the country”.
It is generally agreed that the “stoner vote” was a key factor in bringing the Greens to political prominence and defeating the incumbent National party, which ran a “reefer madness” campaign on the marijuana issue.
However, nearly a year later, New Zealanders who want the law changed are feeling frustrated and discouraged at the slow rate of progress. No bill has been introduced to Parliament, and even hearings to review the current law have been delayed by political infighting over relatively trivial matters – for example, which select committee of Parliament is to hold the hearings.
In 1998 the Health Select Committee recommended a review of the law, but the previous government ignored the recmmendation.
Meanwhile, the defeated National party ? New Zealand’s conservatives ? has been resorting to scare tactics against marijuana law reform. The party has joined forces with the School Trustees Association to launch a petition against changing the law. The petition is being circulated to 2700 schools throughout the country. Borrowing American anti-drug rhetoric, organisers claim law reform proposals “send the wrong message” to young people.
A recent survey of 4000 New Zealand high school students aged 13 to 17 found that nearly a third of them had tried cannabis at least once.
Prime minister Helen Clark declared her support for marijuana law reform in the election campaign. She favors an instant fine system similar to the South Australian model (which has failed to achieve anything except more convictions). When asked whether she had ever tried the herb, Clark (age 51) coyly evaded the issue by saying “I was at university in the 1970s.”
Health minister Annette King has admitted to smoking a few joints in her younger days, and so have various other members of Parliament. But support for law reform remains weak among politicians – many of them have been ducking for cover in the face of media reports about cannabis use by children as young as 10.
If a bill to legalise or decriminalise marijuana ever makes it through Parliament, it will be decided on a conscience vote. Opinion is divided within the ruling coalition; only the Greens are committed as a party to legalisation.
Politicians have fallen behind the general public, according to a recent poll which found 60 per cent were in favour of either decriminalising or legalising cannabis.
The government’s lack of commitment to reform was highlighted in July when the infamous “bong ban” took effect. This was a ban on the importing and sale of bongs, pipes, and other “utensils” designed for smoking pot. Instigated by the previous government as a cheap pre-election ploy, it could easily have been scrapped. Instead it was approved on the pathetic pretext of being a health measure – a claim contradicted by evidence showing that bongs remove tars and cool the smoke.
Retailers have easily got around the law by renaming pipes as ornaments, and selling parts of bongs separately. As Chris Fowlie of Auckland’s Hemp Store says, “Instead of bongs, we’ll be selling vases or ornaments. If people choose to use these for cannabis, that’s their business.”
Recent months have seen increasing numbers of New Zealand high school students suspended or expelled from school after being caught with cannabis. Coercive urine testing of students is also becoming more commonplace.
In the South Island town of Greymouth, police have even been selling home drug-testing kits to parents who want to check up on their children. The kits are similar to home pregnancy testers and cost only $10. The price reflects their quality – they are notoriously unreliable and often give false negative or false positive results.
On a positive note, the New Zealand hemp industry may finally be getting off the ground after years of frustration. Applications to grow industrial hemp crops have repeatedly been turned down due to the anti-cannabis bias of previous governments. However, approval in principle was recently granted for trial crops of hemp, and if formalities can be completed in time, they could be planted in October (the southern hemisphere spring).
A court case earlier this year highlighted the weakness in New Zealand law concerning industrial hemp. A hemp advocate imported EU-approved hemp seeds from France. Tired of waiting for government approval, he planted a trial crop of his own. Police found 24 hemp plants and charged him with cultivation. He pleaded not guilty, and because the plants had such a low THC content, he was discharged without conviction.
Many New Zealanders have not gotten off so lightly. New Zealand has the sorry distinction of racking up the highest cannabis arrest rate in the world: 368 people busted per 100,000 population. Even the USA, the home of the war on drugs, has fewer arrests: 247 per 100,000.
Contrary to police assurances that they do not target marijuana users, 85% of all cannabis arrests are for personal possession or use. This constitutes over 10% of all arrests made by New Zealand police. The total number of cannabis-related arrests is now around 14,000 a year, at a cost of $30 million of the police budget (not including court and prison costs).
It is rare for anyone to be sent to prison for possession in New Zealand – the usual penalty is a fine of a few hundred dollars. Nevertheless, a conviction incurs a permanent criminal record, creating difficulties in employment and travel. Cannabis prohibition has made criminals of an estimated 200,000 otherwise law-abiding New Zealanders out of a population of approximately 3.8 million.
The number of marijuana arrests continues to grow as the herb becomes more prevalent throughout all sectors of New Zealand society.
NORML and other supporters of law reform have called for a moratorium on arrests for possession while the law change is debated. Although some individul police officers have come out in favor of decriminalisation, the moratorium proposal has not been taken seriously by the government or police hierarchy.
The New Zealand situation may be summed up by Prime Minister Helen Clark’s recent offhand remark. She said she wouldn’t rate marijuana law reform terribly high as a priority, because the government had “more important work” to do.
? NORML NZ: Chris Fowlie, PO Box 3307 Shortland St Auckland 1015; tel 64 9 302-5255; fax 64 9 303-1309; email [email protected]; website www.norml.org.nz
? Nandor Tanczos, MP: Parliament Buildings, Wellington, New Zealand; email [email protected]