Kiwi Cannabis Culture

New Zealand is long famed for its rugged beauty, anti-nuclear stance, and green attitude, but less well known for having the highest cannabis arrest rate in the world. New Zealanders love to drink and smoke and have a good time, so much so that official figures show eighty percent will have tried cannabis by the age of 21. This is the highest recorded rate of cannabis use in the world for young people, although I understand the United Nations World Drug Report 2007 says Canadians were the western world’s most chronic citizens. The Labor-Green government says the war on drugs does not exist here and the official policy embraces a harm minimization philosophy that professes to reduce overall harm even if drug use continues. But the government, only recently on the brink of ending cannabis prohibition, instead quashed hopes of law reform and is escalating the war on drugs.

Cannabis charges continue to make up around 75 percent of all drug charges, with personal use charges making up over 90 percent of that. Almost 70 percent of all drug arrests are for small amounts of cannabis. Even though charges have dropped every year since the left-leaning government came to power in 1999, there is still a cannabis arrest here every 34 minutes in a country of only four million people (15,298 arrests in 2006, down 40 percent from 25,309 in 1998). The substantial drop in cannabis arrests in recent years can be put down to an explosion in the use and manufacture of harder drugs such as methamphetamine, the influence of the 2001-2003 cannabis inquiry which heavily criticized the current law, and the importation of several hundred British cops who seem to have less taste for busting pot smokers. Needless to say, with such a high rate of both consuming cannabis and being arrested for it, there is plenty of support for changing the law. The problem has always been convincing the politicians to do it.

Pot Protests a-Plenty

The worldwide “Global Marijuana March” is celebrated in New Zealand as “J Day”, as it is in Australia. Demonstrations and free concerts were this year held in Auckland, Hamilton, Wellington, Motueka, Christchurch and The New Zealand Cup was held on board this century-old schoonerThe New Zealand Cup was held on board this century-old schoonerDunedin. Protesters received varied responses from the police – from studiously ignoring them (Auckland and Wellington) to actively harassing them (Motueka and Christchurch). For example, a protester in Motueka was arrested for smoking a tobacco cigarette, and red-faced police dropped the charges several days later. In Christchurch the city council refused to issue a permit for “J Day”; the protest went ahead, and the police arrived and began searching several young people. One of the organizers, Blair Anderson of lobby group the Mild Greens, who is running for Mayor in local body elections in October 2007, intervened in the searches, informing young people of their rights and acting as their witness. “No wonder young folk have contempt for the police,” he said. (

Dunedin students attracted a lot of attention with their “4:20 sessions”, held every Friday at the University of Otago. The Student’s Association had previously passed a motion that University grounds are declared “a prohibition-free zone” and the Association “condones the public smoking of cannabis as protest against cannabis prohibition”. The media were somewhat amused that the university and local police had refused to stop the protest. Dunedin police area commander Inspector Dave Campbell said, “It would be quite a logistical exercise to deal with sixty pot-smokers, and quite honestly we do have what a lot of people would consider to be better things to do.”

Auckland NORML has for the past two years also held a “4:20 session” every Friday at Albert Park. Local police don’t share the laid-back attitude of their southern counterparts, however, and undercover cops recently made an arrest. Undaunted, the protesters continue to gather every Friday to show their support for ending cannabis prohibition.

Auckland Cannabis Cup

New Zealand Cup winner, Te KakarikiNew Zealand Cup winner, Te KakarikiEarlier this year, the New Zealand NORML 4th Annual Auckland Cannabis Cup was held on board a century-old schooner. One hundred guest judges evaluated and compared the merits of the finest cannabis on offer in New Zealand while cruising the Waitemata harbor. For the third year in a row, a local favorite called Te Kakariki took the Indoor Cup. An indica-sativa hybrid, Kakariki is thick with trichomes (it gummed up many grinders at this contest) and has a citrus taste with great effects on the brain. White Rhino is a popular local strain and the entry from Southside Smithers was powerful. The Outdoor Cup went to Coronaki Afi, which hailed from the Coromandel, a region famed for its hippie population and bountiful marijuana harvests. Black Herer, a tasty Black Domina X Jack Herer cross, was from the Auckland suburbs. Peka Peka Bay Bud represented the bush weed that is the most common in New Zealand. Many of the other entries are pictured on these pages. A glassblower named Josh had made two beautiful glass cups in California but on arrival he was pulled aside by Customs and they seized the glass cups. Not one to be deterred, Josh pulled off an amazing feat and blew two entirely new cups while here in New Zealand, further proof of the futility of cannabis prohibition!

Growing Kiwi Style

New Zealand’s warm climate, regular rainfall and sparsely populated countryside provide advantageous grounds for outdoor cultivators. The high ultra-violet (UV) sunlight levels and gentle climate produce cannabis that visitors rank as some of the strongest in the world. A Kiwi strain called Mako Haze won the 2006 High Times indoor Cannabis Cup.

Developed by Tim from Kiwi Seeds, Mako Haze is a near-pure sativa and is currently a bestseller in Amsterdam’s coffee shops. Traditional “New Zealand Green” or “dak” was a 1970s mix of genetics from Thai Buddha sticks and Hawaiian “Maui Wowie”. The first appearance of the Californian and Dutch strains was in the late eighties, with indoor growing gaining more popularity through the nineties. Strains like Big Bud, Silver Pearl and Cherry Skunk have given way to White Rhino, Dutch Treat and, more recently, Sour Diesel. Most growers say they grow organically, or as close as they can, and their rooms are typically small-scale by North American standards. Kiwi growers are a cunning and largely self-taught bunch as grow books are almost impossible to get, and we also miss out on many of the new innovations in grow technology such as vertical chambers. However, Aotearoa’s most popular indoor gardening chain, the Switched On Gardener, now has 14 stores across the country – further evidence of the increasing popularity of home growing.

Every summer the police take to the skies with the annual Cannabis Eradication Programme. Army and Air Force personnel get to play with their toys and join the search, which mostly involves spraying cannabis patches with a blue toxic poison based on Round Up (glyphosate). The spray is dyed blue, supposedly to warn potential users, although we regularly receive reports of blue pot being sold to unsuspecting consumers. Police have responded to this poisoning by saying that people who break the law deserve it.

Outside this operation, police now bust more indoor than outdoor ops. Of the indoor, 95 percent are in soil and only 5 percent hydroponics. The Misuse of Drugs Act presumes those caught with more than what are ridiculously low amounts – one ounce or ten plants – are doing it for supply. In a shocking reversal of the norms of justice, the burden of proof switches from the prosecution to the defendant, who must prove themselves innocent.

Entrapment is legal here, meaning a police officer can sell you a joint, and even smoke it with you, before busting you for it. Undercover cops have even been known to take LSD with people they have later had arrested. Lately, police have taken a liking to busting drug houses and then arresting the customers who approach the premise. Some days they nab dozens of people. Police have expressed surprise that most of the customers are ordinary people with regular jobs, not the trashy unemployed terrorists they were supposedly expecting!

Dak Attack

Smoke shops also face continued harassment over selling so-called drug paraphernalia. In recent months several stores have been raided and had all their stock seized. The tactic, it seems, is to try to drive businesses broke by taking all their stock. Cannabis Culture magazine has also come under fire; New Zealand Customs would like it banned, and sent issues #61 and #66 to the New Zealand censors. CC #61 was eventually released, but as of early September, #66 is still impounded by New Zealand Censorship pending their decision.

“The Hempstore”, based in Auckland, is a centre for local activism and imports Cannabis Culture magazine. The Hempstore gainfully employs both the authors of this article and provides staff to handle the membership, administration and help line for NORML. We both also write for NORML News, a free 48-page magazine released every three months with a print-run of 50,000 copies – one of the most popular magazines in the country! New Zealand NORML’s website ( gets around 30,000 hits per day, making it more popular than the ruling Labour party’s site. The website’s “arrest-o-meter” tracks the number of people who have been arrested for cannabis offences since the current government came to power in 1999, and has a rather depressing number of 145,000 at the time of writing.

New Zealand Cup Dutch TreatNew Zealand Cup Dutch TreatThe government has several contentious bills in the pipeline to further expand the war on drugs. These include the Criminal Proceeds Recovery Bill, which will expand the state’s powers of confiscation of so-called “tainted” property. NORML and others made strong representations to the Parliament’s law and order committee, but the bill as it stands will require no conviction or even prosecution of suspects, and allow secret meetings between prosecutors and judges, as well as freezing suspects’ assets and bank accounts with no allowance for their legal defense.

The New Zealand government is also attacking free speech with a bill that will greatly restrict what lobby groups such as NORML can do in election years. The bill expands the definition of political advertising to cover just about anything that involves expressing an opinion on a political matter, or taking sides for or against certain candidates or parties, and places a cap of NZ$60,000 on such expenditures. That will make it almost impossible for NORML to effectively campaign against cannabis prohibition. We are allied with other groups in opposing this election gag law.

On the bright side, a new Police Act may include a code of ethics and a badly needed independent oversight and complaints body. The government has also recently announced a long-overdue review of the thirty-year old Misuse of Drugs Act, which will consider the underlying philosophy of the legislation, its internal consistency and its relationship to and consistency with other legislation.

The Party’s Over

The government recently said it would ban the sale and manufacture of “party pills” containing benzylpiperazine (BZP), used by one in five Kiwis. The Social Tonics Association of New Zealand says party pills have reduced harm by replacing harder drugs such as methamphetamine and ecstasy, and are made to standardized recipes in medical-grade laboratories. Over five million pills are sold annually in New Zealand, and their sale is banned as of December 28, 2007, criminalizing many more New Zealanders. Because BZP does not go well with alcohol, use of that legal drug among late night partiers dropped and this is thought to have alarmed the greatly influential beer, wine and spirits industry here, spurring the government to act against this very popular but not as addictive substance.

No deaths have ever been attributed to BZP, but it was banned in the USA in 2002, in Japan, Denmark, and Sweden and, in 2006, Australia. The pills had been regulated under Class D, an entirely new category of legal restricted substances that have some controls imposed over their manufacture and sale. Manufacturers lobbied for tougher regulations including dosage limits and health warnings, and the Government’s own Expert Advisory Committee on Drugs conceded that a ban would come with no guarantee it would reduce use. The Minister in charge of drug policy, Jim Anderton, said he would “ban party pills tomorrow if it were up to me as I don’t think our youth need these sort of substances in order to have fun.”

Matt Bowden of the Social Tonics Association said, “It is a step backwards, really. We had an opportunity to progress drug policy to a point where it was the safest and most advanced in the world. We need to look for options other than drug prohibition because prohibition has failed us, but it is difficult for a country to turn its back on years and years of misinformation.”
Mother Mary Joseph Aubert

Aotearoa-New Zealand once enjoyed a golden age of cannabis-based apothecary with the therapeutic potential of the ancient herb freely explored. Our most important medical marijuana pioneer was a French nun, Mother Mary Joseph Aubert, founder of Our Sisters of Compassion, and currently under consideration for Canonization by the Vatican. Aubert arrived in New Zealand at 25 years of age in December 1860 having served as a nurse in the Crimean War. She was already an accomplished physician as she had studied biology and chemistry semi-secretly in France – women were not admitted to university at that time.

She brought Indian hemp (cannabis indica) with her, and became the first to cultivate the herb in New Zealand. France developed a fascination for all things cannabis after Napoleon’s 1800 conquest of Egypt, and for the century following Napoleon’s triumph at the Nile, French culture made wide use of the properties of hashish (cannabis indica). Into the salons (art discussion houses) and pharmacies came hashish from French Morocco, Algeria, Egypt and other places in the Middle East, and more was written about this mysterious psychoactive and medicinal resin in French than in any other language. It is in this environment where Mary Aubert learned of cannabis and its healing powers. She became a Maori scholar and wrote several books in that language, and was also fluent in French, English, Italian and Spanish. She became trusted by the Maori and allowed to watch and study their healing techniques and how they prepared herbal remedies.

In 1883, Aubert established western style education among Maori tribes folk at Jerusalem on the upper reaches of the Wanganui River. She started a mission, which included a school, an orphanage and a hospice, then founded the Sisters of Compassion. The nuns planted extensive orchards and vegetable gardens, and grew and processed herbs – including cannabis – for medicine. Her own notes show cannabis was used as a tea for asthma, a hemp brew cooked in milk for the nuns’ menstrual cramps, and as a tonic to aid recovering alcoholics. Explosions were sometimes heard in the middle of the night as she experimented with her medicines in a crude bush laboratory. One psychotropic concoction explosion left Mother Mary totally paralyzed and unable to move a muscle, though she was still fully conscious. She heard herself being declared dead by the doctor, was placed in her coffin, the grave was dug, and Bishop Pompallier was ready to preside over the ceremony when Aubert awoke, just before the coffin was lowered!

Aubert built close relationships with Maori tribes who taught her about the curative powers of native plants, which she cleverly combined with her Old World herbal medicines, especially cannabis. The remedies proved so popular that they were packaged under the name “Rongoa” (Maori for “medicine”), and sold throughout the country. Eventually, up to 4,000 bottles were being sold every month throughout New Zealand and Australia. This bi-culturally inspired, medical marijuana industry helped fund Mother Aubert’s astonishing life-work as a healer, teacher and philanthropist, for which the Vatican may make her a Saint. Truly, the cannabis culture has its own Patron Saint of Pot: Mother Mary Aubert.

When the New Zealand Government introduced its first controls on the importation of opiates and other plant-based drugs in 1895, cannabis had remained classified with herbs and teas. By 1900, cannabis in medicines in New Zealand was common and well established even among western trained doctors. But in 1928 the Dangerous Drugs Regulations were passed, which strictly licensed the sale of Indian hemp for medical use only. Then in 1954, the World Health Organization bowed to US pressure and stopped all trade in medicinal cannabis, effectively ending medical marijuana in New Zealand and nearly everywhere else.

Medical Marijuana Returns

Only now, fifty years later, does medical marijuana look like it’s making a comeback in New Zealand. This was made possible by a political revolution in the late 1990s when Kiwis voted in a proportional representation electoral system (called MMP), ending the traditional hegemony of the two main parties. Cannabis law reformers created the Aotearoa Legalise Cannabis Party (ALCP) and two of its founding candidates were veteran NORML activists: Ras Nandor Tanczos and Metiria Turei. Hopes were dashed at the first MMP election in 1996 when the ALCP polled under the five percent threshold needed to get into Parliament. But Tanczos and Turei strategically defected to the burgeoning Green Party that enjoyed broader political support and advocated cannabis law reform. Tanczos had popular appeal among the youth section of the party and went to number five on its candidate list. In 1999 the Greens beat the threshold and the world’s first Rastafarian MP was voted into Parliament. Three years later, Turei joined him.

Tanczos enjoyed much initial media attention and popular support, but others were terrified of his dreadlocks and Parliamentary conservatives closed ranks against the perceived threat. Nandor realized that some in New Zealand politics were so afraid of allowing him any sort of victory, no matter how conservative, that he himself had become an obstacle to law reform. So he passed the cannabis portfolio over to Turei: as a Maori, a woman and a mother, in the complexities of New Zealand politics, she is afforded a degree of deference that a dreadlocked Rastafarian is not.

But after the 2005 general election, although the Greens were returned to Parliament, it seemed as though the law-reform movement had foundered. Then Mother Aubert suddenly smiled at us from Heaven. In New Zealand, a private member’s bill from the opposition is drawn out of a box once a month and is entered into the Parliamentary debates. In 2006, the Greens Party’s dusty old Medical Marijuana Bill from 2001 was drawn from the box! After a speedy survey of MP’s positions, NORML realized the bill would not pass its first reading. But then New Zealand’s highest rating TV news show (Canadian-owned TV3 News) returned an opinion poll showing 63 percent public support for the bill, and NORML hit Parliament with a 3,000 name petition. The government began to take more notice and Turei postponed the bill’s first reading to allow time for Parliamentary support to build. After years of frustration, we are too experienced to get overly optimistic, but we do have some support in the Parliament. Some debate is better than no debate.

Meanwhile, Kiwi society remains in a twilight zone where medical marijuana users such as Neville Yates and Daniel Clarke are frequently arrested and often punished harder than ordinary users. Keen to press the point that med pot is still illegal, the New Zealand judiciary appears to be caught in perverse defiance of both intuitive morality and the overwhelming preference of the New Zealand populace. As for the politicians, they fear a conservative backlash if they support the bill that would allow patients to grow their own medicine. In an effort to draw off some of the pressure, high-ranking Labour MPs have started making positive noises about allowing pharmaceutical cannabis products like Sativex into the country. Pete Hodgson, Minister of Health, recently wrote to one medical user that the government is preparing application forms and information for doctors aiming to prescribe these products. Even if the medical bill does not pass, this would be a minor victory in itself. Sativex is a whole-plant cannabis extract and if its use here becomes widespread among patients, it could prove an effective ambassador for medical marijuana in New Zealand society, paving the way for future developments.

For the New Zealand cannabis law reform movement, the eight years since the Greens first battled their way into Parliament have been a salutary exercise in watching big dreams hammered down into modest gains. The almost-supernatural tenacity of the prohibitionist paradigm has repeatedly asserted itself against all considered evidence, compassion and reason, forcing the movement into some heavy soul-searching. The result? Expect to see Kiwi law-reformers honing their skills and rejoining battle with renewed vigor, improved tactics and a more comprehensive strategy. Or as famed Kiwi Mountaineer Sir Edmund Hillary might have put it: We ARE going to knock this bastard off!