The Marijuana Law Reform Movement
I am a criminal, and so are many of the people who will pick up this magazine. According to the laws of our land, I deserve to spend up to three months in jail and receive a criminal record that will prevent me from travelling the world. And what do I do to imperil this country? I sit in my room, listening to Tool, reading books about history, watching Salad Fingers and, horror of horrors, laughing my ass off with my bong.
Last year, 7,529 New Zealanders were arrested for either smoking marijuana or possessing the drug for personal use. In 2000, the enforcement of marijuana prohibition cost our police and courts $56 million – yet 52 per cent of Kiwis aged between 15 and 45 say they have smoked pot. The Health Select Committee has officially stated that marijuana prohibition is a failed policy. And on the first Saturday of May – J-Day – every year, thousands of New Zealanders gather in public to toke up, demanding that the law should stop treating them as criminals and allow police to focus on real crime.
But our nation’s marijuana laws have remained unchanged for more than thirty years. Clearly something has gone wrong – with all the evidence on their side, why hasn’t the movement to reform marijuana law already succeeded? In this article, Salient looks at the movement, and attempts to define the major obstacles to its progress. But first, let’s take a look at why the drug was banned in the first place.
The Misuse of Drugs Act Stops Me From Smoking Pot: Yeah Right
“Smoke two joints in the morning, smoke two joints at night, smoke two joints in the afternoon, it makes me feel alright.”– Sublime
In the 1920s, ‘Indian Hemp’ (as marijuana was known) was included in medicines prescribed for a wide range of afflictions, including depression, ‘nerves’, alcohol withdrawal and loss of appetite. It was also used to make paper, textiles, rope and lamp oil. But in 1925, the League of Nations made marijuana a controlled substance, after bowing to a pressure campaign led by US newspaper and timber mogul William Randolph Hearst.
A consensus among current historians of marijuana law accepts that Hearst’s campaign was driven by his fear that hemp would displace timber as the major source of paper (thus bankrupting his timber empire), as well as racial prejudice. Hearst used his newspapers to concoct dubious scare-stories of Mexican rapists driven mad by hashish. Sadly, New Zealand followed the League of Nations in swallowing his sorry tale.
In 1927 Indian Hemp was classified within the Dangerous Drugs Act – although it continued to be sold in over-the-counter medicines for another decade. At the same time, local news media followed Hearst in linking hashish to racial murder: a 1921 story in Christchurch’s Press said that the drug had been creating “unrest among natives” in South Africa. A 1997 University of Otago study of local news media articles on marijuana between 1960 and 1989 found that journalists routinely and incorrectly characterised the pot-smoker as an unemployed Maori male with gang links.
Such scaremongering was reflected in the 1965 Narcotics Act, which instituted mandatory imprisonment for the possession of marijuana. But opposition to the law began to grow. The NZ Medical Journal said of the 1965 Act that making sick people criminals would not help fight drug addiction. In the late 1960s, the first thorough scientific research into marijuana proved that, contrary to media hype, marijuana does not turn users into murderers and rapists. The Labour Government under Norman Kirk took heed, and in 1975 passed the Misuse of Drugs Act, which removed mandatory imprisonment but retained penal sentences and the criminal status of marijuana.
Unfortunately, no further progress has been made, and in recent years, New Zealand’s drug policies have regressed. In 1999, National Party banned the sale of pipes designed for marijuana use (including water bongs and vaporisers, which minimise lung damage by filtering smoke).
Fortunately, many shops still sell them as vases. And while the Health Select Committee has made two inquiries into the drug in recent years, even going so far as to state that prohibition does not work, only a Justice Committee Inquiry could influence the law change – and unfortunately, Labour’s agreement with United Future means this will not happen. (The history of marijuana prohibition in New Zealand is covered in greater detail by Steven McIntyre in a series of articles published by the National Organisation of Reform of Marijuana Law ( NORML) in 2003-4, available online at www.norml.org.nz.)
Stoners of the Nation, Light Up
“Legalise it, don’t criticise it.”– Peter Tosh
For a growing number of Kiwis, marijuana laws are unacceptable.
On May 5 this year, hundreds of people sat around in public spaces, smoking pot in blatant disregard for its legal status. Although technically they are all committing a criminal offence and should be arrested, the police rarely bother. In 2003, around 70 J-Day protestors led by Duncan Eddy marched from the Octagon in central Dunedin to the city’s main police station, smoked dope in the foyer and planted a tree on the station’s front lawn. None were arrested, and they repeated their protest the next year to the same effect. The Dunedin Police Force’s Area Controller, Dave Campbell, said that arresting the protesters would have been a “political statement” and that “dealing with them in that manner would tie up our staff who are better off out doing other things”. His statement tacitly admits that, while illegal, marijuana use is not worth prosecuting. Eddy has since gone on to lead a campaign encouraging smokers to put their roaches and butts in rubbish bins.
The defining characteristic of marijuana rallies is that they are fun and friendly. This year’s Wellington J-Day was held in Brooklyn Central Park, surrounded by trees and a flying fox. It featured two bands playing classic rock covers and a sausage sizzle. While it began with hardly anyone at midday, over the afternoon more than 100 people came to sit on the lawn, toking and talking. The event was more like a celebration of marijuana than a political rally.
Participants know that turning up to J-Day will not effect an immediate law change, but it demonstrates how absurd the law is, and allows them to enjoy the drug in the company of like-minded folk.
Will de Cleene, son of former MP Trevor de Cleene, and co-leader of the Wellington branch of NORML, said that “the beauty of J-Day is that the cops are outnumbered… getting enough people to break the law means they can’t prosecute”.
Sadly, the police do not always respect these rallies. In December 2004, they interrupted a ‘Merry Cannabis’ rally in central Nelson. Two poorly-disguised undercover cops stood around waiting to be passed a joint; since no-one was gullible enough to do so, they eventually jumped on the event’s leader, activist Julian Crawford, and dragged him off to the local station. Crawford defended his subsequent charges using the ‘Roaring Lion’ tactic which NORML advocates, by pleading not guilty and holding up the court process.
The arrest did nothing to stop him from supporting marijuana, but it did waste police time and court resources. And at J-Day in Motueka this year, police arrested Elanor Stedman for smoking a joint, although they subsequently discovered that this joint was in fact a cigarette.
Such major public opposition to marijuana prohibition began in 1978, when the New Zealand Marijuana Party began holding public ‘smoke-ins’, first at the Nambassa music festival, then outside Parliament. They received public support from the Values Party, members of whom later became the Greens. A 1979 tour by Bob Marley promoted the cause, and in 1980 NORML was formed. But it was not until the 1990s that promarijuana protests became major public events, with the Auckland University branch of NORML hosting massive parties.
In 1992, the first J-Day event was held. The next year, NORML began distributing a magazine, initially edited by current Green MP Nandor Tanczos. The free magazine now has a circulation of 30,000 copies. In 1996, a number of activists, including Tanczos, fellow Green MP Metiria Turei, and current NORML president Chris Fowlie, ran for Parliament as the Aotearoa Legalise Cannabis Party, receiving 1.8% of the party vote.
NORML also began hosting the One Love Festival in the Wellington Velodrome in the late ‘90s, to celebrate Bob Marley’s birthday on February 6 (which also happens to be Waitangi Day) with music, marijuana and a friendly vibe.
During this period, many Labour Party members backed the movement, including Helen Clark, who acknowledged that criminalising marijuana users exacerbates problems associated with the drug.
According to Will de Cleene, the Labour party “promised the earth to the reform movement” when they became government in 1999. They instituted a health select committee: the anti-prohibition movement held its breath and supported the government – and then nothing happened. de Cleene says that due to the Labour’s inaction, “a lot of people became disillusioned and left the movement”.
Meh, Nothing Ever Changes: Obstacles to Law Reform
“Minor drug offenders fill your prisons you don’t even flinch.” – System of a Down
And so, after eight years of a Labour government led by people who have publicly stated that smoking weed should not be a criminal offence, nothing has changed. Will de Cleene and Metiria Turei (Green Party spokesperson for Alcohol and Drugs) told me that many marijuana users have become despondent due to this inaction. However, they both believe that the biggest obstacle facing law reform is fear.
de Cleene stated that “if every cannabis smoker stood up and wrote a letter to their MP or their newspaper, it would change the law… I know civil servants who smoke it and support a change, but are too afraid of losing their jobs to say so in public”. Turei has talked to many people who are too afraid to even sign a petition advocating medicinal use of marijuana.
Fear of speaking out and the silence this creates mean that the true scale of drug use in our country is hidden, so that the extent of prohibition’s failure is not always evident. de Cleene says that he thought prohibition was a harmless way to restrict marijuana, until he was busted five years ago. Although he received a diversion, he lost his job over the incident and realised how badly prohibition can effect people’s lives.
Similarly, Turei told me that many middle-class users, including university students, do not realise how dangerous our current laws are because they have been shielded from their worst effects. Otago University’s Christchurch Health and Development Study, led by David Fergusson, has discovered that the biggest factor in determining whether a marijuana user is arrested is not how often they smoke or the number of other offences they have committed, but whether or not they are Maori and male. Turei claims that first time offenders arrested for marijuana use are four times more likely to receive diversion if they are Pakeha, although she is quick to point out that many police officers are actively trying to overturn the prejudiced enforcement of the law.
Nevertheless, prejudiced law enforcement continues, and has been reinforced by the news media’s pot-smoker stereotype of an unemployed Maori man with gang connections. Given that a majority of adult New Zealanders have now smoked dope, we know that this stereotype is incorrect, even though it is reflected in prosecution rates.
Yet because affluent Pakeha users are unlikely to be arrested, many do not realise the scale of prohibition. Last year 16,259 arrests were made in New Zealand for drug-crimes. Of these, 14,576 were for cannabis crimes alone – thus, despite public concern about far more dangerous drugs such as crystal meth, marijuana continues to dominate the police’s drug policy. And of those arrested for cannabis crimes, 7,529 – more than half – were arrested for personal use or possession for personal use. Our laws continue to target users: this year, police in Otara have been running Operation Beware, which targets ordinary people buy- ing weed from tinny houses.
Such campaigns are a huge drain on crime-fighting resources. The police estimate that they spend 300,000 hours every year chasing up cannabis crime, which equates to 150 full-time officers who could be going after rapists and murderers, but are instead tied up chasing stoners. Turei and de Cleene agree that the only reason so many resources are put into fighting weed is because cannabis arrests are easy to prosecute, with a much lower burden of proof than rape or murder cases; they are thus used to improve prosecution rates by officers seeking promotion.
Furthermore, since pot-smokers with good jobs are often too scared to protest, the media is able to use the dreadlocked hippies who do turn up to J-Day as the defining stoners, and use their image to ridicule the movement. In 2005, veteran marijuana campaigner Green MP Nandor Tanczos gave up his Alcohol and Drugs spokesman role, partly because his hairstyle was being used to stereotype the anti-prohibition movement. However, Turei (who subsequently picked up the role) believes that public protests, even when led by dirty hippies, are “absolutely essential” because “we can’t get anywhere without people taking to the street and getting the issue noticed”. But de Cleene admits that fear of prosecution continues to hurt the law-reform process: “the frustrating thing is that the most responsible pot users are the ones who won’t admit to it in public.”
Wellington in particular has had difficulty encouraging resident pot smokers to stand up and be counted and its J-Days have had venue trouble in recent years. Auckland, Christchurch and Dunedin all have strong traditions of centre-city J-Days in the past few years, while Wellington is only slowly getting off its feet. This year’s event moved from Aro Park to Brooklyn at the last minute due to a booking clash.
But in the end, the event was a sweet success for those in attendance, especially since the first covers band did a rendition of Tool’s ‘Sober’. Sadly, the Dominion Post never even bothered to acknowledge that the event had taken place.
The Personal Use of Marijuana Must Be Legalised
“If you don’t like my fire, then don’t come around ‘cos I’m gonna burn one down.” – Ben Harper
Prohibition ruins lives. The 2003 Health Select Committee Inquiry into cannabis stated that prohibition “facilitates the black market, and potentially exposes cannabis users to harder drugs”. This means that the ‘gateway effect’ cited by United Future leader Peter Dunne and Progressives leader Jim Anderton as one of the reasons that marijuana should be banned is actually exacerbated by their policy – if weed smokers could buy legal weed, they would be less exposed to harder drugs.
The logic behind prohibition is that we should stop weed use because weed is bad. And yeah, weed might be bad for us. Maybe we as a nation spend too much time in our beanbags, trying to remember where we put our glass of water. But prohibition has not prevented marijuana from being widely available, and actually makes some problems associated with the drug harder to contain.
The only way to end prohibition is to speak out, to stand up and disobey the law. Since this often means relaxing in a grassy park with a band playing and free food, not to mention free buds, standing up for marijuana is probably the most enjoyable way that you can make a positive political stance. And by proclaiming your support for the movement, you can even protect yourself from prosecution: many police officers leave activists alone because they are known to tie up court resources and force police to respect their legal rights.
But first, we need to focus upon the people most hurt by marijuana prohibition. According to Turei, those most damaged by the law are people who use marijuana as a medicine to soothe chronic pain.
Without marijuana, they are forced to use opiates and other pharmaceuticals far more dangerous than weed. Although they are certainly not the only ones hurt by prohibition, they are the ones who need a law change the most. This is why Turei has introduced the Misuse of Drugs (Medicinal Marijuana) Amendment Bill, to legalise the use of pot by genuinely needy patients. The best thing we can do for the people of New Zealand is to publicly support this bill and encourage our parliament to do the same. Otherwise the taxpayer will continue to spend $56 million a year shooting itself in the foot.