Pot politics in New Zealand
A back wheel flew off the van. The "Canna-bus" bucked and slid, showering the pavement with sparks from bare metal chewed by bare highway. A large farm truck behind us, either with poor brakes or piloted by assassins, was closing the distance. Driver Dave Moore strong-armed the steering wheel one way and then the other. We were doing 140 km an hour and it would be at least another minute before we reeled to a full stop. If Dave was daunted, his face didn't register emotion. "Be okay, mate!"
When I had gotten word from my publisher, Marc Emery, that I would be sent to New Zealand on foreign assignment, I hadn't expected to be nearly killed, chased by armed guards, threatened with police arrest, or intimidated by gangs.
"This should be a nice, relaxing assignment," Marc soothed.
A week later, lines of bush and trees cut the land into a giant jigsaw puzzle stocked with farm animals. Forests advanced over hills like British soldiers in perfect columns, planted by the timber industry. New Zealand is a pastoral dream, a vestige of colonialism, the Queen of England's gargantuan sheep ranch.
My job, upon touchdown in Auckland, was to meet with leaders of the Aotearoa Legalise Cannabis Party (ALCP) (Aotearoa is Maori for "land of the long white cloud," and refers to New Zealand.) I was to prepare and place an advertisement for their cause in the nation's two largest newspapers, and follow them on the campaign trail. Maximal exposure was needed to ensure that the fiendish Nationals ? a semi-fascist "tobacco and alcohol" party that had been in power for three years, and which had been mutating New Zealand into a US drug-war hell ? did not win again.
I was met at the international airport by Dayamoi, a devotee of Hare Krishna, and Dion Virtue, who held a placard with a six foot tall marijuana leaf on it. A crowd had gathered, blocking the placard, but I eventually found them both.
Dayamoi, an ALCP candidate, is wee and frail. Suffering from a blood disease, she burns with the fires of Northern Ireland's conflicts, from which she escaped as a child. Once she threw eggs at the Queen ? "but that was before I was a devotee," she says.
On the way from the airport Dayamoi runs me through some of the latest events. In the past few months leading up to the election, three ALCP candidates have been arrested and face jail time, including herself, and someone has been threatening her life. Yet all parties except National have endorsed cannabis law reform.
Dayamoi is facing multiple drug charges that threaten her with a total of 42 years in prison. Her arrest was part of a massive investigation known as "Operation Lucifer", in which police brought down Brian Slight, a hemp activist who was also planning on running in the '99 election. Ben Knight, another ALCP candidate, was arrested and jailed before the election as a part of the same investigation.
After two days without sleep and innumerable difficulties, the ad with its ALCP logo glows hallucinogenic in my mind, grows fangs and threatens to eat my arm. While we work long nights and even longer days, the death threats begin. The caller is going to break into the house and slit our throats. He is planting bombs and also planning to burn us out. Every few hours yields a new warning. When the ads are finally placed, we immediately pack the van for the road.
"It's like bloody Belfast!" spat Dayamoi as we pulled from the driveway.
Stories of cannabis in New Zealand reach to the unknown heart of Maori legends, hang in gossamer folds from the step where old Kuia, the elder women of the tribe, exhaled their pipefuls of pot to stream off through the palm and eucalyptus.
What is left of that smoke still courses through the stories of jailed Maori cannabis activist and ALCP candidate Teresa Aporo, in the teachings of Maori elder Sir Graham Latimer, and in the sentiments of the incendiary gang members, who surrounded the Canna-bus one morning in the famed marijuana-growing regions of northern New Zealand.
"You know," said the smallest one, twice my size, speaking in the halting speech characteristic of the Maori. "At first. When I saw this van. I thought 'good idea.' And then I realized. If pot was legal. We won't make as much money."
Hopping from foot to foot as if he were shadow boxing, he wore the traditional tattoos of a Maori warrior on his face, with a perilously perceptible difference. On his right cheek, inscribed in a circle, was the name of his gang: "Black Power." I could have cut up the tension and rolled it.
I was prepared to calmly argue why legalization was in his best interests when Dave Moore arrived. "Don't you know about the drug war, mate?" he asked. You've got all the tatties on your face? you should know about war!"
Tattoo-face pulled back, laughing, without turning around, and we left for our appointment with Sir Latimer.
"Lucky? things can get ugly with that bunch," he whispered before turning the key. Dave was the ALCP's campaign manager, and my tour guide for the latter portion of the adventure. He seemed to have lost all fear seventeen years ago when he spent six months in jail for cultivation. He had sold his house to raise money for the ALCP's campaign.
"Are you a gambling man?" I asked him once. "Funny, I hadn't thought of it that way," he replied.
After our appointment with Latimer, when we lost a tire and came close to death, I would wonder if tattoo-face and his mates were responsible.
Taking the land
On the way to Sir Latimer's I thought about my recent visit with Teresa Aporo, the ALCP candidate and Maori cannabis activist arrested every year, thirteen years in a row, for growing marijuana on her lands.
I had asked Teresa Aporo about her 72-year-old mother, who is dying of cancer, and her 14-year-old son, who is missing school to care for his grandma. Teresa told me how the police are threatening to confiscate her ancestral lands, where her grandmother has lived for 55 years, which could be the worst twist of all.
"If they are going to use drug laws to take my land? it is as though they are going back before the Treaty of Waitangi," Aporo growls, referring to the document signed by the Maori and British in 1840. "Under the treaty, we have the right to utilize our land for our own purposes if it is not going to harm the person or the land. This government is going to do away with the treaty."
"I had forty-one containers for seed and research," reveals Aporo, becoming stoic. "For the purpose of developing ourselves and the land for employment, self esteem, and to go back to how the reserve was when it was set-up. I'm not in it for the money, but for the mana, which is using the land to be self-sufficient. The biggest expense was fuel. What I wanted to develop was methanol fuel, which I would get from hemp."
"Have the Maori been growing cannabis for very long?" I ask.
"I think they have been growing cannabis since they began trading with the Europeans," asserts Aporo. "The cannabis culture is more prolific in the Northern land on the East coast, and that is where they were trading mostly. What do you think they traded for supplies like potatoes and pork? I looked into the history of it and it wasn't tobacco. I knew the old Kuia used to smoke cannabis. My uncle told me that my grandmother had smoked 'tobacco' all her life, but it wasn't 'tobacco'."
Aporo's observations are backed by Maori undercover narcotics agent Wendy Heath. In an interview with NZ magazine North and South, she reflected on the use of cannabis by her people.
"I talked with old Northland Kuia," said Heath, "who had been smoking dope all their lives, and couldn't see why they should stop just because someone in Wellington decided it was illegal in the 60's."
After my interview with Aporo, I slipped around the back of the building to get a picture of her through a window. As arranged, she approached the window when I waved. After three shots, a guard tore Aporo away by her arm with a blast of profanity.
I faked one way, ducked under the window and went the other. I saw two armed guards coming my way, someone yelled, a dog barked, and a blast of adrenalin set my legs in motion. Down the hill. Over a hedge. Into the Canna-bus. We are instantly surrounded by police. "Out of the van!" They threaten to arrest me for trespassing. "Hand over the film!"
It seems blackmail is a regular feature of the New Zealand justice system. Just as I was forced to give up my film to preserve my freedom, Aporo was forced to plead guilty to charges of cultivation to preserve her ancestral lands from police confiscation. The judge also promised to give her a more lenient sentence in return for a guilty plea. Aporo will serve two and a half years in jail with the possibility of parole in ten months.
A nation of jailbirds
I thought I could hear the whirring of the porotiti, a traditional Maori musical instrument used to relieve disease, when I stepped from the Canna-bus at Sir Latimer's. Maybe it was a car, or the wind. Or maybe it was his ancestors, calling for the healing of the land, for restoration of the mana of their people.
The ancient Sir Latimer, knighted by the Queen of England, outspoken leader of his people, sat on his couch in the sun-infused room, without looking at me, waiting for questions. He lives in the north-eastern part of New Zealand, the fabled cannabis-trading lands. I ask him about the trade, and about the old Kuia.
"There was tobacco trading in the early stages, there is no doubt about that," he says, his eyes rolling back through the ages. "Smoking a pipe, by the old Kuia, it was a sign of manner and maturity. Trading in tobacco was forbidden in this country, just as trading in cannabis is forbidden now."
Like Aporo, Sir Latimer is also concerned with self-sufficiency and finding uses for the land.
"Prohibition is a reflection of the inability of this country to share its wealth," explains Sir Latimer. "The only crop that is worth anything is hemp or cannabis. The world is going in the direction that everything is being computerized, modernized, and there is no real use for the land. I have 186 acres and can't use it. I've written them and told them I don't want to pay the rate [property tax] because I can't use it or cut the forest and sell the wood. Maori can't even get loans with it from the bank."
I asked Sir Latimer about the use of cannabis by his people.
"Unless you can get contentment, you will always be seeking it. Maori tried everything to grow some kind of plant that they could get relief from. They had tobacco plants, big leaf plants, but they found that it didn't give them satisfaction. They used other plants, but eventually resorted to cannabis as the greater one."
Sir Latimer's advice about contentment recalls for me something Aporo had said. "We are slaves in our own country," she noted. "To get away from that feeling of hopelessness we use cannabis."
I ask Latimer if he supports the full legalization of cannabis.
"I support decriminalization to get us on the way," he concludes. "If we start out with decriminalization, it will lead to legalization. As one of the leaders of the Maori, and as a Knight of the British Empire, I am interested in cannabis. Not for the sake of cannabis, but for the results of cannabis. Among other things, we are becoming a nation of jailbirds because of it."
The ALCP newsletter confirms Latimer's sentiment, explaining that 37% of those arrested for cannabis offences are Maori, "a far higher proportion than should be the case if the law was applied to all users impartially."
"Teresa Aporo," I say, and a sadness momentarily folds itself into the wrinkles of Latimer's face. "My people," he responds.
Paranoid pot hunt
Entrapment is legal in New Zealand, and paranoia abounds. While there, I heard stories of a woman impregnated by an undercover officer, who then arrested her. I heard about police helicopters dumping loads of pot on someone's farm and then confiscating his land. I read a published account of a high-school girl unwittingly having sex with an undercover agent who then busted all of her friends. I was told of police officers walking the streets wearing backpacks and asking for pot with fake "out-of-country" accents.
I visited a cafe that looked like a typical pot-pick-up joint, where glue-sniffers staggered by our table with bags full of fumes on their faces, and I asked the guy next to us, with his long hair and toque, if he smoked pot. He blatantly denied it, then slipped out. Probably to smoke a joint and calm down from what he likely thought was a near bust. Later in my journey, a known grower and user lied to me when I asked him about his experiences? he denied ever smoking a joint!
There are "tinnie shops" or "tinnie houses" in New Zealand. A tinnie is $20 worth of cannabis, wrapped in tin foil, and can be obtained by visiting a "tinnie house" and slipping $20 through a hole in a window or wall. The tinnie is then pushed back out through the same hole.
The pot hunter's best bet is to know someone who deals to a local circle of friends. New Zealand's pot is world quality, grown well and potent. Strains straight from Amsterdam, in many cases. I smoked a lot of Jack Herer during my visit. Reports indicate that the Australian Bastard Cannabis (ABC) has also penetrated the New Zealand ecosystem (see CC#19, Growing Down Under).
The first European to import cannabis to New Zealand was a French Nun with a doctorate of medicine. In 1883, Sister Mary Joseph Aubert grew medical marijuana plants on the hilly banks of the Wanganui river in New Zealand's "Jerusalem". The sticky buds provided her convent with teas to relieve menstrual cramps.
Redmer Yska's book, New Zealand Green, provides a colourful and illustrated account of kiwi cannabis history. Yska documents that after Sister Mary, New Zealand's cannabis roared ashore from the seas. In the 20's and 30's, it floated to dock in sailors' bilges. In the 40's, American servicemen, fresh from bloody trenches, climbed the beaches with cannabis cigarettes in their pockets.
In the 50's, jazz musicians brought it with them from foreign countries and sparked up the New Zealand club scene. Seaman Tommy Adderley jumped ship in 1959 to smoke up with jazz musicians, eventually making it big in the New Zealand music scene. In the 60's, surfers rode the waves on boards packed with illegal flowers, while hippies hung out under sunny umbrellas of smoke in the parks.
It is 1999, and I sit with Chris Fowlie, president of NORML NZ, and co-owner of The Hemp Store in Auckland ? the only true hemp store in the country. Like sailors, like soldiers, like jazz legends, we are smoking a joint. He tells me the story of prohibition, and I swear I can see Thelonious Monk sparkle outrageously in his eyes.
According to Chris, the dark history of prohibition that sandbagged the green wave and criminalized the Kuia, was written into national law in 1927. New Zealand's Dangerous Drugs Act was created in response to international pressure through the League of Nations.
I later learn that the concerns of the League of Nations originated in North America, where drug laws were created to discriminate against immigrant minorities. A 1915 American Public Health Service Report, which claimed that US drug addiction had "reached gigantic proportions", was also much quoted by early NZ politicians seeking cannabis prohibition. As in other commonwealth countries, New Zealand's drug laws were passed as a public health measure.
Growing Kiwi pot
New Zealand growers report mass rip-off artists, which seem to have developed into a subculture of their own, complete with trained dogs, and teams of foragers who scour the bush looking for other people's plantations to harvest. As a result, around Fall, trampers (aka hikers) should be on the look-out for well-armed growers defending their buds.
Other problems facing the outdoor grower include deer, goats, pigs, sheep and ? worst of all ? possums. One grower's front yard that I visited was strewn with little bits of possum that had been killed by his dogs, which seemed trained to annihilate the little pests. Possums are particularly bothersome early in the season, when they jump up and down on top of young plants in order to break the tops off and eat the tender new growth. Many outdoor growers haul car batteries into the bush and set up miniature electric fences to keep the critters out.
Law-enforcement dangers include helicopter searches and blue sprays dropped from the sky that reportedly kill pot plants within hours, and make it too poisonous to smoke.
Marijuana is often planted in Manuka, a plant which grows in massive, dense stands and fixes nitrogen into the soil, or in Gorse, which is prickly, and resistant to both possums and people.
In 1960, a truck driver caught with pot argued that the 1927 law didn't make possession of anything but opium a crime, and won. That very year, parliament added penalties for cannabis possession and cultivation, even banning hemp seed from bird feed.
In 1970, infected with North America's Reefer Madness, the New Zealand Health Department concocted a report that connected marijuana with mass murders, called the Blake-Palmer Inquiry. By 1975, the government had passed the Misuse of Drugs Act, under which New Zealand pot-people now suffer.
From the beginning, with pressure from the United States, New Zealand has signed all the major international agreements prohibiting cannabis, which include the 1961 Single Convention, the 1971 Convention on Psychotropic Substances, and the 1988 Vienna Convention.
What did this mean for a hapless visitor, who may or may not be smoking in the ALCP van ? a four-wheeled advertisement for ganja-freedom? Chris Fowlie refers me to Norml News '99: "Possessing or using Class C drugs (buds and leaf) or Class B (Oil and Hash), the maximum sentence is 3 months jail and/or a $1500 fine." The fine, explains Fowlie, was increased from $500 by the National Party just earlier that year.
Those who engage in trafficking face stiffer fines: "Supply of Class C gets up to 8 years jail. Supply of Class B is up to 14 years in jail. An ounce or more and you are guilty of trafficking unless you can prove otherwise."
Arrests in New Zealand
According to the report "Drug Use in New Zealand," about 52% of New Zealanders have used marijuana. On average, they consider marijuana less of a community problem than alcohol or tobacco, and have for at least the past 9 years. Chris Fowlie of NORML NZ reports that about 12,000 people are busted for possession each year, and 3,000 for cultivation. About half of them get a minimum fine of $100, but usually ranging between $500 and $800 with a maximum of $1,500. Another quarter of those arrested get periodic detention doing community service, and the remaining quarter get jail time.
Hypocracy and democracy
"If you see that weak bastard, if the mention of my name doesn't send him into pre-election shock, the old Blue Peugot should do the trick, because he knows the denial is over?" Kate Miny was writing to her brother about Wyatt Creech, the National's Deputy Prime Minister, a nefarious prohibitionist, and her ex-boyfriend.
"I used to go out with him when I was living in Upper Hutt," recounts Kate. "He was a simple potato farmer. And may I say not opposed to a puff or two of the demon weed."
"One particular excursion stands out in my mind more than some. Two chemists from Upper Hutt joined us in Hawkes Bay, one a South African chap? He had some of the meanest puff I had encountered in a long time. Other occasions it was out in the wide-open plains, a hall full of hippies and party animals. Wyatt was known with more than a casual reception."
Kate had gotten into a car accident one night with Creech's Peugot, and Creech had gone on to a career with the prohibitionist National Party. When I spoke to Kate in New Zealand afterward, she was amiable enough to let me take her picture. She confirmed what she had written in the letter, but refused to go into more detail.
Creech has screeched to the press that cannabis, among other drugs, was likely "at the heart of death, suicide, accidents, injury, violence and family and social disruption." Legalizing cannabis, or even having bongs on the shelves of stores, said Creech, would send the wrong message to children.
Creech's claims about pot were in response to the Health Committee's 1998 Inquiry into the Mental Effects of Cannabis. "Based on the information received," reads the report, "we recommend that the present government review the mental health effects of cannabis and its use, and reconsider the present legal status of cannabis."
The response by the US and the National Party was immediate and negative. On February 24, 1999, US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Director Judge Louis Freeh made a special tour of New Zealand to encourage the National Party's compliance. Prime Minister Jenny Shipley quickly announced that there would be no changes to the drug laws.
The FBI director's visit was largely unnecessary. The National Party had been Americanizing the country's approach to drug policy since they had been in power, introducing such measures as the Proceeds of Crime Act in 1991. The act allowed police to seize the property and goods of marijuana growers and sellers.
During the 1999 electoral campaign, the National Party promised to drag New Zealand further down the prohibitionist American war path, creating laws that would allow police departments to keep goods seized during drug raids, while those who lost property would have to prove that the property did not come from "crime", essentially being deemed guilty until proven innocent. In the US, this practice has mutated law-enforcement officials into bands of property pirates. During their term of office, the Nationals also passed a ban on marijuana pipes, effective in July of 2000.
I think about the New Zealand police cars, some of which sport logos for the American-created DARE program. It doesn't surprise me that the majority of people react with a suspicious turn of the mouth when I speak, for to them my Canadian accent sounds quite American.
School psychologist jailed
Les Gray, a middle-aged psychologist, was resting in his house boat when police crashed through the door with a warrant. He had spoken publicly about the benefits of cannabis at a PTA meeting a few years before, and debated a narcotics inspector on nation-wide television earlier that week.
A few years later, he would become the ALCP party president, and three years after that I would be pulling into his driveway in the Canna-bus to interview him about his adventures as an activist. He looks half like an old grizzly bear, but moves with practiced sensitivity, slow and gentle.
His work is largely against domestic violence, he tells me, handing me the cup of tea requisite to any social visit in New Zealand. Yet he is also responsible for making cannabis a country-wide issue in the 80's.
In the early 80's, Les recounts, he was the father of two teenage boys and two teenage stepdaughters, who complained to him that the police regularly harassed them on the street, with the excuse of checking for cannabis.
In 1983 the National Party Minister of Education, a fundamentalist Christian minister named Merv Wellington, banned all drug and sex education for minors in every school in the country, and Les took action.
"At the time I was working for the Education Department's psychological service as a school psychologist," said Les, sipping his tea. "I turned forty and I resolved to speak the truth at the next opportunity that came along. Then I got invited to talk at a small-town PTA in Dargaville. They invited me to give a provocative talk. I said, 'I could certainly do that!'
"My talk was entitled 'Teenage Decisions about Drugs and Sex.' I said that prohibition against cannabis had a lot of counter-productive effects on society, and I thought teenagers who chose to use cannabis rather than alcohol as their preferred intoxicant had made a wise decision. You could have heard a pin drop. What I said hit the front pages of the newspaper, and the story went nationwide.
"I didn't realize how big it would get. I ended up on the front page seventeen times, and clocked up about two-and-a-half hours of TV interviews and news exposure. I even did a special program called 'Close Up.'"
Eventually, however, National Party MP John Banks, infamous pro-alcohol lobbyer and owner of a chain of pubs, had Les Gray fired, despite public outcry that he be allowed to keep his job. Les moved to a houseboat to lower expenses.
A few years later, in 1989, he spoke out again on the nationally famous Holmes show, where he debated narcotics inspector Ian Hastings, who in Les' description was "a rabid prohibitionist, ex-head of the drug squad, drug educator and arch-demonizer of cannabis." On the show Les admitted to smoking cannabis, and three days later police invaded his home and took him to jail.
A judge eventually ruled that it was more in the public interest for Les to tell the truth than it was to convict him. The highest court of appeal didn't agree however, arguing that Les Gray could have lied or refused to answer. Les was sent back for sentencing to the original judge, who gave him a $100 fine. Les never paid it.
"I heard later that it shattered the judge's spirit," whispers Les, eyebrows lifted in sympathy. "That his carefully deliberated finding about telling the truth had been overturned."
Non-toking pot activist
Phil Saxby is Secretary of the Medical Laboratory Technologists Board, a cannabis activist who doesn't smoke pot. He is the ALCP Party treasurer and former secretary. Along with Rod Donald, co-leader of the NZ Green Party, Saxby is the co-creator of the New Zealand electoral reform movement.
Why is Saxby interested in cannabis law reform?
"The reason I am interested, I would say, is that it is a human rights issue? it's a waste of police resources. There have to be good reasons why people don't have access to something that is relatively harmless."
Harrassment on the campaign trail
We are in the midst of a political procession through the capitol city of Wellington, marijuana slogans decorating a chain of five vehicles, supporters walking the summer-shadow draped sidewalks, waving ALCP placards, crowds cheering in the streets.
Earlier in the day, we had seen the processions of other parties. The National Party drove a double-wide, double-decker motor home with verandas from which various political candidates stood boozing and waving, while their bus fudged stop-lights, blocked traffic, and broadcast political slogans over multiple loudspeakers for three square blocks.
Our diminutive line of cars had also broken a few minor traffic rules. We had pulled a u-turn, gone through a red light and honked our horns because the ALCP couldn't afford loud speakers. Police cars tailed us the entire way, and we were pulled over and ticketed for every infraction. The harassment eventually sabotaged the ALCP procession, as we were broken into several groups, unable to find each other in the windy, darkening streets of a Wellington summer's eve.
Michael Appleby, whose car was at the end of the pro-pot parade, was targeted heavily. The first time they pulled him over, police ordered him to perform a breath test. The second time they pulled him over, we lost sight of the rest of the ALCP cavalcade.
After exploring the nearby blocks for our comrades, Appleby spotted a police car. He immediately slammed the brake pedal to the floor and jumped from the vehicle, saying "I am complaining to the local authorities!"
"I have been politically harassed?" began Appleby, approaching the car. Then he recognized the officer. "I'm not afraid of you, you bully! You broke up our procession! Are you a sergeant or an officer? Because you have behaved like a child!"
A crowd gathered, and Appleby spoke to them. Some of them came forward to shake his hand and express their support. Some of them were hecklers.
"It is only through inaction that evil can triumph," Appleby elucidated. "It is only the ignorance and prejudice that is represented in that man?" he pointed to the cop. "It only takes normal people to do nothing for that to survive. So do something. If you vote for the ALCP, the police will be able to spend their time fighting real crime. Then you wouldn't despise them the way you do now!"
The next day is November 27 ? election day ? our traffic infractions have made the morning news on nation-wide television, and New Zealand is casting its votes.
Hemp in the Park
On November 20, 1999, Dayamoi and her tireless band of ALCP volunteers held "Hemp in the Park" in Auckland. Local bands and activists performed and spoke to the crowd. The day wrapped up with fireworks.
A cannabis protestor who lightly tapped a police vehicle as it went by was chased and slammed to the ground. "You aren't going to do that, you cunt!" screamed one officer.
We were headed to an ALCP safe-house to watch the election. The wind grabbed the Canna-bus in its fist and shook us like a rattle. Later, we sat gloomy, wordless, watching the results scroll on the TV. Three seeming long-shots ? a transexual and two gay men ? had captured seats in the new government, but as the votes were counted, it became apparent that the ALCP were out of the running.
Hopes for a strong voice against the drug war seemed to rest with the Greens who, if elected, would bring Rastafarian Nandor Tanczos with them to parliament. But by morning, with almost all votes counted, the Greens had won not a single seat.
The Greens might have won in one of two ways. The recently reformed New Zealand MMP (Mixed Member Proportional) electoral system gives citizens two votes: the traditional vote for a candidate in an electorate, and another vote for a particular party, known as the "party vote". A minimum of 5% of the nationwide party vote is required to capture seats in parliament. In the 1999 election, 5% of the vote translated to 6 seats.
The Greens had received only 4.9% of the party vote. They seemed to have lost the chance to be in parliament by only one tenth of one percent of the party vote.
Yet there was still hope. The "special" votes ? including those people who registered to vote on election day ? were still to be counted over the coming week. For days afterward we chewed our joints like cigars, waiting to see if the Green Party would make it into New Zealand's parliament.
Some frustrated Greens were ready to blame Cannabis Culture for their narrow loss, as the ads we had run had said that the Greens in other countries had always abandoned their pro-pot stance once they got into government.
Yet all of New Zealand's pot-people exhaled a cloud of relief when the Greens skipped ahead to a surprise victory on December 7. Green Leader Jeanette Fitzsimons won a seat in the Coromandel electorate through the traditional voting method, and the Greens moved ahead from 4.9% to 5.3% of the party vote, harvesting a total of 7 seats in parliament.
Meanwhile, the Labour Party formed a new government, joining with Alliance to create a minority government comprising 59 of New Zealand's 120 parliamentary seats.
The ALCP may not have won a single seat, yet they had forever changed the course of New Zealand politics. Early in the campaign process, the governing National Party had reacted so strongly against the ALCP's promotion of legalization that the media polled every political party in the country for their stance on the issue. Every political party with a chance of capturing seats ? except the Nationals and the Christian Heritage Party ? came out in support of decriminalization.
During the election, Cannabis Culture placed pro-cannabis ads in New Zealand's two largest papers, and the ALCP also aired government-sponsored pro-cannabis television commercials, as a part of their campaign rights guaranteed under electoral law.
The prohibitionist Nationals were exorcised from power, the new Labour government promised decriminalization, and the Greens captured 7 seats, making Nandor Tanczos the world's first Rastafarian MP.
New Zealand pot lingo
Foil, tinnie, bullets:
pot bought from a tinnie house that costs $20 and comes wrapped in tin foil
a named for pot, referring to a common weed named "puha"
leafy or seedy schwag
Pearl, gusher, wacky backy, dack, heads:
to smoke pot with a group of friends
a common way to smoke from a bucket of water, known in North America as a "Gravity Bong."
roll a joint, as in "Let's roll up!"
"For a start," said Tanczos, "I am going to make it my personal mandate to make sure the cannabis issue doesn't get dropped. There's very strong support within the Green Party for cannabis law reform. We need an inquiry into the law? we haven't had an inquiry into the law since '91. It is just a question of bringing in a bill to make the change."
Nandor Tanczos is a parliamentarian long dedicated to pot. He has been a core NORML activist since 1990, is a co-owner of The Hemp Store, and has long enjoyed spiritual inspiration from the sacred weed.
"I've always been a rasta," Tanczos told me one day at the Hemp Store in Auckland. "But I only realized the fact ten years ago, when someone asked if I was a rasta and I realized then that rastafarianism was always a part of my life."
I asked how long he had been smoking the sacred herb.
"I first smoked when I was thirteen," he said. "It wasn't until later that I realized it was a sacrament. I can't smoke cannabis with people and talk crap with them. I smoke it and I say a prayer to the creator."
Tanczos' spiritual perspective manifests as an active social consciousness.
"The Bill of Rights guarantees the right of religious belief," Tanczos argues. "The court should recognize those rights."
After the election, Green Party Leader Jeanette Fitzsimons speculated on what action the government might take on cannabis.
"Helen Clark [The new Prime Minister] has said that it should be decriminalized," Fitzsimons explained during a telephone call, "and the Minister of Health [Annette King] has said she wants to implement the findings of the select committee's Inquiry into the Mental Health Effects of Cannabis, which said that the health damage had been considerably overestimated. Also, Clark said that there will be some kind of parliamentary review of the crimes act. We will be insisting that Nandor, our justice spokesman, be a member of that review team."
The Greens hope to legalize personal possession and cultivation only, not trade or supply. "What we are trying to do is break the black market," says Fitzsimons, "which puts criminals in charge of growing and selling cannabis."
Labour MP Tim Barnett, who helps to produce NORML News magazine, spoke to me about the direction his party would be taking on cannabis.
"In terms of what comes next," said Barnett, "we would expect the incoming health minister to get an inquiry going soon and there should be a report done by next year, giving parliament two years to sort out the issue. There is no great unanimity about what model will be used. I'm not convinced that partial decriminalization is adequate."
The coming year will reveal the extent of the victory, whether the New Zealand government will repeal the laws, as promised, or whether cannabis users will continue to be criminalized by a harsh and undemocratic prohibition.
Still haunting me are the murderous, anonymous threats delivered in the dead of night by anti-pot freaks, police harassment, the assassination attempts, the gang intimidation. Cannabis supporters in New Zealand dramatically earn the title of "activist" in an often hostile political environment. "What keeps them strong?" I wonder.
I close my eyes. Still pungent is the ganja green of a New Zealand summer and the sprouts of December, telling the wind a promise of sticky nugs to come.