A recent visitor from California was astounded at the cloak and dagger nature of cannabis consumption in New Zealand.
Under California State law she, a retired health professional, can openly grow her own medicinal marijuana (strictly for personal use) in the garden along with her roses and courgettes, or buy it from licensed dispensers.
The law takes the drama out of the situation by giving patients with doctors' recommendations safe access without risking arrest. Qualifying conditions include anorexia, arthritis, cancer, HIV/AIDs, glaucoma, migraine, muscle spasms, severe nausea, seizures and any debilitating condition where the use of cannabis has been deemed appropriate.
Asked what condition prompted the recommendation, she said she told the doctor she had a sore neck from looking over her shoulder all the time. Jesting aside, they agreed on the therapeutic benefits of cannabis in treating her post-menopausal insomnia.
However, the elderly Kiwi she was visiting, who found cannabis similarly therapeutic, had a radically different experience.
When she tried to grow her own, one fine morning a small white aeroplane circling her garden was quickly followed by a terrifying invasion by helicopter, dog and three ute-loads of police, who removed the plants, searched the house and eventually arrested her after being unable to find a more likely-looking suspect.
Apparently little old post-menopausal ladies do not fit the cannabis-growing bill. Tattooed gang members waving machetes would be closer to the erroneous popular stereotype, despite informal cannabis consumption being widespread throughout all strata of NZ society - among professionals, politicians and plebs alike.
The powerful negative stereotype (created initially by Harry J Annslinger, US Federal Bureau of Narcotics chief 1930-62) keeps cannabis illegal here still.
Recently, Helen Kelly, articulate outgoing President of the CTU announced she uses therapeutic cannabis to alleviate symptoms of terminal lung cancer. She is forced to do so illegally unless expressly permitted by Associate Minister of Health Peter Dunne.
Subsequent polling showed 70 per cent support for legalisation of medicinal cannabis. Dunne described this support as "mob rule" - although I would have thought rule by majority is the essence of democracy - and refused to budge from insisting on authorising only costly, imported, pharmacologically processed, cannabis-based treatments for individuals, when they could grow their own here cheaply and easily were it not for terror of breaking the law.
Current cannabis law is widely flouted, costs megabucks in police operations, court procedures and harmful personal consequences and fails to capitalise on the potential cannabis-related employment, taxation and business opportunities which might otherwise flourish.
For reform to take place though, effective political leadership is needed.
Options are bleak.
National seems implacably opposed, contrary to their usual enthusiasm for anything with a buck in it. Labour is too busy jumping at shadows. The Greens are desperate to blend in with the suits, the hard-line kuia of the Maori Party prefer to scapegoat red herrings, and I doubt single-malt Winston sees any need in spite of the obvious economic benefits for his electorate; which leaves only the wild card, ACT's David Seymour, with the current independent strategic clout to make any headway.
- Northern Advocate