Hard News by Russell Brown


Dealer's Choice, an oral history from Planet 1994

In 1994, I was the editor for an issue of Planet magazine focused on cannabis, its culture and the prospects for the end of its prohibition. Part of that issue was an interview with 'Elton', an experienced cannabis dealer.

I recently posted my essay from that issue, and I figured it was worth getting Elton's recollections onto the internet too. It strikes me as a significant oral history. It's a good read too – he was quite the raconteur.

Elton is still around, but he deals in legal things these days. 'Wayne Washington' is a pseudonym I used to avoid the impression I was writing the whole magazine (Wayne also wrote for Ngila's Dickson's pioneering street mag ChaCha). Thanks to Leo Rae Brown for the typing.


“Elton” is in his mid-30s and lives in Auckland. He's done many things in his adult life – travelled and worked around the world. But for much of that time he was a dope dealer, a cog in the New Zealand marijuana industry. It's a career choice that gave him a good lifestyle, made him many friends, and, eventually, put him in prison. He smokes dope only occasionally these days. He talks to WAYNE WASHINGTON about the development of the marijuana industry, what went wrong – and what should be done.

I first came across marijuana, actually came across the goods in 1975, but I was aware of it prior to then. While I was still at high school, there were people – usually the girls because they'd be going out with older guys – who used to come to school and say "wow, I got really stoned at the weekend" and the rest of us would be green with envy.

This was actually before the buddha sticks started arriving in any great bulk – they were the next big thing. What I came across first was the proto-New Zealand Green. The quality was nowhere near as good in those days – it hadn't been acclimatised and bred up.

Initially I just smoked dope and introduced it to my friends. I was working and I had money. It was 30 bucks an ounce in those days and I used to get paid about $37 a week, so I could afford to buy maybe half an ounce and spend the weekend getting all my school buddies stoned. Then, about eight months later, New Zealand was inundated with the famous Asian buddha sticks.

As fate would have it, somebody's older brother was in with the Fulcher people – who was basically the guy that brought it in the first place. There was Terry Clark and that, sure, but Peter Fulcher was the one who brought it in. I actually met Peter back in those days – I was about 17 and I thought he was a pretty weird dude. He was a critter, no two ways about it! But he had good dope, so, y'know, you didn't argue too much …

We used to get it at a ridiculous price. If you got 100 buddha sticks you'd get them for about $3 each. And you could turn around and sell 'em for $5 or $6 dollars no trouble at all. On the street they were about $8 or $10 dollars. So it was a fair inducement to buy a bag of sticks – you'd buy one for $300 and in the space of a couple of days you'd sold them and made yourself $200 or $300. At that time somebody who had a well-paid job on a construction site might take home $95. We could go out and make $200, $300 a weekend.

The local pot was being grown, but there wasn't a great deal of demand for it because the buddha sticks were just so superior. They were also very convenient. One stick a week was enough for most people and it was in their price bracket. It was pocket-sized, too.

That started to peter out in 1977. There was some middle-aged creep from Takapuna walking his dog along the beach and he saw a drum. He opened it and there were 44,000 buddha sticks inside! And he handed it in to the police! That was sort of the beginning of the end for the buddha sticks. There was the gradual unravelling of the Clark empire and the greater vigilance of local Customs agents – particularly the introduction of sniffer dogs.

But the local industry was still here – in fact, they'd been improving it. There was a fairly smooth transition from buddha back to New Zealand Green. I didn't really encounter any consumer resistance. Towards the end of the buddha sticks some weird things started happening. There was an outfit in South Auckland who were taking New Zealand Green and tying it onto little joss sticks, making it look like buddha sticks. But of course it wasn't anywhere near as strong, so they were dipping them in horse tranquiliser, drying them out and selling them as buddha sticks. And of course, people who smoked them got a very unpleasant stone. Horse tranquiliser is a pretty mean buzz. That probably helped change people's attitude towards local dope.

In that transition people were also bringing in what they called 'red oil' from Thailand, which was a very strong cannabis preparation – you can't get a much higher concentration of THC. There was also a lot of hash coming into the country too, even while the police were having success with the buddha sticks.

I had a mate in Wellington who used to import antiques. And what he did in Asia was get chessboards made up of blond and black hash, all compressed and then lacquered over, so it just looked like a lacquered wooden chess set. He brought those in for ages, without any trouble. He only really came unstuck when he got a bit more ambitious and started bringing it in as the slate beds in billiard tables. Things started getting a bit out of control at that stage and eventually Mr Plod came knocking on his door and closed down his operation.

Local growing started in the 60s, but it didn't become a commercial industry until a bunch of surfies started experimenting with growing and really improved the strains. A lot of what was here was cannabis indica, which comes from Asia. But they brought in the American strain, sativa. A surfboard full of seeds came in from Hawaii and what we call the New Zealand Green today is basically from those seeds. Basically we grow Maui Wowie in New Zealand, with a little cross-pollination from indica plants. You can pick it from the little orange hairs – what Billy T. James used to call 'orange roughies'.

That came in in the mid-70s, but they played around with it for a couple of years before they started growing it for supply. There was another guy down the line in Te Puke who got onto one of the American books on growing, which was freely available here. That had a big chapter on a Californian technique called polyploiding – doubling the chromosomes – which was developed for fruit-growing. He was the guy who developed the famous Te Puke Thunder.

So by 1980 you had well-established, very powerful pot being grown in New Zealand. I remember in, I think, 1986, when the Whitbread fleet came through. Simon Le Bon's boat Drum was the English entry. I was partying with those guys and they were just knocked out with the New Zealand weed. They'd just come from South Africa and were saying, Durban Poison is crap compared to this stuff. I would say that the Whitbread fleet as a whole must have taken a couple of pounds of New Zealand Green to get them from here to South America.

Quite a few of the people who became leading growers early on are still leading growers. Some of them have had to scale down their operations a great deal, because of the advent of police helicopters. That's been successful in diversifying the New Zealand dope growing scene – it certainly hasn't stopped it. I personally think it's a complete waste of taxpayer money. What the growers have had to do is instead of having one decent-sized plot far away from civilisation, is grow a lot of small plots of five to 10 plants, well spread out.

Initially, I guess I was a street dealer, introduced to it by my friends who were two or three years older. They developed our market, which forced us to develop a market. It's like any other business – setting up a distributorship around the country and supplying it. I got a lot bigger than I ever intended to – not really through any desire of my own, I just let business grow. I perhaps should have exercised a little self control and kept it small.

It's the Tall Poppy Syndrome – you get too big and you get your head shot off. Small is good in this country. I know guys who've been doing it for longer than I did and they've never had a brush with the law, because they've kept it small and kept everyone happy.

At the bigger stage I was buying directly from growers, buying pounds. I got onto the growers fairly quickly – I knew who they were and just went up and introduced myself. You could do that in those days because you didn't have the undercover cops, so the paranoia wasn't there. Apart from helicopters, paranoia is one of the great problems of the dope trade and you can blame that squarely on undercover work and certain other forms of entrapment. The scene itself would be a lot more open and a lot less criminal if it wasn't for those sort of police tactics. They actively provoke paranoia in the hope that it'll ruin things for the growers and the dealers The SIS got involved – The SIS have got a file this fuckin' long on me! It's unreal what they think I'm up to!

I personally never had an episode that really scared me. I've heard bad stories, horror stories. Guys getting their hands chopped off and then shot through the head … I've never even been in a situation where I've been threatened. I just dealt with people I knew, paid my money, dealt for cash, dealt quality product at a reasonable price.

I chose my customers, too – didn't deal with idiots. Usually, where people have gotten in trouble is that there's something wrong with someone involved – whether it be a mental disorder that someone has had already, or whether they're just one of those people who are criminal by nature. Those people can cause problems – mainly for themselves. Usually, if someone disappears or is badly hurt, they deserved it or shouldn't have been around that scene in the first place.

The growers I know are all rational human beings, family people with kids at school, members of the local PTA and so on. Their neighbours probably have no idea what they do.

I've followed the local cannabis preparation idustry with some interest. Making oil – which, incidentally, is a class B drug while plain old pot is class C – started out basically as a way to find a use for the bales and bales of leaf you end up growing along with your heads. No one wants to buy that leaf any more, no matter how cheap it is or how big the bag. For a while there, growers were actually using the leaf as mulch, digging it back into the plants. Initially, some people tried to market the local oil as imported oil from asia, but there's a pretty massive difference in quality because the local oil is only made from leaf – and it's a different colour too, it's green. There's not a hell of a lot you can do about that. The local grower's like the local butcher – he puts the best cuts in the front window of his shop and puts the rest through the sausage grinder. There are a number of ways of making oil, but we won't go into that. Go to prison in this country and you'll come out knowing the recipe.

I find these days marijuana intoxication is not a state of mind I like being in a lot of the time. I like being in that state of mind occasionally, but not too often. But in my early days I smoked a lot and you got to the point where you could just about tell where it was grown and who had grown it. It's like wine, it varies from region to region. I've even smoked dope that looked great but just wasn't psychoactive – there's a fairly common soil virus that'll get into your plants and take out all the THC. You can decide to grow and be real unlucky and get a first crop that just doesn't work.

I have come across an export sector in the New Zealand industry, but not on any large scale. There's actually more demand from overseas than there are people willing to fill the demand. I've been asked to do that myself. The rewards are potentially large, but it's very complex and risky. You'd be at less risk running a finance company dishing out unsecured loans than you would be trying to grow marijuana for export.

I've seen some odd things in the industry, but the funniest thing that ever happened to me would probably be a drug squad raid. They'd been to my house and I wasn't there. Then they worked out I was staying at my girlfriend's place. So they turned up at six in the morning, as they do. They confirmed that I was who I was and said they were going to search the place. They started making a mess and I told them there was nothing to find and if they carried on like that they'd be getting a damages claim from my lawyer. So they started to search a bit more carefully. Anyway, there was a little corner table in the lounge and one cop opened the drawer in it and found a tin. He opened it up and there was a white powder in it – and then they all got really excited. The cop asked me what it was and I shrugged, so he did the thing of licking his finger, dipping it in and tasting the powder. He looked puzzled and said 'look, what the hell is this stuff?' And I said, 'well, my girlfriend's mother died recently … and she was cremated … and we were just holding onto the ashes until we could do something appropriate with them …' Have you ever seen a Maori policeman turn white? He was mortified! That was the end of that search.

I hope to see deregulation and legalisation. The worst thing about marijuana is that it's very high in tars so it's bad for your lungs. Some of my oldest buddies, growers, have been smoking a lot of very good dope for a long time and they've got emphysemia. So it's a health problem. But every year, the police spend millions trying to stamp out marijuana and they can't do it. The reason they can't do it is if people want to smoke dope, they're gonna smoke dope. It's exactly the same as the prohibition era in America, which gave rise to your Al Capones.

The more illegal you make it, the more the criminal element becomes involved, the tighter the scene becomes. There's a lot more gangsterism involved in the scene now than there ever was when I was dealing. It works for the gangs because they can allow individuals to get picked off, busted, and the rest of the gang can keep on trading, business as usual. The policing of it has created that situation.

Can you imagine what that billion dollars or whatever that gets spent would do in the health sector? Or education? And how many New Zealanders have been marginialised by petty convictions over the years? What sort of individual skills have we lost through those convictions? I just hope my generation can change the law, because it's a waste of time and money.

Originally published as Dealer's Choice – Joining the Industry in Planet #13, Winter 1994


A fun but flawed weed documentary

Patrick Gower is good value when he's high. Not that I've ever, you know, got stoned with him. But in the second part of his documentary Patrick Gower on Weed, he does what you'd expect in a modern weed documentary and immerses himself – first with a doctor, then a member of the Auckland elite who's producing cannabis tea in California, and a "ganja yoga" group. He's funny. It's interesting, and a good watch.

And yet, I was pretty angry by the time I'd finished watching it. The reason why can be summed up in a little speech he gives to a delegate at a SMART Colorado seminar five minutes from the end. ("SMART aren't opposed to legal marijuana," he assures us. Uh, yeah, they really are.) He says:

"I know New Zealand and I understand how the government works there. And if they vote yes to legalise, then that's it. I kind of think we're gonna do this and we're not going to have a plan."

Dude, we already have a plan and it's fairly detailed. It's contained in the Cabinet paper published in May and it's the result of work by a Ministry of Justice team that began last year. They've studied the cannabis reform experience in various jurisdictions and produced a draft set of proposals, which I summarised here on the day of its release.

"A legal industry [in New Zealand] will likely bring big brands, new products, advertising and licensing," Paddy warns the viewer. Parts of that sentence are true.

There will not be advertising of cannabis if the "Yes" vote succeeds next year. The MoJ blueprint includes a complete ban on advertising and severe restrictions on marketing. The chances of that being reversed by the time legalisation becomes law are zero. Why would it? We already (unlike the US) prohibit the advertising of tobacco and we restrict the advertising of alcohol. It's not rocket science.

Big brands? Maybe. Some of the local medicinal cannabis companies now pitching for investor cash would enter an adult-use market if one emerged. And if – this is important – they actually get licences to do. It's not a given. The stated aim of the proposal is to not increase the cannabis supply in New Zealand. There will be social conditions attached to the licensing process.

Importation of cannabis is expressly banned under the Cabinet proposals. This doesn't mean that big US companies won't try and have a presence here, but they face some significant obstacles. That's not the case under the new medicinal regime – because the Ministry of Health has not yet licensed any New Zealand company to produce cannabis products and they had to come from somewhere, which currently largely means the Canadian company Tilray.

Paddy frets about potency without limit. The Cabinet paper proposes potency limits. It does provide for regulated sale of concentrates, but I suspect that will be one part that drops out along the way. Or – and this is sensible, and what Canada is doing – regulation will be staged and consideration of concentrates will come later.

Wait, you say, didn't Paddy go to a dab bar in Vancouver? Why yes, he did, and it occasioned some of his fretting for New Zealand about the way things might cut loose under legalisation. But here's the thing: those dab bars, serving up concentrates, aren't the result of last year's national cannabis legalisation. They've been there for years. Indeed, the government is now starting to close them down under the new federal law.

Vancouver authorities had simply grown tired of enforcing cannabis law, and just tolerated the sale of whatever, because it really didn't cause much trouble. The federal government introduced the law in part to get a handle on what was already happening. Paddy doesn't say that and I don't think he was trying to deceive his audience. He just didn't know. But as an argument against legalisation and regulation, it fails on the basic facts.

Elsewhere in the programme, Paddy gives Colorado-based Kiwi weed entrepreneur John Lord repeated opportunities to say that New Zealand should "go all the way" – that is, embrace full commercialisation and corporate cannabis– "or not do it at all". Lord isn't tasked with justifying such a stance, which is a shame, because it's fucking terrible advice. Would we say the same about tobacco?

Paddy covers the concern that has garnered most headlines here this year: what about the kids? He hears the concerns of the SMART delegates to that effect. But he never mentions the research – reported very ably by his own company – that shows that in Colorado and every other legalised US state, youth use is either stable or declining.

He interviews Dr Joe Boden of the University of Otago about the risks of youth use – but not about Joe's view that the best way of addressing the overall risk is a strictly-regulated market. He never finds a Canadian politician to explain that trying to get a handle on youth use was a key reason for legalising and regulating. These are real failures.

Worse, actually, is an indulgent interview with the self-professed "Wolf of Weed", aka Ross Smith, whose would-be medicial cannabis producer Medicann went into liquidation at the beginning of this year. The liquidation is mentioned in the documentary. Not mentioned: Smith resigned from Australian medicinal cannabis company Phytotech after making a series of violent online threats. He also parted company with the European company MGC Pharma after a series of abusive online threats. He made violent, homophobic threats against a journalist reporting on his abusive posts about cannabis industry rivals and was consequently obliged to quit another company, Jayex. And he was recently investigated in New Zealand under the Harmful Digital Communications Act over posts that may have been connected to the Medicann debacle.

Is he really going to score one of the limited number of licences under a regulated market in New Zealand? Really?

And yet Smith is allowed to spout uncontested bullshit like "I just want to see the industry done properly – and to do that that's about large corporations", to make grand claims about securing legendary cannabis genetics and to make the plainly silly claim that $250m in cannabis tax revenue would "fix New Zealand's roads". I get that this kind of documentary relies on first-person encounters, but not providing pretty basic investigative detail is risn't good enough.

The time given to Smith – or even the time spent doing "ganja yoga" by the pool in California– could have been devoted to explaining what the referendum process actually is. Which, after all, was the professed purpose of the programme – to inform New Zealanders ahead of next year's referendum. Instead, by never even mentioning what is currently proposed, it does the opposite.

I feel a little bad about this degree of criticism. I actually largely enjoyed the documentary, I appreciated the good-faith adventuring and the vulnerability in the first episode. I like Paddy. But what he repeatedly declared about the inevitable consequences of legalisation is not true. Or, rather, it doesn't have to be. That should be the whole point. We have choices to make.

There are key decisions ahead about licensing and regulation – we'd want to be more like Washington state, or Canada with its "artisan" licences, than California, where misguided regulation basically ensured Big Cannabis and made it almost impossible for the existing black market producers to go legit. I know that some stakeholders here are seeking to interest the government in a differential tax regime, where lower-THC (and higher-CBD) products are favoured. Like, say, beer is taxed differently to hard liquor. No one's done that before, but there is no reason we can't be the first.

Legalisation in Seattle isn't the same as in Los Angeles, or Uruguay or Luxembourg or Spain with its cannabis social clubs. Yet Patrick Gower on Weed gave the misleading impression that we don't have any choices. That was really, really wrong. But I trust Paddy will agree with me that we should have that conversation.


Time for a New Deal: 25 years on

In 1994, I was editing an ambitious street mag called Planet, from a fabled office at at 309 Karangahape Road. The thirteenth issue of the magazine was published in the winter of that year and its cover embodied a particularly ambitious goal: the end of cannabis prohibition.

I wanted to do more than just call for reform. I wanted to show how thoroughly – a quarter of a century ago – cannabis was embedded in New Zealand culture. Paul Shannon interviewed Les Gray, the psychologist who had caused a national storm by calling for reform 10 years before, and wrote a piece about anandamide (this was before the endo-cannabinoid system had been properly identified). Dr Hamish Meldrum contributed a piece on the state of medical knowledge. Rick Bryant wrote about cannabis in literature, Stinky Jim covered the hits from the bong and Colin Hogg recalled shenanigans.

I interviewed "Ringo", a grower, and "Elton", a longtime dealer. (The latter story constitutes a fascinating history that, ideally, someone else will type up for publication here.) We got comment from the Drug Foundation, the Minister of Justice and the cop in charge of the annual cannabis recovery operation ("I tell you what, I'm not going to get into a decriminalisation debate. I haven't got the time, I've been down that track so many times before").

I also wrote the introductory essay that follows. I think it still reads pretty well. A few things have changed – most of us tend to refer to cannabis rather than marijuana now, and only Family First calls it "dope".

Cannabis has become even more of a social commonplace in New Zealand since the magazine was published. In 1994, we quoted the University of Auckland's Alcohol and Public Health Research Unit's 1990 finding that 43% of New Zealanders between 15 and 45 admitted to ever having used cannabis. But more recently the Christchurch longitudinal study of a 1977 birth cohort has found that 80% of these New Zealanders had used cannabis by the age of 25. If the goal of prohibition has been to eliminate or even limit the use of cannabis in New Zealand, it has comprehensively failed.

That's presumably related to perhaps the most significant change in our official approach to cannabis: that the police have spent the past decade coming up with ways to avoid prosecuting minor cannabis offences. A defence lawyer recently told me that police have decided that cannabis in itself is not a driver of other crime and they have better ways to use their resources. Increasingly, the courts are doing the same – people caught with some pretty big grows have been getting discharges. The law is more out of step with the priorities of those who enforce it than it has ever been.

Even the politics have shifted. In 1994, we got this comment from the office of the Minister of Justice Doug Graham:

The Government has no intention of introducing any legislation to change anything. This has been the Government's position for many years.

In 2019, Graham's party has moved from a firm "no" to a kind of bad-faith "maybe", which is progress of a sort. Labour is still hedging its bets, but has, with minimal fuss, seen through a significant amendment guiding police discretion over minor drug offences that would have been unthinkable in 1994.

The other big, global change has been a move towards regulated, legal markets in cannabis that would have been yet more unthinkable back then. And the political argument towards a referendum on that proposition is being led by a Green MP born in the year that issue of Planet was published. We have a chance to choose a solution that is right for New Zealand; to finally bring the law into line with reality. It really is time we got this damn thing done.


Time for a New Deal

Russell Brown, Planet magazine, Winter 1994 issue, pp 36-37

Slowly, the coffin lowers. The deceased has a good crop of friends here, sending him off. He was killed in a road accident that was not his fault. Three or four friends throw a little marijuana in after it.

No one is quite sure whether the deceased has once demanded that this be done in the event or his demise or whether it just seemed a good idea, but everyone knows he'd have approved. He liked a smoke. He was Maori, he was a father. He was an ordinary New Zealander. But what would the police do if they were here?

That sort of thing doesn't happen every day. But it was hardly unusual. And still there are public calls to rid New Zealand of the scourge of marijuana before it "enters the national culture". These calls are usually tagged with a demand for even stricter legal sanctions on the use and distribution of cannabis. The sentiment and the solution have in common a remarkable naivete.

Like it or not, pot's sticky green threads have been irrevocably woven into the national tapestry for nearly two decades. Marijuana in New Zealand has a vocabulary, an etiquette, a code. In thousands of households it's no more remarkable a social lubricant than a cold beer. It is fixed into the culture – and it is not only New Zealanders who know it. Many of the young foreign backpackers who come here in their thousands have New Zealand Green on their list of things to do.

If parts of the feature that follows appear to celebrate marijuana, that is not the intention. Marijuana is a drug, with associated health risks. What we have done is attempted to document some of the culture that grows around marijuana, at home and abroad. Sometimes this culture is unpleasant – the gangsterism associated with the domestic trade in dope, for instance – and sometimes it is lively, colourful and valuable to us all.

New Zealand has internalised marijuana so thoroughly that its dope culture is rich and vivid, but herb culture is international. During the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, kilo bricks of black, oily, Afghani hash – stamped, with gleeful irony, with a gold hammer and sickle – were being shipped all over Europe by rebel tribesmen. While the clamp of apartheid was still down on South Africa you could buy Transkei Super grass in Amersterdam coffee shops – all proceeds remitted directly to black farmers.

Whatever the surveys tell you, marijuana is back in vogue. New York's Village Voicenoted that it had greatly improved the atmosphere of some urban communities by largely supplanting crack. Hip-hop music has taken up the reggae tradition of citing "good" marijuana as the alternative to "bad" cocaine.

Germany decriminalised the possession of personal quantities of cannabis this year. In Britain, both the police and the judiciary have expressed blunt disdain for the vastly increased penalties for personal possession due to pass anachronistically into law this month. Meanwhile, British newspapers have been full of reports that representatives of an unnamed major brewery had been in Amsterdam researching the "hash cafes". Their problem is that young people are no longer going to pubs to drink alcohol.

But if you find the idea of booze companies pushing dope disquieting, consider it in the hands of those predatory purveyors of addiction, the tobacco companies. A tobacco company has already copyrighted the name "Marley" in anticipation of full legalisation in Europe. The Marley Foundation is extremely upset but, hey, that's business. This compounds the hypocrisy which has seen tobacco and alcohol companies fund drug "education" groups with the caveat that their products are not spoken of in the same breath as illicit drugs like cannabis. They do so not because they care, but to protect their market share.

There is in this country a large and profitable marijuana industry. In an era which has been characterised by massive deregulation of industry, this one industry has been regulation into the ground. Or, rather, straight into the hands of gangs to whom the laws mean only a coy monopoly.

And yet, there are serious health problems associated with heavy marijuana use, especially among adolescents. They're nothing to do with the scare stories of yore (chromosome damage, anyone?), but they exist. It would make sense for resources for health education and treatment to come from the marijuana industry. But the industry, a criminal enterprise, is currently what Treasury would call "revenue-negative". The courts cannot decently fine offenders enough to even cover the costs of prosecution.

But that is not the real problem. The real problem is that so many New Zealanders have reason to lie to and to fear the police – and even their neighbours. If they're unlucky (and as many as 200,000 citizens in the past decade have been) they draw the lifelong stigma of a criminal conviction.

The ramifications of decriminalisation in New Zealand are quite different – and arguably less complex – than those in Europe. It does not, for example, threaten the integrity of our borders. Were it not for expensive police helicopters and Crimewatch-addled nosy neighbours, New Zealanders who choose to could grow as much cannabis as they needed in their own backyards. So let them. Revenue? A grower's licence would be no more difficult to administer than the annual broadcasting fee.

The scent of marijuana is not absent from the corridors of power – there have been pot-smoking parliamentarians for some time and the professional sector is full of past and present users. But there is a habit still more endemic – that of compulsive fence-sitting. The climate of fear around marijuana extends even to talking about it.

Eventually, changes to the law can come only from the lawmakers. National, at least, has a clear and emphatic prohibitionist policy – although quite how its libertarian wing sleeps at night is open to question. Labour (notwithstanding David Lange) and the Alliance (notwithstanding the Greens) have been paralysed by the fear of an electoral backlash that probably does not even exist. That is no longer good enough, as recent statements by Labour leader Helen Clark seem to acknowledge. The hysterical response of her electoral neighbour, Christine Fletcher, to Clark's tacit support for decriminalisation served to show how deep the lawmakers' ignorance can yet be. The spectre of organised crime hovers over New Zealand only by default. It is a beast we must stop feeding.


Synthetics: We need to stop calling it cannabis

There's a problem with "synthetic cannabis", and not just the one you think. It's the name.

We're in the midst of a wave of news stories that link synthetic drugs to serious harm, through deadly road accidents and accidental overdoses (which have killed more than 80 people in two years). It's a public health crisis and it's ruining lives.

It's also not cannabis. Yet the news stories almost invariably refer to "synthetic cannabis" and often, simply "cannabis" further into the text. There was a time when this kind of confusion might have seemed harmless enough. After all, when these drugs first arrived in New Zealand in 2006, they were usually sold – and bought – as a substitute for natural cannabis. The fact that, unlike cannabis, they couldn't be detected in urine tests helped make them popular.

But they are not cannabis. They're not even one drug, but an expanding array of poorly-understood chemicals, in at least seven different groups, that have just one thing in common: they act on the same two receptors in the brain and central nervous system as THC, the psychoactive cannabinoid in natural cannabis. While a few of them, chemically speaking, look a little like a cannabinoid, most – including the ones that are killing people – are nothing like THC.

For a while, it was easy enough to use "synthetic cannabis" as a handy shorthand. I did it myself, or opted for "synthetic cannabinoids" or even "cannabinmimetics", meaning substances which mimic cannabis. But none of those terms are really accurate. Not only are these drugs nothing like cannabis on a structural level, their effects on humans are very different too. They are far, far stronger – and while it's functionally impossible to fatally overdose on natural cannabis, we've seen waves of deaths when someone, somewhere in a garage sprays synthetics on leaves and gets the dose even slightly wrong.

So why is this a particular problem now? For one thing, because we're embarking on a debate ahead of a referendum on whether to legalise and regulate the use and supply of cannabis. Continuing to call a whole group of dangerous drugs "cannabis" when they assuredly are not introduces an unhelpful element of confusion.

On a more acute level – but one very much tied to the referendum debate – we have been confronted this year with news stories about several horrifying road accidents linked to synthetics use. Commentators and victims' families have called for the introduction of roadside saliva testing to prevent further such tragedies.

But here's the thing: there is currently no available saliva test that will detect synthetics. Even the fledgling systems being tried in other countries only pick up a handful of synthetic drugs from a constantly-expanding group of them. The very real risk is that over-reliance on saliva testing will nudge some cannabis users towards synthetics, much as workplace drug testing did 13 years ago. But all that context gets lost when you're using the word "cannabis" for drugs that are not cannabis.

There is a whole other conversation about whether betting everything on saliva testing is the right approach – as opposed to the existing field sobriety test, which actually measures impairment – but, again, we're not going to have that in any sensible way until we use clearer language. Because language matters and guides choices – we saw that in action when the most recent attempt at a New Zealand Drug Harm Index farcically grouped natural cannabis and synthetics together under the single heading "cannabinoids", despite acknowledging that they were actually different things. 

So, please, let's stop talking about "synthetic cannabis". Even "synthetic drugs" is technically a bit meaningless, but it helps make the distinction. Or perhaps we can simply say "synthetics" or even "synnies". They're not technical terms either – but they are New Zealand terms for a very New Zealand problem. And at least then we'll actually know what we're talking about.

This post is based on a column that was first published in the New Zealand Herald.


Who are the medicinal cannabis users?

At almost every level, the problem with medicinal cannabis is a lack of good information. In the US, FDA regulations make it hard to research. Most doctors aren't familiar with what research there is and most patients don't know either. And on a policy level, no one really knows much about who in New Zealand is already using cannabis for medicinally or exactly why or how. The same scant data points get recycled over and over.

Given that we're midway through the drafting of regulations to be attached to the Medicinal Cannabis Amendment Act, that's a problem. And it's a problem Medical Cannabis Awareness New Zealand set out to address at the beginning of May when it launched this country's first dedicated survey of medicinal cannabis use.

The anonymous survey, designed and presented in partnership with Dr Geoff Noller of the University of Otago, is intended to inform policy-makers and regulators, and has approval from the national Health and Disabilities Ethics Committee. It is open until July 31, but Dr Noller and MCANZ have kindly let me see some progress results. And they're very interesting.

The first notable result is that the population professing to use cannabis medicinally does not look much at all like what we know about adult users in general.

"Unlike typical illicit drug-using populations which are dominated by males, almost 54% of those answering the questionnaire to date are female, with participants’ average age being 36, and with almost half the sample earning more than the median wage," Dr Noller told me.

The proportion of Māori participants, 18% (only slightly higher than the proportion identifying Māori in the general population) further suggests that this is a different group to general cannabis users.

This is a self-selecting survey, so we should be cautious about those results. But it does look like it's a fairly well-informed group. Fully 98% of respeondents know what CBD (cannabidiol) is, and nearly 70% have sought out either balanced strains (that is, with a roughly equal ratio of CBD to THC) or high-CBD strains.

CBD is not itself psychoactive, but does appear to mitigate some of the effects of THC (and last year, the World Health Organisation reported that CBD poses no public health risk and has demonstrated benefits in treating epilepsy and possibly a range of other conditions, from Alzheimer's to Parkinson's disease and some cancers). In standard black-market weed, the ratio of CBD to THC is tiny verging on insignificant, bred out over decades of prohibition.

The interaction between THC and CBD may be complicated – and this fascinating 2018 Nature article by Israeli researchers both validates the idea that there is an "entourage effect" involving the many dozens of different cannabnoids in whole flower, while making it look even more complicated – but the short version here is that these not just people looking to get high.

So what are they doing with their cannabis? Only 2.5% of participants so far have been issued with a certificate confirming they are in palliative care, and thus immune to prosecution for the possession or use of cannabis. From there, a wide range of conditions are cited, from chronic back pain (which nearly 40% of participants had sought to treat with cannabis), to inflammatory bowel disease, persistent nausea and forms of arthritis. But by far the most common condition, perhaps surprisingly, is depression and anxiety, which nearly two thirds of participants had sought to address with cannabis.

Notably, many said they had reduced or eliminated the use of prescribed medications in favour of cannabis. This isn't necessarily a good thing – people don't always do what's good for them – but the most common class of drugs that had been reduced or eliminated was pain medications. If people are coping with pain to the extent that they don't need conventional pain relief, especially opioids, that might be a very good thing.

The survey participants are very largely not dispensing with medical advice. Eighty seven per cent have a regular doctor and nearly half see a medical specialist at least twice a year. Around half don't tell their doctors about their cannabis use, but 26% reported that their medical professionals were either "supportive" or "very supportive" of what they were doing. Only 5% reported seeing medical professionals who were "completely against" medicinal cannabis use. GPs were the most supportive, but only 9% of respondents reported being helped to get a medicinal cannabis prescription. (Which perhaps isn't surprising, given how scarce and expensive approved cannabis products currently are, and the process involved in being prescribed one of the two products containing THC.)

The survey also suggests people aren't necessarily using cannabis by the healthiest means. Two thirds said their usual means of administration was smoking, about a quarter each either through a bong or rolled joints and another 15% through a dry pipe. Only 10% usually used a vapouriser, although around half had tried one. But decent vapourisers cost $300 and upwards, and 90% said they would use one if "given a high-quality vapouriser for medicinal use through your GP or pharmacy". 

But that can't happen while vapourisers are illegal. (Yes, you can buy them in shops, but officially only for use with other herbs.) Happily, it appears the survey's authors have already had a win there. Dr Noller and MCANZ coordinator Shane Le Brun recently met with Ministry of Health officials to discuss progress results and were told that the ministry has already drafted a gazette notice allowing the use of vapourisers with cannabis, and it only needs ministerial sign-off.

They've had further good news in the form of discussions with the authors of the equivalent survey in Australia about working together to combine and compare results.

The MCANZ survey has, proportionally, achieved a very good response rate  compared to the Australians. They're looking for 2000 valid responses and I gather they've already exceeded the 2000 mark in raw terms, but probably need another 500 once invalid and incomplete responses are stripped out.

If any of the above is relevant to you, now is the time to complete this survey. There is no risk in doing so and the results will matter.

>>>>>The survey is here<<<<<


This possibly won't be the only cannabis post from me this week. The draft regulations under the new Act are to be released for comment any day now – the regulations governing production have been signalled to prospective producers and seem pretty sound, but this will be the first time anyone gets a good idea of the likely rules around prescribing.

Further, it appears that there will be a significant appointment announced soon by the Ministry of Justice, which is responsible for next year's cannabis referendum.