Hard News by Russell Brown


Illegal Tender

Tonight's Native Affairs on Maori Television features a report on the cannabis economy. I've seen it and it's worth your while watching. Not because it's the last word on the topic -- I'd like to see a full-length documentary -- but because it puts human faces to an important economic and social reality.

Renee Kahukura Iosefa's report lays out the numbers: in the past five years alone, about 32,000 New Zealanders have been convicted of cannabis-related offences. More than 40% of them are Maori. Maori are more likely to be searched, charged and convicted, and likely to receive harsher sentences.

But that's only part of a perfect storm, because Maori also suffer disproportionately from the health effects of cannabis use. Marijuana's legal status makes them harder to help. And if they incur a conviction, they're less likely to be able to secure legitimate employment in regions where jobs are already scarce. A business that might harness the same cultivation skills -- growing hemp for fibre -- is explicitly closed off to those with prior convictions. None of this makes much sense.

The report depicts a rural economy where marijuana is not only a means to an income, but a medium of exchange in itself. It doesn't follow dope's road to urban users and see who makes the money along that road. (One accomplished rural grower's crop is attributed a "street value" of $70,000 annually, but she'd be lucky to make even half of that personally.)

The report will be followed by a discussion panel that ought to get lively: Hone Harawira (pro-prohibition, which may come as a surprise to some of his supporters), Maori criminal law lecturer Khylee Quince (who thinks the law isn't working and targets Maori but is concerned at the negative effect marijuana can have on Maori communities), and former Green MP Nandor Tanczos.

As I said, this report isn't the last word -- but it provides a useful place to start thinking about something we've spent too long not really thinking about enough.

Native Affairs screens at 8.30pm tonight on Maori Television.

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