New Zealand Cannabis Shame

  • Mitch Stein,

    Dear Good People Of New Zealand:

    I am writing to relay the recent experience I had while visiting New Zealand for the very first time. My wife and I are from California (I am a film producer, and she is an attorney and mediator), and a trip to New Zealand was at the top of our Bucket List when our son got a job on Waiheke Island, so we decided to spend 3 weeks touring your country with him.

    I have always considered New Zealand to be a fairly progressive country from what I’ve read and stories I’ve heard from both natives and visitors. For example, your decision to allow the use of cannabis-related medicine is indicative of a society that recognizes science over propaganda. I use cannabis medicinally for pain management because I had been previously prescribed opioid painkillers, which are highly addictive and render the user unable to function in a coherent manner…and if taken in too large a dose, are highly toxic and LETHAL POISONS; cannabis, on the other hand, is non-addictive, does an excellent job of minimizing pain, allows the user to function in a coherent manner, and is 100% nonlethal (there has never been a case of anyone dying from an overdose of cannabis in all of recorded history).

    I researched the topic prior to our trip, and learned that it was legal to bring medicinal cannabis into New Zealand under the Misuse of Drugs Act, s8(2)(l)(iii), with the relevant text as follows:

    “a person may, while entering or leaving New Zealand, possess a controlled drug required for treating the medical condition of the person or any other person in his or her care or control, if the quantity of drug is no greater than that required for treating the medical condition for 1 month, and the drug was—
    lawfully supplied to the person by a medical practitioner, nurse practitioner, optometrist, midwife, designated prescriber (as defined in section 2(1) of the Medicines Act 1981), or dentist in New Zealand; or
    prescribed by a medical practitioner, nurse practitioner, optometrist, midwife, designated prescriber (as defined in section 2(1) of the Medicines Act 1981), or dentist, and lawfully supplied to the person in New Zealand; or
    lawfully supplied to the person overseas and supplied for the purpose of treating a medical condition.”

    I was pleased to learn that I would be visiting a country that has compassion for its citizens and visitors, and therefore decided to follow the law and bring my medicine with me. As regards the preceding prerequisites, 1) I am legally allowed to possess up to 8 ounces of medicinal cannabis, but packed less than 2 ounces for my personal medicinal use while in New Zealand; 2) I arrived with my doctor’s prescription for cannabis, and 3) I declared the cannabis upon arrival on the official declaration form.

    The Customs agent informed me that since my cannabis was not one of the 3 “strains” available in New Zealand (which it turns out refer not to actual cannabis strains, but to synthetic pills containing who-knows-what), my declaration would now be considered a “drug intercept” involving the police. While removing all of our packed items from our suitcases and bags and throwing them in indiscriminate piles on the Customs tables, the Customs agent interrogated me and my wife as if we were common criminals, asking incredibly personal and mostly irrelevant questions about our lives (to make matters worse, we were filmed by a cameraman for the TV show Border Patrol; not wanting to in any way appear anything but law-abiding and cooperative, I agreed, but I requested that both of our faces be blurred). The Customs agent then checked all items and informed us that we would need to go to Immigration before being allowed into the country. We put the now-unpacked items from all of our suitcases back in piles, not wishing to take the time now necessary to re-pack them in their original suitcases.

    Before we were escorted to Immigration, a police officer came out and informed us that after reviewing the circumstances, he believed this to be a complete and total misunderstanding, and not criminal activity that warranted further investigation or charges being pressed. He offered to walk with us to Immigration to let them know personally that the police did not consider this a criminal matter, and indicated that we would likely be released soon. After spending nearly 3 hours in Customs, we were then escorted to Immigration, where we waited for several more hours, at which point the police officer reappeared and expressed surprise that we were still there (the Border Patrol cameraman also showed up and mysteriously knew the access code or had a swipe card for the locked Immigration office door; we also saw the cameraman coach the Customs agent get on how to enter then re-exit the Immigration office for the best dramatic effect). I was finally interviewed, and was informed that the law had indeed allowed me to bring medicinal cannabis with me, but that the law had just changed last month without my knowledge, now making my importation of medicinal cannabis a crime.

    For the record, I was not importing heroin. I was not importing weapons. I was not importing poison. I was not importing ANYTHING that would cause any harm to anyone. Instead, I was following the law as I understood it, and pointed out that if I had intended to “traffic” in drugs, then not only would I likely have tried to bring more than $300 worth into the country, but I would most certainly never have declared that I was doing so. Again, I was nothing but forthcoming about my understanding of the law that had been in place until a month ago, and explained that if I knew about the change in the law, I *NEVER* would have brought any of my medicine with me. This was a completely honest error, and one that posed absolutely ZERO threat of any type of harm to any human being in New Zealand or anywhere else on the planet.

    I then went back into the waiting room with my wife for another hour or so until Agent Steve told my wife that since she was not a “person of interest,” she should wait for me in the airport terminal. She and I requested that she remain by my side, as we are truly a team; however, Agent Steve said that she had to bring her suitcase with her and leave. I told her I would see her in a little bit, and to please remain patient and calm while I dealt with the situation (she was in tears after being told she couldn’t stay with me).

    Agent Steve read me some boilerplate statements stating that since I was guilty of importing illegal drugs into New Zealand, and that while my wife would be allowed to remain, I would be prohibited from entering the country, and would be put on the first plane back to California. I’m a fairly calm guy, but I started to cry as I realized that the 3-week vacation and visit with my stepson would now be ruined, and that I was now being considered a Drug Trafficker (I have never been arrested, have no criminal record, and as you can see by this whole exchange, always do what I can to operate within the letter of the law). I begged and pleaded with him to consider my case and the fact that 1) I brought a relatively small amount of cannabis into the country, 2) I had a doctor’s prescription, and 3) I declared it. He said he understood, and even said that he wished more people would be as honest as I am (even though he said that given the amount, I could technically be charged with Intent To Distribute…even though I declared the fact that I had the cannabis!!!).

    So what did my honesty get me? It cost me many thousands of dollars to spend 12 hours being detained inside the New Zealand airport’s Immigration office before being sent back home without ever leaving the airport, and paved the way for Immigration to rip our family apart at the very beginning of our very first much-anticipated visit to New Zealand (my wife had been worrying on her own for nearly 4 hours in the airport terminal waiting for me to update her, was in tears upon hearing the decision on the phone, and was so upset that she said she wanted to come back home with me; I thankfully was able to convince her to stay, so she is now making the most of the time she has with our son while I might now have to wait another year before seeing him). My only request at that point was to be able to say goodbye to my wife and give her her items from my suitcase (which were only there directly due to the Custom agent’s utter lack of concern for our personal belongings or the time we took to carefully pack them), the items we had brought for our son, and a goodbye kiss. I was denied this very simple request like some sort of terrorist or violent criminal. I was photographed, fingerprinted, and escorted by an Immigration agent from the office to the plane, and wasn’t given my passport back until I was ready to walk off the plane in San Francisco.

    I am not a criminal. I am not a drug smuggler. I am an adult who uses a naturally occurring, non-addictive, nonlethal plant to control my pain, and as regards this trip, I followed what I believed to be the letter of the law in trying to do so. Meanwhile, when we landed in New Zealand and made our way to Customs in the first place, we were led through a sprawling Duty Free gift shop with mountains of bottles of alcohol accompanied by signs indicating that we could bring 3 bottles of spirits and 6 bottles of wine onto airplanes. New Zealand’s minimum age at which to legally consume both tobacco and alcohol is 18.

    Regardless one’s opinion of cannabis, the way my case was treated and the humiliation my wife and I suffered being treated as the worst kind of criminals -- and ripping our family apart in the process (at all, let alone at the very beginning of our vacation and given your very public celebration and promotion of LETHAL POISONS THAT KILL HUNDREDS OF THOUSANDS OF PEOPLE EACH AND EVERY YEAR) -- is hypocritical, shameful, and leaves me with a very bad first-person impression of your country.

    Mitch Stein

    U.S.A. • Since Jan 2017 • 6 posts Report Reply

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