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Crossing Continents Thursday, 9 March, 2000, 13:48 GMT
Where there's smoke ...
Our team 's reporting on cannabis in New Zealand made the local papers
By Julian Pettifer

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It has often been said that for anyone seeking the great escape, NZ is the place. With its geographic isolation and its population of less than 4 million, even the cities of New Zealand seem relatively serene. But to find a truly stress-free zone, then travel east of Auckland to the ruggedly beautiful Coromandel peninsula.

There you will find a community that's passionately attached to its alternative lifestyle and to the protection of its pristine environment It's areas like Coromandel which shocked everyone in recent elections, when old party loyalties were abandoned and 7 Green Party MPs were returned to parliament.

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Among them, a young Rastafarian with dreadlocks who smokes pot. His name is Nandor Tanczos and he is never out of the headlines.

Green MP Nandor Tanczos is pressing for decriminalisation
Nandor Tanczos and the other Green MPs ARE important because the ruling Labour coalition needs their 7 votes to support a very narrow parliamentary majority. Holding the balance of power means that the Greens can push their policies in parliament, amongst them the reform of the drug laws and notably the decriminalization of cannabis.

This is a big issue in New Zealand because a lot of people use pot and grow it and it's become very much part of the culture. According to recent research, more than half the population between the ages of 15 and 45 admits to using or to having used pot. In fact, NZ has the highest per capita rate of use anywhere in the world.

Increasing amounts of cannabis are now being grown in people's homes
Among the young in particular, there is great admiration for Nandor Tanczos and his fellow Greens and solid support for his effort to change the law. At present there is total prohibition of cannabis under dangerous drugs legislation. Nandor and his supporters want to liberalise the law to allow adults to grow cannabis for their own personal use. Trafficking would still be an offence.

But most urgent for Nandor is the decriminalisation of cannabis for medicinal use. Sufferers of a whole range of illnesses say it is effective in alleviating symptoms; and recent clinical trials have confirmed the value of cannabis in the treatment of multiple sclerosis.

Although doctors in NZ can seek permission to prescribe cannabis, it is not often granted. Nandor is particularly outraged by the case of Danny Clark, paralysed in a car accident, who finds that only cannabis gives him relief from his most distressing symptoms.

Danny Clark has been victimised for growing cannabis - would decriminalisation help?
As I discovered when I went to see Danny, he grows the dope in his front room strictly for his own use yet he is constantly harassed by the police. He described to me how he was recently arrested and thrown in gaol where no provision was made for his special toilet needs and where he suffered total humiliation.

Beside Danny's wheelchair was a large cannabis plant, two metres high and four metres in circumference, shortly to reach maturity. At any time, the police could arrest him; or, as has happened on several occasion, the house could be broken into and the plant stolen. With the law as it now stands, that one plant is worth several thousand dollars. If cultivation for personal use was permitted, the value of the plant would decline and the temptation to steal would be removed.

Although cannabis may be good medicine for people like Danny Clark, there is definitely a downside to its widespread use and availability. If Nandor's proposed reforms go through, there will still be prohibition in the case of minors and for very good reason.

In Auckland - New Zealand's largest city and cannabis capital - I visited a drugs rehabilitation centre for under-eighteens where the boys told me that dope is cheaper and more easily obtained than cigarettes or alcohol. Their average age is 14; but they started to use cannabis long before their teens.

Among these youngsters, abuse of cannabis is linked to petty crime, dropping out of school and in the most serious cases, to mental health problems and an unusually high suicide rate.

Nick Pataka knows the cannabis culture from the inside, but is now trying to limit it
Nick Pataka, who runs the drug rehab programme in West Auckland, is a former drug dealer and gang boss who knows the murky cannabis business inside out. He's particularly concerned about its negative impact on his own community, the Maori. Although Maori are only 15% of NZ's population, they make up half the numbers in prison, mostly for drug-related offences.

The most compelling reason to decriminalise cannabis is to dismantle the huge alternative economy it supports. It's a black market on a massive scale. In the cities, they grow pot in everything from warehouses to wardrobes. But out in the countryside, hundreds of acres of the weed is cultivated commercially.

I drove five hours S.E of Auckland to the Bay of Plenty; and plenty of dope is what this region is famous for. Deep in the forests are the plantations of cannabis that supply the Auckland market. The police know it's out there: but finding and destroying it is difficult, expensive and dangerous. Although the police declined to give me an interview, they did tell me that much; and also warned me that if I went looking for cannabis plantations I might get my head blown off.

So heeding their advice, I took care to be accompanied by Maanu Paul, a Maori chief and Chairman of the NZ Maori Council, This is his tribal homeland, where most of the inhabitants are Maori, most of them are unemployed and most live by growing cannabis. Maanu introduced me to the local gang leader, Tawai by name, a formidable figure with a bushy black beard and tattoos.who is disarmingly candid about his business. Since there is no work, he said, there is no alternative to growing pot.

Although Tawai struck me as a charming rogue, vicious gang warfare is part of his way of life. If the decriminalization of cannabis deals a blow against these gangs, New Zealand will be a happier place.

Jenny Shipley is firmly against changing the law...
But not all MPS will be convinced by Nandor Tanczos and the Greens, however passionately they argue the case for law reform. Certainly not Jenny Shipley, who since last November's elections has been leader of the opposition National Party. She made it quite clear to me that decriminalization cannot be taken for granted - not if she has her way.

She opposes it because pot has been linked to an increase in schizophrenia in the young and to an increase in industrial accidents among certain groups of adults; but most of all, because she wants to register social disapproval of the habit.

Jenny Shipley is not used to being ignored and if all the Opposition MPs close ranks behind her, the vote could be a close run thing. But there is an even more powerful female voice on the other side of the House and on the other side of the argument.

But new PM Helen Clark believes New Zealanders will take it in their stride
The new Prime Minister, Helen Clark, has decided to give Labour MPs a free vote leave to act according to their conscience; but she left me in no doubt that that if they take their cue from her, they will opt for reform.

Prohibition, she says, simply does not work; and some alternative must be found to a law that drags so many citizens through the courts and leaves them with a criminal record. Now that things are beginning to move in Wellington, with a Bill possibly put to the vote before the end of the year, it is clear that whatever is done about cannabis in New Zealand could be instructive for the rest of the world.

Jullian Pettifer pays homage to Xena, Warrior Princess
Also in this edition of Crossing Continents: we find out why so many film and television productions are choosing to shoot in New Zealand, and meet the woman at the forefront of the entertainment industry - Lucy Lawless, aka Xena, the Warrior Princess.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
Nandor Tanczos
Rasta and MP, explains his views on decriminalising cannabis in NZ
Helen Clark on cannabis decriminalisation
"New Zealand is not afraid of being in the vanguard on this"
Danny Clark North Island
"The only bad side effects I've had from cannabis have been with the police"
Nick Pataka, Maori social worker
"Some families here have three generations of drug use"
Jenny Shipley, Auckland
"I have real fears about drugs and won't vote to change the law"
See also:

25 Feb 00 | Science/Nature
19 Nov 97 | Talking Point
27 Nov 99 | Asia-Pacific
02 Sep 99 | Asia-Pacific
27 Nov 99 | Asia-Pacific
31 Aug 99 | Entertainment
Links to more Crossing Continents stories are at the foot of the page.


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