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Thursday, 9 March, 2000, 13:48 GMT
Where there's smoke ...
By Julian Pettifer
Among them, a young Rastafarian with dreadlocks who smokes pot. His name is Nandor Tanczos and he is never out of the headlines.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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