Smoking out an unjust law
13 Jun 2008
by Ryan Keen
AMERICAN Abe Gray moved to Dunedin in 2002 when the decriminalisation of cannabis was on the agenda in New Zealand.
Decriminalisation never happened and the weed smoker of 10 years â€“ who points out heâ€™s an A+ Otago University masters student â€“ has been leading on-campus â€œsmoke-insâ€ in protest since.
He and those students who join him have had few hassles until last month, when one was arrested and charged with cannÂabis possession.
Q. You lead a student group that twice a week on Otago University grounds openly smokes cannabis â€“ an illegal class C drug. Why do you think youâ€™ve had no hassles from police for so long?
A. Our bi-weekly meeting is a protest. In 2003 and 2004 as part of the J-Day protest, our group smoked cannabis inside the Dunedin Central policestation, with no arrests. As Dave Campbell, the area police
commander, has stated: It would be quite a logistical exercise to arrest 50-plus cannabis smokersâ€ and quite simply the police have better things to do. We say good on them â€“ they are out there keeping us safe by focusing on real crime, unlike Campus Watch.
Q. Whatâ€™s the point of the smoke-ins? You like lighting up with pals or is it some sort of stand? A bit of both?
A. We are protesting against outdated and unjust cannabis prohibition laws, and it is one of the largest current protest movements on any New Zealand university campus.
Q. Three weeks ago one of your group got arrested. Fair enough, isnâ€™t it â€“ it is against the law?
A. The law is archaic and unworkable, so we donâ€™t recognise it. Besides, in 2001 the health select committee recommended the Government decriminalise cannabis because it found that most of the harmful effects to arise out of cannabis use are due to the fact that it is illegal, not because it is inherently toxic. The Government chose to make an unethical deal with the United Future party and ignored that recommendation, but a public mandate for cannabis law reform in New Zealand has existed for a long time.
Q. Police made the bust so why direct your post-arrest protest at Otago Universityâ€™s Campus Watch security minders?
A. The bust was made by the Universityâ€™s campus cop, who shares an office with Campus Watch and the Proctor, and it was Campus Watch that called the campus cop in to make the arrest.
Q. Why do you feel so strongly about it that you take a lead down south in cannabis activism?
A. Cannabis laws were supposed to be reformed here years ago, and then somehow it slipped off the agenda and now there is increasing prejudice against cannabis users. There is one of the largest communities of NZ cannabis users down here in Dunedin, so we are merely
Q. Why would New Zealand be a better place if it was legal to light up a spliff?
A. Millions of Kiwis and NZ tourists are already lighting up spliffs every day, so it would be a better place if they didnâ€™t have to fear persecution and if they could buy their cannabis from shops that would pay tax to the Government. We have renamed Dunedin â€œDunsterdamâ€ and we would like to see cannabis cafes established (like in Amsterdam) so that we can grow our tourism industry without putting any more pressure on our already overcrowded beaches and walking tracks.
Q. It seems your placard-waving protest and resulting media attention could prompt a police crackdown on your campus smoke-ins. Still happy you made a fuss?
A. If we werenâ€™t bringing attention to this issue in the way that we are, then it would be getting absolutely zero media attention and no one would even be discussing the issue. Most people think cannabis law reform isnâ€™t a priority because you can get away with using cannabis and most people donâ€™t get busted. But as we can see, the police still bust people, even hard-working university students who are trying their best to contribute to NZ society. This just shows the utter absurdity of cannabis prohibition.
Q. What do you make of claims last week that gang members and drug dealers have infiltrated your pro-pot student group?
A. Complete rubbish. Everyone in our group is a student or has an association with the university. But we are all criminals because of our choice of substance for recreational relaxation.
**Abe Gray: Age 26, spokesman for Otago branch of the National Organisation for the Reform of Marijuana Legislation (NORML). Left United States in 2002 to live in Dunedin and study at Otago University. Completed Bachelor of Science, started his Masters in 2006 and is doing thesis on native NZ lobelias, which saw him collecting specimens in the sub-Antarctic islands and Fiordland. Gray also helps out as a lab demonstrator and as a fill-in lecturer**