NORML not smoked out yet
By Philippa Williams, with reporting from Amy Joseph
The intermittent battle between the Otago branch of NORML and authorities from the University and police department flared up again over the exam season.
As reported in Critic Issue 14, the campus cop arrested a student on campus for the first time in over fifteen years late last semester, after being tipped off about a student smoking cannabis by Campus Watch. This prompted a protest run by the local arm of the National Organisation for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) and OUSA against Campus Watch.
That protest seems to have catalysed renewed action against NORML’s bi-weekly “4.20 smoke up” protests on the Union Lawn. Despite some tension between NORML and the authorities in 2007, over 200 protests have taken place over recent years with little response from police, but in the wake of the Campus Watch protest, the University reiterated its stance that smoking cannabis is illegal, and asked the police to do something about it. They gave authority to the police to issue trespass notices to non-students involved in the protest. Police have estimated that up to one third of those involved are not students.
Police and the University also raised concerns that known gang members, convicted drug dealers, and underage people frequented the protests. Critic’s ongoing observations of the protests can attest to the occasional presence of underage teens – despite NORML’s official policy against this – but has found scant evidence of gang activity. Critic would also label anyone attempting to buy marijuana at the protests a “chump”.
Through the Otago Daily Times, police warned that they would start cracking down on the protests. “They are certainly not welcome on the campus if they are going to flout the law,” Dunedin area commander Inspector Dave Campbell said in the June 6 edition of the newspaper. “At the moment, they are thumbing their noses at the authorities.”
True to their word, there was a strong police presence at the protest on June 11. Around half a dozen officers, including undercover cops, issued trespass notices to two 17-year olds, banning them from the University for two years. They also arrested one 35-year-old student, charging him with possessing cannabis and a cannabis pipe.
The Otago branch NORML leader Abe Grey says that the teenagers were spotted near the group at 4.20pm, just as the group started to gather. He says they were not smoking and believes “they might have just been passing by.” However, footage of the protest posted on Otago NORML’s website shows one of the teens sitting with regular protesters, smoking something before stubbing it out as police approach him. It is unclear what he was smoking, and how long he had been sitting with the group.
The crackdown from police has disappointed OUSA. President Simon Wilson says that NORML are protesting through civil disobedience and this is a legitimate form of political protest.
There may be no need for concern anyway, as after the June 11 protest, the 4.20 protesters have neither heard nor seen any more police action. Activists had expected that there would be heavy enforcement over the semester break, as there would be less people around to shake their fists at the police, but such action never materialised. Grey believes the only reason the police came in the first place was as a “token gesture” for the University. The media coverage generated by the Campus Watch protest may have prompted the University to pressure the police to do something about the protests.
Therefore, Grey believes, the University has gotten in their last word on the matter, but he assures them that NORML is not intimidated and will continue to meet as normal at 4.20pm every Wednesday and Friday.