Otepoti Overgrown: Cannabis Culture in Dunedin
Feature by Aaron Hawkins
Dirty hippies, degenerate wannabe druglords, dropouts and the Division of Humanities. Public perceptions of the marijuana user â€“ the stoner, the pothead, the deviant criminal â€“ are as broadly used as their users are narrowly informed. For thousands of years, marijuana has figured prominently as both a psychoactive substance and an industrial crop, but this past century has been quite turbulent for the suddenly controversial plant. Prohibition and enforcement became populist political practices, and as a result the level of public education is alarmingly poor. This week on campus, brave souls from across the political spectrum descend upon Dunedin to drag the marijuana debate kicking and screaming out of the closet. Criticâ€™s fearless warrior Aaron Hawkins is more than happy to get his hands dirty in grassroots political activism.
Few arguments are framed publicly in such fiery rhetoric as those that engage with the subject of illegal drug use, police enforcement and the reform of drug laws. Regulation of social lubricants has occupied plenty of space in local media recently, surrounding the Governmentâ€™s reclassification of, and subsequent banning of the sale and possession of, BZP. Staring down the barrel of a vocal moral minority, and with an election just around the corner, our elected representatives once again turned to prohibition as their harm reduction mode of choice.
BZPâ€™s story in New Zealand was brief and bright in comparison to that of marijuana, and while the argument around marijuana prohibition is now over 80 years old in this country, it remains too politically sensitive for any current politician to touch. Looking to redress the imbalance, this week the University of Otagoâ€™s branch of the National Organisation for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) is hosting Cannabis Awareness Week on campus. An entire week dedicated to an illegal activity seems like a bold move, so Critic caught up with part-time MSc candidate, and fulltime activist, Otago University NORML President Abraham Gray.
How long have you been involved in the NORML movement and how much of that has been in Dunedin?
I have been involved with cannabis law reform since 1999. Originally I just wanted to get better weed so I started working at a head shop / music store in my hometown Minneapolis. But while I was working there I became exposed to a lot of information about just how corrupt and unjust prohibition actually is and it really awakened my political consciousness in general. I immigrated to Dunedin in October 2002 with the understanding that cannabis was about to be legalised in New Zealand as I had read widely in the north American press about the Health Select Committee report of 2001 that had recommended decriminalisation. I also had heard that the ruling Labour party was in a coalition agreement with the Green Party and that the Greens were pushing for cannabis law reform.
I arrived in New Zealand the week after the 2002 â€˜Corngateâ€™ election, with no idea that an election had even just taken place, expecting to sit back and watch as cannabis was made legal.
The first event I went to meet people was a Green party potluck and I couldnâ€™t figure out why everyone was in such a sombre mood. During the course of the evening it came out what had just happened regarding the agreement between Labour and United Future to not act on the mandate for cannabis law reform. Once I started University in Dunedin the following March I immediately joined Otago University NORML and the rest is history.
What do you see as the greatest achievements of Otago University NORML in recent years?
Hot-boxing the police station two years in a row, getting exposure for
the cause on TV One Close Up, and providing a safe and friendly venue for local cannabis enthusiasts to enjoy each otherâ€™s company without the fear of persecution twice a week.
What do you see as the biggest challenges as a political organisation?
Simple. Entrenched prejudice against cannabis users.
Who comes to the events and protests? Who is the Otago NORML member?
Anyone; we are allowed 10% non-student membership, but we have
hundreds of student members and hardly any non-student ones so there is plenty of room for other interested individuals outside of the University and Polytech.
And youâ€™ll accept anyone, right?
Anyone who is either over 18 years of age or a University or Polytech
What do you do when you are faced with having people on your side who are â€“ consciously or not â€“ actively working against you, be it through being drug dealers, vocal and ill-informed people, aggressive types or under age kids?
The best thing we can do about people like that is to educate them and
give them the opportunity not to be like that anymore.
How does NORML in New Zealand compare to movements in other countries? In countries where the laws around marijuana are more relaxed (The Netherlands or Canada, say) is NORML stronger (perhaps due to people being more comfortable with protesting) or is it stronger by political necessity in more prohibitive climates?
In all countries the strength of the movement ebbs and flows with the
level of enthusiasm among the people who comprise the group at the time. At the moment New Zealand is extremely active, whereas say two or three years ago we werenâ€™t, but ten years ago it was even more active than it is now. In general, though, in countries where the law is relaxed, there is less of an immediacy to getting out there and getting the message heard.
How does the Otago University branch hold up compared to other groups in New Zealand?
We are by far the most active cannabis law reform group in New Zealand at the moment, but our level of activity has inspired all of our sister groups throughout the country and a groundswell is beginning. Kicking off with the Cannabus tour (NORML NZ), leading into Cannabis Awareness Week (Otago NORML) and setting the stage for this yearâ€™s general election in which the Aotearoa Legalise Cannabis Party is planning some strategically targeted electorate campaigns.
You guys made it as far as television current affairs show Close Up with the 4.20 smokeups (twice weekly protests at 4.20pm where members smoke marijuana in full view of the public on the University Union Lawn), and started a war of posturing with the University administration with regards to the same protest, including threats of police intervention, and yet it now not only continues, but is scheduled twice weekly. How do you get away with gathering in public with the sole intent, it would seem, of openly using illegal drugs?
The sole intent is to protest, and I guess after the Springbok tour and the University Registry occupation the authorities are understandably reluctant to go around bashing up protesting students. Mainly, though, we just called their bluff.
How far-spread is the 4.20 protest as a regularly occurring forum?
It always takes place twice weekly in Auckland and Dunedin, and somewhat less reliably in Hamilton, Wellington, Motueka and Christchurch. But now that the Cannabus has completed its 42 town tour, initiating a 4.20 protest in each town along the way, itâ€™s possible that there are up to 42 additional 4.20s taking place every week now!
How long has Cannabis Awareness Week been cooking, and what was the catalyst for its creation in the first place?
We need to cut through the entrenched prejudice and the lies with truthful facts. Weâ€™ve been planning this for about seven or eight months, ever since OUSA passed the motion to publicise the knowledge that Alcohol is more harmful than Cannabis. The exact timing was decided to coincide with the Cannabus tour and JDay
This week is Cannabis Awareness Week on campus; what are the biggest coups in the programme for you?
Jim Anderton, Nandor [Tanczos], and Pauline Gardiner coming down to the panel discussion on the sense of current laws â€¦ also the Cannabus, and on the negative side, the Pharmacology Department HODâ€™s last-minute decision to instruct all his staff not to participate in our events, because he has his own political biases and agendas that he wants to force on the entire student population. Can you believe the head of a Health Science department refusing to allow discussion of the health effects of certain substances?!
"I donâ€™t like smoking in public. To me itâ€™s asking for trouble in a way because anyone can decide that they may want to dob you in, or you know make that phone call. I donâ€™t smoke in public. I donâ€™t like pulling up in a car somewhere and having a pipe in the car. Basically the rules that I have are just trying to keep myself safe. Iâ€™ve tried Speed once and it was cool, I didnâ€™t sniff it. Thatâ€™s some more rules Iâ€™ve got for myself, Iâ€™d never inject â€¦ [and] like I know that if Iâ€™m driving I will have maybe one [spot of cannabis] but I wonâ€™t have anything more than that [and] I wonâ€™t drive until maybe an hour after Iâ€™ve had that session. I wonâ€™t drive immediately."
- Female, 25, pakeha, teacher, de facto, no children
Geoff Noller is not your regular researcher. With a background in anthropology, Geoff returned to the hallowed halls of academia in 2002 to write his doctoral thesis on cannabis culture, and the hidden voice of the cannabis user in New Zealand.
â€œIt was with arrival of our second son in 2002 that I began contemplating a return to university, and anthropology. One day I read a newspaper item reporting the prosecution of a young man for importing LSD. A successful software developer residing in the US, he had returned on holiday to New Zealand, only to be picked up at customs with six â€˜tripsâ€™ given him by friends for recreational use over the Christmas break. Despite an exemplary record, having excelled in his chosen field and pleas from his lawyer for a diversion, he was convicted of importing a â€˜Class Aâ€™ drug. His career was over.â€
At the time, Noller was working as a venue manager at Arc CafÃ©, and had managed bands. He had â€“ as he himself says, quoting Michel Foucault â€“ â€œa tolerant familiarity with the illicitâ€¦. My initial interest was in drugs associated with the dance party scene. However, as at that time the government was reexamining cannabisâ€™ public health implications and the appropriateness of its legal status, I settled on this most common of the illicits.â€
Cannabis culture, from the perspective of the user, isnâ€™t something that
has been discussed in any great detail. What studies have been done into this generally are rooted in clinical work, looking at abuse and rehab patients, and are firmly grounded in pathology, despite the fact that around half of all New Zealanders admit to having tried the psychoactive herb. The inquisitive nature of academic inquiry hasnâ€™t made him immune from the probing prejudices that surround cannabis in contemporary society.
â€œAlthough commencing the project in the Anthropology Department, where my undergraduate work took place, upon completing the present studyâ€™s fieldwork the Departmentâ€™s considerable nervousness about the project ultimately prompted a shift to Psychological Medicine and the subsequent embracing of a formal mixed method analysis.
â€œWhile it is only possible to speculate on the underlying perceptions generating Departmental concerns, issues of illegality, and stereotyping of cannabis use and users seem to have played a major role. For example, during the first conversation with my original co-supervisor, the question was posed: â€˜How do you think you will feel about associating with criminals?â€™â€
Unfortunately, this isnâ€™t an isolated incident. The University of Otago, by its nature a beacon of challenging the status quo, has made a habit in recent years of reflexive actions such as this one. Last year, the University rescinded the right of euthanasia activists to use St Davidâ€™s Lecture Theatre complex, and last week the HoD of Pharmacology instructed his staff to not participate in a forum concerning the health issues surrounding the smoking of cannabis. Nollerâ€™s work is by nature political, and while law reform is largely avoided by the study, â€œinsights provided by the present study suggest immediate application in two specific areas for future research in New Zealand. The first of these concerns a recent call by the New Zealand Drug Foundation (Bell, 2007) for a national conversation about cannabis. The Foundation, a state-funded NGO, claims that cannabis has been ignored while politicians and other stakeholders have focused on alternative drug issues.â€
The shift from anthropology to medicine necessitated a shift in approach from a strictly qualitative method, to a mixed method approach incorporating quantitative data, as well as interviews with an epic sample of 80 cannabis users, including one quit-user. Anyone who has done qualitative analysis, or transcribing in general, understands how much of a mammoth undertaking this is. What Noller was looking for were patterns in the topics of conversation, and those that came up often enough were then analysed in greater depth.
â€œI actually thought there might be a more homogenous culture, i.e. that
cannabis use would engender some kind of shared cultural aesthetic, where users might have similar world views, or at least specifically with regard to cannabis. I thought this because to me the experience of use, concentrated through a prism of legal transgression and psychoactive affect, suggested to me that similar people might be drawn to it or at that users might have similar ideas about use. What I found was that there were very few common denominators for users; in fact the only real commonality seemed to be that they were cannabis users. For some this meant very little in the context of their daily lives, for others it was of great significance.â€
"You canâ€™t go and buy an ounce from my dealer when Iâ€™m selling you ounces, because you get my tax. He has to know another person, thatâ€™s another risk factor for him because every person you know or deal with is another level of risk. So you know itâ€™s monitored at all levels by everyone. Because if you have to buy it from me, I get it from him â€“ okay so I buy an ounce from him, I might buy three, because I buy one for me, one for you, and one for all the other guys. So Iâ€™m getting not only my ounce, but Iâ€™m getting percy [perks] on the other two â€“ so
Iâ€™ll be taxing you maybe, between the two bags, another 50 [dollar] bag.
â€œSo even if I sell my own â€˜oâ€™, Iâ€™ve still got a 50 bag percy, plus whatever I take. Because Iâ€™m buying three from him he doesnâ€™t give me 28 gram ounces he gives me 32s, so Iâ€™m fleecing four grams at every ounce, as percy anyway. And so you â€“ the bottom line is you get your ounce and youâ€™re going: oh yeah, Iâ€™m happy with that. But if you got to see what it was like when it came out of the dealerâ€™s hands or the growerâ€™s hands, youâ€™d be screaming daylight robbery. And thereâ€™s definitely a chain of command because this guy trusts me because I stand to lose as much as you.
â€œThe guy who buys an ounce and breaks it down into tinnies, heâ€™s actually taking a lot of risk, but the guy who is selling him â€˜oâ€™s is taking as much risk, because he ainâ€™t going to go down for a bunch of pricks he doesnâ€™t know that heâ€™s sold tinnies to, so heâ€™s going to start squealing like a wee rat. Everyone has to ensure themselves along the line that the guy theyâ€™re selling to isnâ€™t going to send the boys in blue back up the line so to speak. So itâ€™s sort of a vetting and an insurance policy all in one and weâ€™re the tax collectors as well, we donâ€™t charge extra for it. You know, the person who actually does the job takes the tax. So â€“ and if you were to go over my head I would imagine in most cases, the chain of command would stay secure and you would actually drop out of the link completely."
â€”Male, 34, pakeha, unwaged, single, dependent: yes, law: no
Itâ€™s hard to get any closer to your subject matter than the above, and these are exactly the â€˜hidden voicesâ€™ that Geoff Noller was looking for, and that the discussions about cannabis have for so long ignored. As you can imagine, in any relatively new field of inquiry such as this, there is plenty of interest, and Noller has plenty more where this one came from.
â€œIâ€™m aiming for three papers a year for two years. The first paper, recently submitted to the International Journal of Drug Policy, is a critical assessment of NZ drug policy, using cannabis prohibition as a case study. Iâ€™m currently working on two others: one examining the construction of users in medical, legal, policy and media discourses, as â€œpathologisedâ€ subjects, arguing instead users frequently see themselves as rational and thereby making reasoned choices about their use; the second paper is about cannabis and its effects on driving.
â€œIâ€™ve a couple of ideas for books which are in the early development phase so Iâ€™d rather not say much. However, I have been offered some funding for one of them, an educational book incorporating images in a kind of graphic novel style.â€
Geoff Noller is a brave and rare academic. In the face of stern glances from within and without the academy, he is one of a special breed of researchers making an effort to step outside the stigma and deal incisively and productively with the realities of marijuana use and culture in this country. One can only hope more will follow in his footsteps.
Geoff Noller, as part of Cannabis Awareness Week, presents his doctoral findings in Hidden Voices: Cannabis use and users in Dunedin, Tuesday April 29, 7pm, Archway 4 lecture theatre.