An extract from the splendid new book Weed: A New Zealand Story, by James Borrowdale.
Books editor Catherine Woulfe writes:
Weed is a masterclass in longform feature writing, a clever hopscotch through history, statistics, law, chemistry and neuroscience. Plus it’s packed with people and their yarns. Not many writers could keep their footing for all of that, much less hold readers right there with them, but Borrowdale does, and he makes it seem easy.
There’s a particularly gorgeous passage where he writes about attempting to grow his own seedlings: “Tūī alighted from overhead branches, announcing their sudden absence in a flash of brilliant blue-black iridescence that left the tree limbs bouncing. Kererū cavorted above, speeding skywards to hang in momentarily still wings-out crucifixions, before gravity regathered to drag them down once more … Near the enormous trunk and creaking arms of my favourite pūriri tree, where a puddle of sunlight gathers on the forest floor near the top of a rise, I rehomed the remaining plants … “
He’s at his best when he’s sitting back and watching. Listening. Here, he hears what it is to be raided by armed police – and conveys some of the statistics that sit behind such stories.
It’s a prescient take: on Monday the Herald confirmed Borrowdale’s suspicion that the Misuse of Drugs Amendment Bill, meant to steer police away from prosecuting unless doing so was in the public interest, had little impact on conviction statistics or on the systemic bias against Māori.
That night, after a boil-up for dinner and Toffee Pops for dessert, joints circulated Maki Herbert’s modest Northland home, the smoke hanging visibly in the air, like the layers of a cake. Aotearoa Legalise Cannabis Party billboards, featuring Herbert’s smiling face, hung from the walls, next to Bob Marley posters. The door of the outdoor loo was a tino rangatiratanga flag, then being whipped by the wind. Herbert’s home sits on a small bluff above the village of Mangamuka – a handful of single-storey buildings clustered around a State Highway 1 intersection – and it collected the full force of the wind, blowing over the paddocks below, seeping through the walls to wobble the veils of smoke into one even haze.
The talk turned to the police. Herbert had earlier told me the story of her arrest. Trisha Edwards had her own stories to tell about life in the defensive trenches of the drug war. Thirty years ago, in the hills above the Bay of Plenty town of Ōpōtiki, she had just started a job leading horse treks through the bush. The old homestead where she was based had once belonged to the author Barry Crump, an old mate of hers. During his ownership, he had added a new kitchen and a few extra rooms to the old villa, as well as clearing the surrounding land and stocking it with sheep and goats. It was an isolated place: Pakihi Road, winding up from the coast through the hills, came to an end where the old swing bridge brought you across the river to the bottom of the section. Tea trees surrounded the farmhouse. You could only drive a car across if the river was low enough. If it wasn’t, you had to park up and walk across the swing bridge.
The locals further up the valley all grew weed, Edwards said. It was a rugged place, hard to police – “what’s not horizontal is vertical up there” – so growers were relatively safe. They used to get together at the beginning of every season, divvying up the plots on which to grow their own weed. “Everybody honoured that. And when one guy grew about a hundred pound, he went round and gave everybody a pound each in the valley. That was in the old days.” Later, harvests started going missing, and with growers armed – hunting was the perfect alibi for clambering through the bush – things became dangerous. One of Edwards’ own plots was ripped out of the ground; she later found out the perpetrator had been a hunter in need of cash for a deposit on a home.
One morning before dawn when she had been in the house only a week or so, Edwards heard a bang. She looked outside and saw men dressed in black swarming across the swing bridge and up onto the property. “I straight away went for my stash and threw it down the toilet and flushed it … [I] said ‘Cops! Cops!’ Within a second, it was loud hailers: ‘Get out! Get out! Hands up!’” Her boss went out first, in just his boxers, and was thrown to the ground. Edwards was mainly concerned for her pregnant daughter. “I was saying to Angie, ‘Fuck, what are you doing? Hurry up, they’re going to shoot us.’” She was in the bathroom, scooping from the loo the weed that had failed to flush. Edwards told her to leave it – if the cops found it, they found it; it wasn’t, of course, worth getting shot for. “I was walking out with my hands up and it’s a long-as driveway, and every man had a gun.” She recalled their forefingers resting on the triggers. “I was going, ‘You fucking cunts. My daughter’s hapū, my daughter’s hapū. If any of you fucking kill her, I’ll fucking come after your mothers.’” Edwards and her daughter walked this imposing gauntlet. “Every single man was screaming at us: ‘Put your hands up, put your hands up, get your hands up high! Shut up! Shut up!’” Her daughter, five months pregnant, needed to urinate. “I said to the guy that was standing guarding us, I said, ‘She wants to go for a mimi.’” He motioned for her to piss on the ground in front of him. “So she had to get down and she was desperate to go … I said, ‘Go, girl.’ And these men are too scary. They could make an accident just like that,” Edwards said, snapping her fingers. The cops never found the weed; they never lifted the lid. Edwards laughed a hard-won chuckle. “That’s not the first time I’ve heard that they haven’t checked the toilet.”
Not too long after, the cops returned. Edwards was, now, house-sitting a mate’s place nearby. This time, by chance, Edwards had stashed a pound of weed deep in the toe of a pair of rubber riding boots the night before. At about seven the next morning, the local cop banged on her door – and then unsuccessfully tried to kick it in. “They come in and they look everywhere because it’s a major operation. It had detectives from Rotovegas and all of these big people.” Edwards was told that if they found anything in her or her daughter’s room, they’d be done for it – the rest of the house was the legal domain of the absent owner. They searched the home while Edwards, in her dressing gown, was made to feel very uncomfortable in the lounge. There were detectives and dogs with their handlers, and they had cut the phone lines to the valley so there’d be no warning. Again they managed to miss the main body of Edwards’ weed, stuffed in the boot, but for their significant labour they found – in the room where her daughter was staying – a single joint. They told Edwards they would have to arrest her. “One joint, and it was a cabbage joint, and I was going, ‘Oh, get real.’”
I was reminded of something Nándor Tánczos, the former Green MP, told me. New Zealanders, he said, were generally a fair-minded people, but for the most part ignorant of what cannabis prohibition actually meant in the lives of people like Edwards. If the country at large truly knew what it was like to be subjected to a police raid, in search of a plant literally millions of us have smoked, it would shock the country’s sensibilities. “They’ve got no idea,” he said, “what it’s like to have your door busted in at dawn and have police come through and ransack your house and throw your stuff all over the place and go through your most private possessions, terrify your children. Most people would be horrified that that was what was going on simply because someone had a plant in their room or whatever. If you’ve never been stopped and searched by the police for any reason, because they’ve never considered you a target, to try and consider what it’s like for a young man or young woman to walk around and that to be a constant fact of life, and what that feels like – people just don’t understand … When you see depictions of what life’s like for people who bear the brunt of this kind of stuff – when the mainstream sees that depicted – people respond. Because that’s not what they want: they just don’t see it most of the time.”
Fifteen percent of this country’s population is Māori. In 2009, according to Ministry of Justice figures, Māori made up 38% of the 10,195 cannabis charges laid by police. In 2018, that percentage had increased to 40, even as overall cannabis charges had fallen dramatically. In the same period of time, the conviction rate for Māori on cannabis charges has hovered in the early-to-mid-40s; in 2018, 41% of the 3099 people convicted of cannabis offences were Māori. Māori between the ages of 17 and 25 account for 37% of all convictions for drug possession. Only eight people were sentenced to prison for cannabis-use-and-possession-only offences in 2018 – down from 43 in 2009 – but the wounds linger. We are often told, as a reason against reform, that de facto decriminalisation already exists in New Zealand – that the discretion of the police has made formal change unnecessary. But that sets a dangerous precedent, effectively taking the law – what, ideally, should be a public expression of our shared morality – from the dispassionate black and white of the law books and into fallible human hands. The Misuse of Drugs Amendment Act, trumpeted as a profound shift, has, while instructing police to consider a “health-centred or therapeutic approach”, codified that discretion. Nothing much, a public defence attorney told me, had yet changed: the frequency of cannabis offences coming through their Auckland court seemed, at the time of writing, not to have lessened.