Resident weed correspondent Don Rowe sits down with fellow weed journalist Krishna Andavolu to talk fruit bongs, pseudoscience and the silver lining of a Trump election.
The lobby of the Hilton on Auckland’s waterfront is a strange and garish place to talk about weed. More so when grey battleships loom in the port outside, and seamen of all stripes fill the room – representatives of foreign nations in town for a weapons conference.
Krishna Andavolu sits on a plush chair by the window, the manors of Point Chev’ visible across the harbour. The host of Weediquette, a two-season VICELAND series covering marijuana culture, he has been deeply embedded in the weed beat, putting mind and body on the line to chronicle this most transitional of times.
The first real life VICELAND reporter I’ve seen in the wild, he wears a collared shirt and has the standard issue ‘gold Vice ring and macbook’ combo. He speaks authoritatively, and with American volume.
The Spinoff: How did you become a professional weed journalist?
Krishna Andavolu: I went to Wesleyan University in Connecticut and after college I helped found a documentary and photography magazine. I worked at a literary magazine about death and culture called Obit, which was an interesting topic because death surrounds us but nobody talks about it.
In 2011 I had some friends working at Vice and I started posting stuff for them on a freelance basis, then I became the weekend editor at vice.com, then editor of the magazine, and it was about in 2013/2014 that I started making online documentaries. Stuff about marijuana just seemed to have more depth than I had expected it to, going in.
Did you come to weed from a purely journalistic standpoint?
I mean, I smoked pot in college. I never thought it was that serious. It’s just pot, you can use it, it’s just pot. But I think the first time it really occurred to me that it was something that has substance was when we did a story called ‘Stoned Kids’, it’s the first story for the TV documentary series, but we also did it online with a different cast of characters when I was just dipping my toe in these stories. I realised how meaningful it is for those people. It’s not just a silly plant that you can smoke with your friends, it can be something that saves people’s lives. The stakes are automatically so much higher than you necessarily might think of pot.
There’s a lot of pseudoscience around the medicinal benefits of weed, though. There are a lot of people who are clearly not doctors talking shop about how it’s a wonder drug, a cure-all. Do you have to wade through a lot of that bullshit?
What we always do in medicinal stories about medicine is try to appeal to the highest authorities we can. For the cancer story we went and talked to the chief of oncology at San Francisco General Hospital, he also serves as the professor at the University of California and San Francisco which is the top research institution in the country, so yes. In a word, yes. The way people talk about pot and how it helps them is pretty much all at an anecdotal level at the moment, a collection of stories, which is interesting from a journalistic point of view because, as a collection of stories, we can follow them. I think the key is the point of view that you take towards the story. You could go in there and be judgemental, ‘look at these people that foolishly believe that, despite no clear evidence, this is helping them’. Or, if you go in from a point of view of empathy and understand their world was changed, you ask ‘could they be right?’ and I think that’s a much more intriguing emotional pathway into understanding people, and I think that’s the goal of the show, to sort of understand this time of weed transition by understanding the people who are a part of it.
You hit it at the right time, because there really has been an exponential growth in marijuana culture on the back of much less restrictive laws in the States.
It’s hard to overstate what a time of radical change this is in the marijuana culture, but it’s also mainstream culture. Basically, you have what was once a subculture that was kind of persecuted becoming a major force in mainstream culture. The show chronicles that transition because it plays out in a lot of different ways on a lot of different fronts. In the medical field, it has all these different ramifications. As far as social justice and criminal justice is concerned, pot has always been a tool in the toolkit of mass incarceration – there’s racist prosecution in the war on drugs. Then the economy – it’s going to be a $50 billion industry, so who are the winners and losers of that transition?
Regarding racist prosecution of drug laws, in New Zealand, we’re operating in a system of pseudo-decriminalisation where the cops have discretion. Earlier this year I was having a look at the stats and, as you’d expect, it turns out that minorities are over-represented where police have powers of discretion.
But even decriminalisation is on the way out. You just legalised recreational marijuana in California, right?
There’s complete legalisation happening there. Pot’s no longer a tool to put people away for simple marijuana possession. One thing that’s pretty interesting in the California legislation is that there’s a provision to let people out of prison who are currently serving time for simple possession. That kind of answers that question, like ‘Jeez, if it’s legal now, what about all the people who got put away for it?’ and I think that’s interesting, but it’s a lot about the rubber hitting the road on this stuff. There’s a lot of good intention in the crafting of intention but, just as the pseudo-decriminalisation that you’re talking about in New Zealand, in reality it still has a prohibition feel to it. I think that’s holding lawmakers and police to their word about what the law is now is the next challenge in California.
With legalisation of weed in California, it also came hand in hand with a Trump election. Was that a net gain or a net loss?
Too soon dude, too soon. That night all the legalisation stuff just felt like a silver lining. I won’t hide my politics, I think it was a brutal disaster to have that guy rise to power in such a way, and it was a true shock, a gut punch, like as if your dog had died or something. Or even worse. But as a silver lining thing, it’s interesting because pot in America, I’m not sure if it’s the same in New Zealand, has sort of transcended a left vs right, Democrat vs Republican, blue vs red state divide. You’ll find that small government conservatives think that pot should be legal because government regulation on something like that doesn’t make sense. Socially conscious progressives think it should be legal because it’s been a tool of mass incarceration.
It makes for some strange bedfellows in that way, so it’s not entirely surprising that a state like Maine, for instance, which is split about 50/50 went for recreational weed, and a state like Arkansas, which is a really conservative state, made medical marijuana legal. What it really catches out as far as the divide is that it’s not a left-right issue, it’s a demographics issue. Which is to say that old people think pot is bad and young people are like whatever, it’s fine.
Do you feel like there may be a backlash? While I think most people in our respective audiences would agree that weed is pretty awesome, at the same time there are going to be those people who smoke themselves stupid. There are people who will take it too far just as people did during the LSD boom – tuning in, turning on and dropping themselves out on their head.
Maybe. I think increased access always has unintended consequences, because any time something like this happens you can’t foresee every strand of the future. I think one thing that I like to point to, or think is intriguing, is that in Colorado, which is the first state in the US to do recreational pot, teen use has decreased. It’s not cool for kids to smoke pot anymore. Taking it out of the illicit market has demystified it. I think that from a public health point of view, from a harm reduction point of view, it seems like the health consequences over time are going to be positive. However from a cultural point of view, if you think about people who are smoking…there was a study from the first year of returns from the taxation department of Colorado indicated that a much larger percentage of people who are buying weed, smoke weed every day. That’s what grew, not the number of first-timers. That remains to be seen.
There are other such net positives of better access that it’s hard to speculate about the potential unintended consequences. One thing that is really powerful is the US is in an opioid addiction crisis right now, it’s an epidemic basically, but in states where medical marijuana is legal, over the last few years, opioid addiction and overdose deaths have gone down. Again, the correlative understanding, but there’s been some drill down studies and it does seem like opioids were prescribed for chronic pain very irresponsibly, and marijuana might have a better role to play in the management of chronic pain.
It’s similar here. New Zealand and the States are some of the only countries in the world where you can advertise pain pills on television. We had a case recently where a famous trade union advocate named Helen Kelly died in the public eye and she was a medical marijuana campaigner. It was interesting because it almost boiled down to a human rights thing at the end where you have this woman who’s clearly about to die, and it’s like what do lawmakers think they’re saving her from?
Compassion is a larger theme which surrounds marijuana in the medical space. People are looking for quality of life and oftentimes the traditional medical establishment and the methods in which they prescribe single-compound chemicals as medication can get in the way of a certain type of quality of life that people are seeking. Pot offers this way of retaking a bit of agency in your own medical treatment and I think people find that really heartening.
How has your own relationship to weed changed?
I’m not that big of a smoker. It’s something I enjoy, and I certainly partake. I’m a medical marijuana patient in California…
What did you lie to your doctor about?
I do actually have backpain, I injured myself playing basketball enough that I have what is considered backpain.
But I would say that I don’t smoke that much weed. But I do enjoy it, a lot.
It must be coming at you left, right and centre. The highest quality of oils and so on. It must be hard to avoid.
I gleefully partake as part of my journalistic quest. That’s great.
What a terrible thing to have to do. I’ve got a few rapid fire questions, starting with something a little contentious. What’s your opinion of spin cones? Is that even common practice in the States?
I don’t even know what that is. Like a spliff?
More like a spliff in a bong.
We would never do that.
How do you feel about it on an ethical level?
Well, if it’s what you want to do, I guess there’s nothing totally wrong on an ethical level, but it doesn’t make any sense.
It’s disgusting. What, in your considered opinion, is the finest fruit through which to smoke weed?
That’s a good question. I’m an apple guy. I got my hair cut a while back by a cool dude who worked at a Whole Foods and he was like ‘Yea man, it’s Fall now so all the apples are coming in, and I’ve tried all the different apples with all different kinds of weed’. Apparently, there’s some fun to be had with the different flavour of different kinds of apples. He said specifically Honey Crisp apples, they’re red, it’s a specific variety of red that are really sweet and really crispy. They’re the best.
You need a good crisp apple cause too much juice is counterproductive to the whole fire thing. Is weed lame now?
I think a lot of kids think that in Colorado for sure. I don’t know if it was ever lame or not lame, it’s just weed, and it’s produced cultures that are dope and great, particularly how much amazing shit has come through weed being a part of a creative culture like hiphop, so I don’t think it’ll ever be lame. But it definitely can be lame if you’re…there are certain manifestations of weed culture that can feel lame. I’m being a politician.
I’ll say it – there’s an increase in super annoying pseudo-hippies. Nobody wants that. Are you paranoid of big weed?
I think it’s an inevitability. Paranoid is the wrong word, but I’m certainly wary of how weed culture gets diluted in the mainstream and when there are certain values that I find in the weed subculture that are really progressive and heartening, like compassion. It’s not about greed, it’s about spreading access. It’s something that people really care about and I don’t think it’s just bullshit. It’s an intentional community almost. What is difficult is to see players come into the space where the intention is just to make as much money as possible. But, at the same time, a lot of these guys are pretty fun. We did a story with a man who owns Dixie Elixers, and he’s great, so you see different personalities coming to the plant. It’s easy to say big weed and think of it as a monolith, but it’s actually just a collection of people making a decision to move their lives in that direction, and following those stories can be just as intriguing.
These are going to be the Seagrams and the Anheuser-Busch’s. It’s cool because they’re walking around on the planet right now and you can talk to them and see what they’re up to.
Dr Dre says to smoke weed every day – agree or disagree?
Agree if you want, disagree if you don’t. People react really differently to pot. We all have an expectation of a recreational substance like alcohol where we all react to it basically the same. It’s more of a linear relationship. But pot is so different. It’s just a much more complicated relationship. For some people, smoke weed every day means being normal. I’m not a doctor or anything, but my imagination is not so constrained as to think that maybe that’s something people can do or would like to do.
I’m not sure if you know, but we’re coming very close to our dry season. A truly brutal time of year. What would you say to kiwis as we approach the drought?
That’s a great question. It has been a long time since I’ve been in an area where weed is scarce, because it’s not at all in the United States. Ever. But I guess I would say to buy now. Because what else can you do? Get ready, stock up, and use some orange peels – it helps to keep it fresh.