"Visits with dad were so sporadic I can count them on both hands." – Image: Getty

My father, lost in smoke

The cannabis referendum debate is deeply personal for some people. Nicole Skews-Poole details the agonising role weed played in her father’s life.

My earliest childhood memory is opaque and soupy. The more I try and focus on its details, the more they wriggle away. But in my mind’s eye, if I stand back and pretend I’m not looking, I can see the green-brown linoleum floors and high-walled garden of the rehab centre in Newtown. I remember feeling uncomfortable at the way people were acting, and I realise now that everyone’s tense niceness was simply their discomfort at seeing a toddler in rehab.

I was visiting my uncle. My dad’s family has a surname which earns you an awkward silence from a certain generation of Wellingtonian. It’s usually followed by a forced expression which tries – and fails – to say ‘never heard of them!’ or ‘maybe it’s a coincidence!’. I changed my surname when I was 13.

At their height in the 80s and early 90s, my dad’s family were Irish conmen with a reputation that well-exceeded their capabilities. Some of their antics were funny, like the time several of my dad’s older brothers tried to convince their parents that dad, at age four, had stolen the safe that appeared in their house.

The ones that are still alive remain strong in their commitment to absolute mediocrity, even in their criminal endeavours. They would be a living breathing Benny Hill skit if I didn’t know that under it was a tendril of addiction that ruins and kills and spreads and spreads. On my cousin’s 16th birthday they were given a capsule of refined cannabis oil, by their parents, to celebrate.

Every sibling had their own poison, from heroin to beer – but weed was ever-present and especially potent when mixed with the others. Weed was, and still is, my dad’s favourite.

For most people, weed is nothing. Weed is a Saturday night once every couple of months. Or maybe it’s most evenings to help with a pinched nerve. Or it’s the only thing that lifts the box of books living on top of your ribs that is your anxiety. Mostly, people use weed in the way that best suits them, and weed creates fewer negative health outcomes than alcohol by a long shot.

But for some, weed means never leaving your room. It means your every pore percolates with the smell of sweaty grass clippings, and your routine slowly condenses down to hiding in your room where you feel safe with the soft blanket of sticky smoke.

Dad’s use of weed, both alone and with alcohol, has been ever present in his life from the age of 11 or 12, except for the year he tried to get clean at Hamner Springs. I was eight and my parents had long separated. Visits with dad were so sporadic I can count them on both hands. I would climb the stairs of his council flat to the room that I could smell from the ground floor, and we would curiously ask each other questions about hobbies and favourites and memories because we simply didn’t know each other. We still don’t.

People who haven’t been affected by addiction probably won’t know this, but steps 8-9 of the Narcotics Anonymous 12 steps to getting clean requires people who have been hurt by your addiction to outline exactly how you hurt them.

For anyone that prides themselves on resilience and getting the fuck on with things – even at age eight – this is like being asked to look outside and see that it’s hailing, but instead of closing the door and staying warm, you need to take your shoes off and walk in the hail until you find a nest of wasps. And then – in order for someone who is sick to get well – could you please sit on it slowly, describe how that feels and then send in your remarks.

I sat on the wasp’s nest. And a few months later my father came back to Wellington with eyes that were a different colour and a different personality. Where he had been unreliable but jovial, he was pensive and cold. I wanted him to have glassy, green, half-shut eyes again. And he did, less than a year later. He only got one shot at funded rehab.

When the debate about legalising weed comes up, I always sit back and watch the same arguments bubble up. Like clockwork, they always include someone smugly stating that weed isn’t even technically addictive.

But it is. Of course it is. Anything that numbs the things you want to numb can be devastatingly addictive for some people. And for my father, his need to get stoned five or six times a day removed any motivation or ability to parent me in a meaningful way.

Maybe surprisingly, that hasn’t turned me into the narrator from a Reefer Madness video. Instead, it’s made it startlingly clear that the misuse of weed isn’t something people do for fun. And it’s given me no empathy for people who, when faced with that realisation, favour carceral options that have always failed everyone involved.

I can’t quite marry the knowledge that a public referendum next year will decide our country’s drug policy, with a sharp understanding that if weed was legal – and its misuse was properly treated as a health issue – my life might have been different.

And the strangest part of the legalisation referendum and surrounding debate is that people seem more likely to support a legal, health-first approach based on the idea that weed isn’t harmful.

I hope that we vote to legalise weed in 2020, but I also hope people realise how bizarre it feels for families who have been affected by weed misuse and addiction to know that the general public – not drug policy experts or addiction researchers – get to decide whether their sick loved ones will continue to be viewed as criminals. And that throughout the debate they’ll be subjected to all sorts of op-eds ranging from how harmless weed is to how the world will end if we stop jailing weed addicts.

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As that still resilient 8-year-old, now in a 32 year old’s body, the knowledge that I didn’t have one of my parents around because of addiction doesn’t linger in my mind until I hear someone talk about how weed is perfectly harmless. When I hear that, and when I’m watching a show where someone struggles with addiction, I want to gently take out my sternum and put it next to me until that feeling of wanting to cry has eased and my chest feels normal again.

I guess in the next year or so I’m going to have that feeling a lot.

Read Danyl Mclauchlan on why a referendum is the wrong way to determine drug policy


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