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SocietyJuly 31, 2020

Think we’re no longer criminalising people for using cannabis? Think again

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images

Those who oppose cannabis law reform often argue that people are already avoiding arrest for possession of minor amounts of the drug. That’s not the reality for thousands of cannabis users every year, reports Madeleine Holden.

“You have no idea what it’s like, how powerless you are.”

Greg, a 61-year-old invalids’ beneficiary, is recalling his time spent in prison for cannabis convictions. “You can’t even go through a gate until it’s unlocked for you,” he explains. “Everything takes so long, you’ve got to fill out countless forms and wait for things and half the time they never bloody happen. The whole thing’s a real test.”

Since he was first busted at the age of 19, Greg’s been in and out of the criminal justice system for cannabis possession and small-scale cultivation. He’s received the full gamut of available punishments over the years, from fines to prison sentences, and he recently completed six months of home detention for growing just two cannabis plants — something that would have been legal under the proposed law change. “That was harder than being in jail in a lot of ways,” he says. “I couldn’t even get to the letterbox without permission. You get really frustrated, you want to just whip up to the dairy to get something and you can’t. In jail you don’t think about leaving, because you can’t! You just can’t.”

But prison was clearly no picnic, either. Greg says that he’s been beaten up a few times and that when you’re inside, the threat of violence is constant. And even though he was placed in a minimum security facility, he found himself housed alongside men serving the tail end of long sentences for horrifically violent crimes. One neighbour “raped and murdered a couple of little girls,” he says, and when asked how it felt to be lumped in with him for growing a few cannabis plants, he scoffs mirthlessly. “You don’t put your mind there,” he says. “You just don’t go down that line.”


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In a recent discussion about the upcoming cannabis referendum on Breakfast, National MP Paula Bennett emphatically insisted that “we’re not criminalising people” for cannabis. “That’s just where the misinformation is doing a discredit,” she said. “We’re still able to go out there and say that everyone’s being criminalised and police time’s being taken up with it, and that is not true.” She referred to the Misuse of Drugs Amendment Bill, saying “you changed the laws about 12 or 18 months ago where the police have such huge discretion and they’re not actually arresting now.”

But the police are, in fact, very much still arresting. In 2019, there were 5,740 charges for cannabis offences, 59% of which were for possession/use, and according to an investigation by Derek Cheng in the New Zealand Herald, the Misuse of Drugs Amendment Bill “has had hardly any impact, leading the Drug Foundation to describe the law changes as “a complete failure”. Māori continue to be disproportionately impacted by the criminalisation of cannabis.

Criminal law practitioner Lincoln Burns, who works as a duty lawyer in Auckland, says that while it’s true that it’s become “increasingly rare” in recent years for people to be arrested solely for the possession of very small amounts of cannabis — a teenager caught smoking a joint out in Auckland’s CBD, say — he says that cultivation, including “relatively small scale” cultivation, “still seems to be something that the police take a significant interest in”, and that if a person “has a lot of dried cannabis, approaching an ounce or something, the police are still prosecuting”. (There is a legal presumption that an ounce of cannabis will be for the purposes of supply, a presumption totally out of step with reality for many cannabis users, who Burns says will frequently “buy in the ounce for their personal use”.)

All of this makes Bennett’s selective focus on the lenience afforded to people found with very small amounts of cannabis misleading, given that thousands of people are suffering from the effects of criminalisation. In reality, too, there aren’t bright lines between cultivation for personal use and commercial cultivation, or between use and supply. “In the old days when I started growing, it was sort of a ‘peace, love and mung beans’ stage in the late ’70s, and you’d grow a plant and put an extra one in for your mate in case he can’t or his one fails,” Greg explains. “That was sort of your motto. And I mean, we’d sell it but we’d sell it for fuck all in those days. You didn’t even try to get anything for it, you’d just cover your gas getting to and from the place.”

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Those who are unlucky enough to be convicted for the possession or cultivation of a drug that around 80% of New Zealanders have tried can have their entire lives seriously derailed. “I think drug convictions have their own stigma,” Burns says. “It inevitably has an effect, whether you’re travelling and might not be able to get through the border of particular countries, but also even for a possession conviction for cannabis, people are worried about what that might mean for their employment prospects.”

Greg understands these fears well, given that his own employment prospects never recovered after his first cannabis conviction at 19. Forced to resign from his job as an office clerk for a government department, his criminal record meant that he struggled to find subsequent work. “Pretty much any time anyone found out I had a record that was it, the job would just disappear and in three or four weeks’ time,” he explains. “They didn’t have anymore work for you, you know what I mean? That’s how it just always went.”

This lack of legitimate employment options meant that, perversely, Greg became locked into a life of small-scale commercial cannabis cultivation; so desperate was he to ensure that he could provide for his partner and two young children. “I started selling pot to make ends meet,” he says. “You’ve got the kids and you want to give them all the nice things, so you do it to make a bit of extra money.” These days, Greg’s cannabis convictions prevent him from travelling to visit those same kids, who are now adults living in Australia along with Greg’s four young grandchildren, who he also can’t see.

The financial cost has been enormous, too. Greg’s paid thousands of dollars in fines and estimates that “it would be two or three hundred thousand easy that the government’s paid for [in legal aid] over the years”. His elderly mother, who he lives with, has also contributed about $60,000 in private legal fees.

Despite all this, Greg can’t see himself giving up cannabis, in part because it helps him with the physical pain associated with growing older. “Christ, yeah, I get a lot of pain,” he says. “Every injury from the past comes back to haunt you, believe me. But [cannabis] is a good painkiller, it’s sort of like you forget that it hurts.”

Greg is jovial and speaks without bitterness about his experiences with the criminal justice system, but at times you can tell the unfairness gets to him. “If I grow some pot plants and smoke them, I’m committing all these crimes, but I haven’t affected anyone,” he says. “No one’s been harmed whatsoever by my actions. I don’t even contribute to the drug world, because I grow my own pot and smoke it.”

Criminalisation strikes Greg as an enormous waste, not only of police time and taxpayer money, but of the human potential of people saddled with convictions. He says he “sincerely hopes” that cannabis is legalised in September’s referendum, not so much for his own sake —”I’m an old bugger, I’m well past it all” — but because he worries about the impact of criminalisation on young people.

And, in his view, prohibition simply doesn’t work. “This is something that really gets me,” he says, becoming animated. “We’ve had prohibition for what, 80 years or something? It hasn’t worked yet, and every year they say they’re losing the battle. So why would you fail 80 times in a row, without trying something different? What’s different this year?”

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