A review of Weed: A New Zealand Story by James Borrowdale.
Ahead of the upcoming New Zealand referendum, I took it upon myself to challenge my preconceived notions about marijuana by understanding the arguments for and against legalisation, outside of the polarising views you often come up against in social circles. Borrowdale’s book seemed like a great place to start, with its wholly New Zealand focus on the drug – including its history in this country, the legislation affecting it, studies undertaken and the New Zealand environment.
MJ, marijuana, pot, hashish, Ganga, did you know that there are over 1,200 slang names for the plant scientifically known as cannabis? The number of names reflects the long and colourful history this plant has with the human race and the vast geographic regions it has traversed, often concealed in a pocket or a shoe. It can’t be precisely determined when the plant arrived on our shores – Borrowdale writes about a soon-to-be canonised Irish nun in the mid to late 1800s who was said to utilise the drug for medicinal purposes in her healing tinctures. But this can’t be verified, so really, it’s more of a cute anecdote about something that may or may not have happened, depending on which way you’re inclined to think.
What helps set the scene on New Zealand’s relationship with the infamous WEED, is that Borrowdale paints a detailed picture of how we came to the legal position that still exists today – that of prohibition.
The Dangerous Drugs Act was passed in 1927, and as Borrowdale explains, like many of our laws, it was a direct import from the United Kingdom, before there was any evidence of a large scale presence of the drug here. The Act is somewhat influenced too by the United States, which at the time had a well-established marijuana culture. The point Borrowdale makes is that overseas laws were founded not on any scientific studies on the health effects of the drug, but instead politics. And the legislation was put in place a long time ago, and we haven’t really revised or independently reviewed our reasons for the Act since then.
It was interesting to read that although societies around the world have used cannabis for hundreds if not thousands of years, only when strains of cannabis indica and sativa were cross-bred, that the active psychoactive compound THC reached never been seen before levels. So, although cannabis has been around for a long time, the level of psycho-activity was never as strong as the cannabis we find commonly being used today to induce a “high”. Borrowdale explains the science behind the chemical compounds in some detail.
Borrowdale then takes us through the more sordid history of New Zealand’s marijuana underworld, including the “Mr Asia” drug ring and how the drug came to be distributed heavily in New Zealand. As he points out, although the New Zealand police may not enforce the cannabis prohibition as stringently as they once did, as with most laws, enforcement applies inequitably. Borrowdale’s evidence shows that cannabis users who are male, Maori and who have had previous contact with the police are more likely to be arrested or convicted. Maori are also arrested and convicted at a rate three times higher than non-Maori.
Borrowdale takes us to meet some interesting characters throughout the book via his interviews and refutes the classic “no-hoper-dope-smoker” stereotype. Some of these characters are passionate politicians who have dedicated their lives to changing the law, which they view as out of date and out of touch with the social impacts of the drug in question. Others are 60-year-old grandmothers, active in helping the disenfranchised in their community.
The strongest thread in favour of legalisation is a common one, a heart-wrenching anecdote about a three-year-old boy suffering ongoing debilitating seizures. His mother procures CBD to manage and minimise those seizures. In mid-2017 restrictions around CBD were lifted, which meant that doctors could prescribe it; however, there is no provision for people to grow it themselves. It, therefore, remains prohibitively expensive and difficult for people to access medicinal marijuana through legal channels. This is usually the strongest argument in favour of legalisation. Borrowdale doesn’t canvas how better and cheaper access could be achieved in other ways without opening the floodgates.
Aside from this, there was nothing in the book that was a clear “home-run” argument in favour of legalisation. Still, I do take Borrowdale’s point that the law in this area is applied inconsistently and disproportionately against some of our most vulnerable members of society. By legalising cannabis, we give the power back to the people to make their own choice – just as we do with alcohol, which many think causes more harm than marijuana. I guess it comes back to personal preference as to whether you believe the state should prohibit a drug like marijuana, or whether you think we are all grown-ups (well those of us over the age of 18, in theory, anyway), and choose for ourselves.
Overall, this is a good read to understand the New Zealand cannabis landscape and consider the surrounding issues holistically. I do however question Borrowdale’s neutrality, getting the sense that he sits on the side of legalisation since he confesses to planting cannabis in the book.
Weed: A New Zealand Story