The risk of growing cannabis is obvious. Gandalf has been busted for cultivation three times. Photo / Jason Hosking
Multiple New Zealand groups have urged the Government to follow in the footsteps of United States president Joe Biden and pardon marijuana use and possession convictions.
In part two of the series, Jaime Lyth investigates
what a pardon of cannabis convictions could mean for Northlanders.
Even though medicinal cannabis is legal, many Northlanders are still turning to the black market for weed for their illnesses and pain.
But a local addiction service thinks cannabis usage has become so normalised in Northland that the general population is uninformed about its harms.
Gandalf is a “green fairy” living in Northland, someone who grows medicinal cannabis for the unregulated, illegal market.
Medicinal cannabis is legal and any doctor in New Zealand can prescribe cannabis – but many don’t – so a number of cannabis-focused doctors have services online.
To buy it legally it has to come from offshore and once the cost of the doctor’s consultation is factored in it comes to about double the street price – about $400 for 10 grams of cannabis, the NZ Herald reported.
“I’m doing my best to fill a massive hole, where the legal side of medicinal cannabis is failing big time. It’s too expensive. It’s not a very good product,” Gandalf said.
Gandalf has been the subject of aerial cannabis raids and one time had a dozen police officers with guns surround him. But even that hasn’t deterred him.
“It’s an all-over feeling of dread and stress, and basically, your first thoughts are f***’s sake, why do they bother with this?”.
Gandalf spent eight weeks in jail in Auckland and four weeks in home detention in Wellington – a far cry from his home in the Far North, which was deemed too remote for detention.
Most of Gandalf’s customers are older than he is and most are dealing with various kinds of pain, some are cancer patients.
“They give me a call and… say this is the first time in 10 or 30 years that they’ve been pain-free,” he said.
“It’s changed their lives. One who suffers from Parkinson’s can actually drink a cup of tea without spilling it all over themself.”
Northland’s population is made up of two groups whose cannabis usage is increasing – older people and people with disabilities.
Cannabis usage in the past year grew from 1.7 per cent to 4 per cent in 2020/21 in those aged 65-74, the fastest-growing group according to the Ministry of Health.
People with disabilities are also 2.76 times more likely to use cannabis weekly than those without, according to the NZ Drug Foundation.
Health body Te Whatu Ora said questions about the risks and benefits of a cannabis conviction pardon “are best directed to the NZ Drug Foundation”.
“The benefit of treating cannabis as a health issue rather than a legal issue is that it allows the person to engage in treatment that can address any medical issues, family/whānau issues, spiritual needs and psychosocial issues,” Te Whatu Ora Te Tai Tokerau acting district director Ian McKenzie said.
Treating those who present with cannabis-related issues is as common in Northland as it is throughout New Zealand, McKenzie said.
“Often those who present with cannabis-related issues do so in combination with other additional co-existing substance issues and co-existing mental health issues,” McKenzie said.
Whangārei Salvation Army Bridge director Richard Dick said not many people seek support for cannabis usage because the psychological harms aren’t publicly known.
“[People are] often referred for predominantly alcohol and meth use… then it becomes apparent that cannabis is also a problem,” Dick said.
“One of the pitfalls of cannabis is people don’t really want to stop using it because they don’t think that it’s a problematic substance or they don’t see that they have a problem.”
In areas of high deprivation like Northland, Dick said this mindset can be detrimental.
“… as soon as you start talking to people about it like, well, how much do you spend on it? People spend a lot of money on it. So, there’s a financial loss to families and I think that’s a huge part of what happens in Northland.”
Dick doesn’t think a cannabis pardon would change much for addiction services in Northland, and efforts would be better spent on cannabis education.
“Wiping convictions would help in a small way, but… the combination of high cannabis prices in a high-deprivation area is still going to cause problems for people.”
An evaluation of the Salvation Army’s Bridge found when participants were asked, “Overall, how close are you to where you want to be in your recovery?”, 74.5 per cent of participants responded with a seven or above score out of 10.
Meanwhile, around 70 per cent of people with previous convictions are re-convicted within two years following release from prison, according to the Ministry of Justice.
“I think this current model we’re using is just simply not working,” Whangārei criminal defence lawyer Arthur Fairley said of drug laws.
“It’s ridiculous. We all know that if you send anyone to jail, the recidivist rate is (high). How many are cured? Most aren’t.”
The Ministry of Justice says around 49 per cent of ex-convicts are re-imprisoned after two years, following release from prison.
“What we’re trying to do is effectively arrest our way out of addiction,” Fairley said.
“But at least from the rehab houses, I think (more) are cured, so why wouldn’t the Government put all your money into the rehab houses rather than the jail? That’s making sense,” Fairley said.
Read part one here: The debate for pardoning cannabis convictions.