Cam McLaren

Into the weeds

We can’t decide what to call it—marijuana, dope, pot, grass, bud, green, hash, weed, devil’s lettuce, jazz cigarettes—or how to manage it. One thing is certain: cannabis is undergoing a radical image makeover.

Written by       Photographed by Cam McLaren

Something about lighting a bong in front of his young son makes Steve Wilson feel a bit weird about it all, but his solid German-made Volcano vaporiser is reassuringly mundane: more morning coffee than student party.

Wilson, 35, lives with his wife and three-year-old son in a quiet cul-de-sac in Nelson, on a hill tipping gently down to Tasman Bay. Every morning, he takes 20 minutes to read the newspaper and prepare the cannabis. The vaporiser creates a convective stream of hot air that heats the buds—recently, a variety called Granddaddy Purple—until the essential oils inside them boil, releasing steam, which fills a balloon.

Wilson inhales, and relief trickles through his body, silencing his damaged nerves. Years ago, he fractured a lumbar vertebra skateboarding, and then his humerus—the long bone in the upper arm—in a bicycle accident. He had two operations to fix his back and a third on his elbow, but now he suffers from central sensitisation syndrome, a type of neurological meltdown where nerves all over his body, particularly in his legs, keep firing, registering pain, numbness and weakness.

It feels as though he’s walking around wrapped in a tight blanket of needles, he says. Sometimes, it’s just his legs. Other times, it’s everywhere.

He also has no large intestine—it was removed due to ulcerative colitis, an inflammatory bowel disease. He has no gall bladder, because it turned gangrenous. He’s missing 10 centimetres of his small intestine, because it twisted inside him. The scar tissue left behind from his operations causes nerve problems, too.

Five times a day, the vaporiser eases the pain that Wilson’s other medication can’t reach. His son calls it “Daddy’s steam”, and when he wants to go outside to play, Wilson tells him to wait so he can have a bag of medicine, and then he’s able to go.

Seven surgeries left Steve Wilson with scar tissue and a neurological condition that causes his nerves to permanently register pain and numbness. “I wouldn’t wish on anyone what I walk through every day,” he says. He uses cannabis for pain relief and better mobility, and obtains it from an illicit source, as he isn’t eligible for the pharmaceutical products permitted by the Ministry of Health.

Cannabis doesn’t work for everything—morphine eases the ache from the screws in his elbow—but nothing else soothes his nerves. Wilson’s doctors are in favour of his drug use; his wife supports him, though his resultant forgetfulness can be maddening. His in-laws aren’t big fans, but then, they’ve seen him really bad only a handful of times.

“When you see your in-laws you’re on your best behaviour, and for a long time they didn’t understand how ill I was,” he says, “until I got kidney failure in their hallway.” He had gastroenteritis, and because he has no large intestine, he became dangerously dehydrated and his kidneys shut down.

He nearly died that time. He’s doing better these days, but without those balloons of steam in the morning, his body starts to shrivel, curling up at the edges like a drying leaf. His right leg begins to drag. His brain shuts down, and his nails begin to dig into his palms. By 11am, he is losing mobility, and he’s forced to lie down—to reset his body, to hide from the world. The landscapes and qualities of one’s pain are all-encompassing, and for just a few to witness.   

“There are maybe three people who I’ll let come over and hang out when I’m in a draggy-leg, can’t-function day—three who I’ll allow in that close,” he says. “It’s a very personal thing to be that debilitated, and if you’re sick, the last thing you want to be is that guy who’s always going, ‘My leg, my leg’. No one sees it, because it’s something you keep so personal—and because they don’t want to look.

“It’s an invisible illness, and if you’re someone who has chronic pain, 98 per cent of the time you appear fine to everyone else.”

Wilson’s dealer has a carefully selected client list, selling organic cannabis to a cancer patient, a person living with Aids, and Wilson, who pays $300 an ounce (about 30 grams) for a three-week supply—a cost of about $100 a week. Wilson would like to try Sativex, one of two synthetic-cannabis medications available in New Zealand, but he won’t bother applying. The criteria are strict, and his specialist has had four applications for other patients turned down, so there doesn’t seem much hope. There are active approvals for Sativex for just 51 New Zealanders, and four for the other drug, Tilray. Even if Wilson was approved, Sativex isn’t funded by Pharmac, and it costs about $400 a week—unrealistic for someone who’s sick.

So the cannabis it is, along with the electrical nerve-stimulation machine, the visits to the gym, the careful routines, the fistfuls of drugs—morphine, venlafaxine, paracetamol, ibuprofen—and Wilson’s “find of the century”, a massage chair from a nail salon that he bought on Trade Me for $15.

[Chapter Break]

So what are we to do in New Zealand, when someone in chronic pain, seeking only relief, is a criminal? What are we to do with cannabis, this illicit substance, this addictive poison, this medical breakthrough, this engine of the gang economy, this gift from God, this work of the devil, this tax boon waiting to happen, this benevolent plant that inspires such passionate advocates and detractors?

Medicinal and recreational cannabis—and their regulation—are arguably separate issues, but the stereotypes associated with the latter have affected the former.

Though many New Zealanders are quietly using cannabis to ease a range of medical conditions, New Zealand Drug Foundation executive director Ross Bell says there is a lack of long-term, pharmaceutical-grade research of medicinal cannabis use.

You’d forgive Rose Renton for stepping down from the spotlight after the very public death of her son, Alex, from a prolonged epileptic seizure in 2015. Instead, she fights on. Alex, 19, was the first person in New Zealand to be granted therapeutic cannabidiol oil, and Renton believes the “useful” plant should be an option for anyone who wants to ease a medical condition.

There are about 400 compounds within cannabis, including tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD), but little is known about their interaction.

“Researchers have tried to pull out different bits of cannabis—THC, CBD—to see how those work,” says Bell. “It could well be that it’s not about separating the different compounds—it could be that they all act together to deliver the benefits.”

In cannabis circles, this is known as the ‘entourage effect’. There’s no evidence for the theory that CBD in isolation offers the medicinal benefit while only THC delivers the high.

New Zealand has one of the higher drug-use rates in the world, and we like cannabis best. The most recent New Zealand Health Survey, published in 2015, showed that nearly half of all adults over the age of 15 have tried it, and about one in 10 people use it regularly—more men than women, and a higher proportion of Māori and those living in the most deprived areas of the country.

Nearly half of all users—42 per cent—said they used cannabis for medicinal purposes, with older people more likely to report medical rather than recreational use.

Meanwhile, the tide of public opinion is swelling in favour of medicinal cannabis. A landline phone survey of 1029 people conducted by the Drug Foundation in 2016 found that 79 per cent of respondents thought cannabis should be available for pain relief, and 82 per cent were in favour of making it available to the terminally ill.

Attitudes to recreational use are softening, too—64 per cent of respondents thought having a small amount of cannabis for personal use should be legal or decriminalised. (There’s a difference: decriminalisation means cannabis use would result in a penalty rather than a court date—not unlike getting a speeding ticket.) About a third of respondents—34 per cent—wanted prohibition to continue.

It was the first time a strong majority had been in favour of cannabis, says Bell. “I was surprised, but I think what’s happening is that people have seen that other countries are changing their cannabis laws and the world hasn’t fallen in.

“The second thing is that people see how pointless New Zealand’s drug law is. They see that cannabis use remains high, a whole lot of resources have gone into law enforcement, people aren’t able to get treatment, and the approach we’ve had for 40 years hasn’t had the desired effect.”

Maybe cannabis’s time is coming. The Misuse of Drugs Act 1975 is over the hill at age 40, the Law Commission supports drug reform, and so does Parliament’s health select committee. Even a chapter of Grey Power is in favour of medicinal cannabis.

Arguments for legalisation, or at least decriminalisation, say police spend a huge amount of time and resources enforcing prohibition, and this is true. A Drug Harm Index released in April 2016 found police spent roughly $90 million a year on cannabis-related “interventions”. The courts and justice system incurred another $109 million of costs.

Another argument says the green economy is a money-spinner that the public purse is missing out on. Police count the number of plants seized each year, calculating the value of each at $2450. In 2015, for instance, when 163,227 plants were confiscated, the value of the haul reached nearly $400 million—a figure that has stayed roughly static for the past decade.

A note prepared by the Treasury in 2013 estimated the potential tax revenue from the legal sale of cannabis at $150 million annually. Meanwhile, the Drug Harm Index estimated the GST take on a synthetic and natural cannabinoid market would be $68.3 million and company tax $145.8 million.

The Treasury note said reforming drug policy would save money, ease pressure on the justice sector and lead to fewer criminal convictions for youth and Māori: “Alcohol and tobacco are consistently found to be more harmful than some illegal drugs such as cannabis.”

Moreover, the note said evidence didn’t support the ‘gateway hypothesis’ that cannabis use leads to use of harder drugs, and criminal convictions didn’t act as a deterrent. According to the Christchurch Health and Development Study, which has followed the progress of 1265 people since they were born in the city in mid-1977, about six per cent of cannabis users come to police attention, and of those prosecuted, 95 per cent continued or increased their use. Though Māori comprise 15 per cent of the population, they receive almost half of all convictions for cannabis.

On the other hand, countries such as Denmark, Germany and Portugal and parts of Australia and the United States have decriminalised cannabis possession. “Their experiences have been positive and don’t seem to have increased drug use,” the Treasury’s note said. “Drug reform isn’t a particularly radical idea these days.”

Though written in 2013, the note was intended for internal purposes only. It came to light in 2016 when it was released under the Official Information Act to Nelson lawyer Sue Grey, a campaigner for cannabis reform.

When Grey and fellow campaigner Rose Renton delivered a medicinal cannabis petition to Parliament in April, the Ministry of Health said it had made some changes to policy but opposed wider medicinal use  because there wasn’t enough evidence to support it.

[Chapter Break]

Meanwhile, the war wages doggedly on. On a Friday morning in late summer, somewhere above the Bay of Plenty, a Cessna 172 drones overhead in tight circles, its shadow rippling across the hillside as the police spotter reports cannabis sightings to the convoy of utes below.

The vehicles roll through a small, peeling village, officers smiling at the clamorous kids on scooters, raising a finger from the steering wheel at sullen teens, ignoring the gestures pulled at the last, daring second. Toddlers point and squeal, and a motorcycle engine rips through the still, muggy air. Off to his patch before the plane sees it.

And it probably will, because the spotter is extraordinary—keen eyes, iron stomach. He directs the police to a patch of cannabis on a property down a lonely road, and the convoy stops outside what looks like an abandoned farmhouse.

Last year, 27-year-old Rhys Warren shot four police officers near Kawerau on a routine cannabis operation like this one. He seriously injured one person, and someone took potshots at the spotter plane, too. So this year, there are four armed offenders squad (AOS) members in attendance, their all-black uniforms, Bushmaster M4 rifles and Glock pistols a heavy presence, dampening any trouble before it starts.

The officers hitch their legs over a fence and inspect the house, but all is quiet: no curtains twitch, no back doors slam. They search the fields for what the spotter has seen from high above, and the AOS fan out behind, stepping carefully through the squelchy grass, until they find them—four bright-green, knee-high plants growing in a clutch of gorse above a small creek. Their sweet, pungent odour hangs like a cloud about them. A police officer pulls out his machete.

This happens every year around New Zealand: sightings by plane, recovery by road, a helicopter spraying blue-dyed Roundup on the rest. Where there’s cannabis, there’s cash, firearms, harder drugs, and stolen property, say police: it’s not just the cannabis that’s the problem, but all the other offending that goes along with it. Since the Criminal Proceeds (Recovery) Act came into force in 2009, forfeitures of assets related to cannabis offending have totalled $25.85 million, along with $1.37 million in cash.

For police, cutting down or pulling out budding cannabis plants by hand is hot, sticky work. Dense crops give off an odour potent enough to cause headaches, and the resin is hard to remove from skin. Sometimes, police will return to the same patches or properties year after year.

Police calculate the impact of cannabis on a per-plant basis. Based on this, last year’s six-month national cannabis and crime operation, which gathered 132,000 plants and 92 kilograms of dried material, prevented more than $500 million of socioeconomic harm. (New Zealand’s total alcohol and drug use harm is estimated at $6.5 billion a year.)

Codenamed “Operation Dee”, it also saw 572 people arrested and four P labs discovered and resulted in a haul of other contraband: 173 firearms, more than $300,000 in stolen property, four P labs, a kilo of P, 195 Ecstasy tabs, 633 LSD tabs and 56 morphine sulphate tabs.

Detective Superintendent Tim Anderson, national manager of criminal investigations, says police are trialling new ways of tackling drug harm, such as a “prevention ethos”. This involves targeting suppliers and offering assistance to low-level users.

“It’s about trying to help them get off the drug,” he says.

Assistance depends on what’s available in the area. For someone in Auckland it may be a drug treatment programme, but out in the backblocks, it may just be the government-funded 24/7 Alcohol and Drug Helpline, or a referral to a public health service, social agency, non-profit organisation or counsellor. Anderson couldn’t say how many referrals have been taken up, or the results.

“The police officers on the front line know the agencies in their patch and they’ll refer them to drug treatment centres, counsellors, or people of that therapeutic nature to have a meeting—if people want that assistance, and not everyone does,” he says.

Prosecution depends on the nature of the cannabis operation—if it’s eradication and removal, the focus of the police is on preventing cannabis reaching the marketplace, rather than arresting people. Especially when it’s not always easy to prove who owns the plants.

“If you were to start investigating each and every plant you probably wouldn’t get that far,” says Anderson. “The ultimate aim is preventing the harm on individuals of any illicit drug. We know we can’t arrest our way out of what you’d call a social problem.”

[Chapter Break]

The spotter has seen another patch, this time out the back of a house next to a forestry block. The utes roll up and park in a patch of weeds. They’re greeted by barking dogs and resigned looks from the half-dozen people who emerge from the house. It doesn’t take long to find the cannabis.

The officers are brisk and good-natured in their tidy blue coveralls. Gidday, we’re here for the plants, don’t muck us around please, name and address, carry on. No guns blazing, though if someone wants to be a dick, well…

“Whose plants are these?” an officer asks.

“Yep, they’re my ones,” says a man—older, with collapsed cheeks, and a little round belly under his grey t-shirt.

“Any others on the property?”

The police slash 16 good-sized plants, find more drying in the garage, and stuff it all in the back of the ute.

“Well, we’re not going to leave it here for you, are we?” jokes one officer.

The people stand by and mumble their names and addresses, arms crossed.

With big money to be made. home-grown cannabis operations can range from a bucket in the bedroom to complex and expensive setups. In 2011, more than 400 cannabis plants were discovered in three shipping containers at a home in Whareora, near Whangarei—but only one container was visible. The two others were buried underground.

It’s a Sisyphean exercise. Everyone’s been here before. Nothing will happen to these people. Their names and addresses are taken to gather statistics, but they won’t be fined, prosecuted or referred to addiction services. Some people have been growing in the same place for 20 years, but there is no next step for them—until the plane spots the fresh bright green of the plants next year.

One young guy, black t-shirt, red cap, had only just turned up to visit before the police arrive.

“Bad timing, eh?” says one of the officers, and the man agrees with a grin. The officer dusts off his gloves. “See yous next time.”

“Yeah, I hope not,” someone replies.

The dog chases the utes down the driveway.

At the next lonely property, the police hit the jackpot.

“Here’s cannabis country if ever I saw it,” says an officer as we drive up the road into the heart of the valley. “North facing, low hills, accessible with minimal effort.”

The property is on top of a hill, drenched in sun, with a 360-degree view of the surrounding farmland. The garden is well tended; rich, dark soil freshly weeded and raked under the passionfruit vines, a heaving peach tree, and a clump of cannabis. Out it comes, while the plane reports there are stacks more down the valley. A young family emerge from the house, the toddler chattering.

“Who’s the householder?” an officer asks.

“Mum,” the man says.

“Where is she?”

She’s crook, on her way back from the hospital, after having a shadow on her lungs investigated. It’s been tough, says the man—two family members recently passed away. They don’t know anything about the cannabis; they’re visiting from overseas, and the 18-year-old nephew looks after the place. “Ah,” says the officer.

The police are striding to and fro, stacking up piles of weed, and the man jokes to them: “Hey, you want me to drop those off at the station for you?”

“Yeah, nah,” says one of the officers, dumping another armload.

Near the house there’s a shack so run-down it looks abandoned, and in the garden, more than 100 plants are growing rampant through the silverbeet and pumpkins, some staked down in an attempt to evade detection. The air around them is pungent enough to give you a headache. Another line of plants is settled below a nearby ridge.

It takes a good hour to slash and count them all, and the utes are stuffed to the brim by the end. Fragrant air, skin sticky from resin.

No arrests today. But it’s a good day’s work, the police agree, slamming the back door of the ute, where someone’s drawn a smiley face in the dust with a finger.

[Chapter Break]

In a way, the question of cannabis is already being answered here in the backblocks, with police taking on a job for which the government has no appetite.

“To some degree, cannabis has been decriminalised by stealth,” says gang researcher and sociologist Jarrod Gilbert. “In so many ways, people would see that as a welcome development because it’s probably in line with public views, but that’s a cowardly way out for politicians who should be addressing this full-on.

“Laws are there to be created, abolished or amended by politicians, and they’re not doing that—they’re tiptoeing around it.”

In this district, police aren’t prosecuting people for growing or possessing smaller amounts of cannabis, and that lowers the stakes of the searches. The plants are what’s illegal; the plants are what the law says are doing harm; the plants are all the police are after.

More than 600 felled, and there’s one last stop. Down the road, the spotter has somehow seen some plants through a green shadecloth roof in a garden, next to a pigpen, and an officer squelches through the mud towards them. A young man and woman emerge from the house.

“What’s going on?” asks the man.

“Cannabis search,” the officer says.

“No! Where?”

“Beside your pigpen.”

“They’re not ours—”

“I’m not interested,” says the officer. “We’re just going to take them and go.”

“Sweet! Too much!” says the man.

The couple head back into the house. No confrontation, no arrests, no drama.

“Changes things, doesn’t it?” an officer says to me.

He edges past the scolding rooster and oozing slop and pulls out a cannabis plant by the roots. It’s a beauty, green darkening to purple, the head heavy with bud as long as a forearm. He takes his machete from its black leather sheath, lays the plant on an old fence post, and whacks its top off.

[Chapter Break]

Louise* grows cannabis in her suburban backyard, and her cat just loves it. Always has. Once, she sprouted her own seedlings on a heat pad in a cupboard, and went in to find the cat had nibbled all the tops off. The cat was fine, but the plants suffered a bit.

Nothing else has grown well in her vegetable patch all summer—except for those tall stems, nodding in the sun. Their feet among the strawberries, their shoulders in the sunflowers, their heads giving off such a stink you can taste it, and it seems like the air should glow and haze around them.

Louise likes to come out and look at them in the evening. They’re beautiful, she says—but she still hides them among the cornstalks. The neighbours are nosy.

A bird-like woman who speaks rapidly, she takes cannabis to help her unwind from a stressful job, the way her neighbour might have a glass of wine.

“It slows me down and makes me sit, and takes my mind right off that work stuff.”

She’s smoked for years, but now she’s concerned about her lungs, so she makes her own edibles. That increases the stakes: the plants are a Class C drug, or ‘moderate risk’, while cannabis oil and cookies are Class B, or ‘high risk’.

She feels for people of her age and older, who struggle with illness and the side effects of treatment, and can’t, or won’t, use cannabis. She knows of someone whose father, strictly opposed to drugs, was struggling with severe pain from cancer. One of the children brought over special brownies to ease his suffering and didn’t tell dad until afterwards. That’s wrong on one level, she says, but the greatest kindness on another.

“It’s just interesting the son couldn’t have that conversation with him up front,” she says.

“I believe, with the lifestyle I have, it doesn’t interfere with me at all, and people wouldn’t know that I was on cannabis.”

She is not alone in that belief. The New Zealand Health Survey found that more than a third of cannabis users partake at least weekly, and most of them—87 per cent—are free of concerns about their use. Seven per cent reported that others had expressed concern or had suggested cutting down within the previous year.

Water pipes, desktop and portable vaporisers, and digital vapes line the shelves at The Hemp Store in Auckland. Cannabis activists say New Zealand is missing out on lucrative income via the taxation of a legal cannabis industry.

About one per cent had received help to reduce their level of drug use, and eight per cent reported a time when cannabis use had had a harmful effect on their mental health. Younger users, aged 25–34, were most likely to report harm to mental health, but this decreased markedly for people over 55.

As for what amount is safe, that remains a question. There are no official guidelines in New Zealand, but attempts have been made elsewhere to create advice.

A group, comprised partly of heavy cannabis users who wanted to minimise harm, met in the New South Wales town of Nimbin in 2009 to answer the question of how much was too much. Doctor and drug reform advocate Alex Wodak later summarised the meeting, writing that abstinence was the lowest risk, but the guidelines recognised that people would use the drug regardless.

“Social cannabis users are recommended to consume cannabis only moderately, that is for five days a week or less, trying to keep at least two days each week cannabis-free.Cannabis smokers are advised to not exceed four joints a day.”

Canada released public health guidelines for safe cannabis use in 2011, after a study revealed more than one in 10 Canadian adults and about one in three young people aged 16–25 had used cannabis in the previous year.

The study concluded that the burden of disease and dangers associated with cannabis use—cancers, mental health problems, addiction—could be reduced markedly if people delayed using cannabis until the age of 18, avoided daily or near-daily use, attempted to stop if they had difficulty controlling it, used vaporisers rather than joints, blunts or pipes, were careful of THC content, limited intake to the minimum, and avoided driving for several hours after use.

Canada’s guidelines also recommend some people abstain completely, such as pregnant women, middle-aged or older men with heart problems, and people with a history of psychosis or a first-degree relative with a history of psychosis. Their findings matched other similar efforts internationally.

It’s a more mature attitude towards drug use—one lacking in New Zealand, which already struggles with a free-for-all attitude towards alcohol.

Smoking ‘spots’ or ‘dots’ is a way of rationing cannabis. Two knives are heated up and then a small ball or ‘spot’ of marijuana is pressed between the blades. The smoke is inhaled immediately through a funnel.

There’s a significant association between cannabis use and psychotic illness, as the Canadian study highlighted. A four-year study of 2500 cannabis users aged 14–24, published in the British Medical Journal in 2005, revealed that users who were predisposed to psychosis had four times the risk of developing the disorder compared with non-users, while users without a predisposition to psychosis had a six per cent increased risk.

The study also found that predisposition for psychosis didn’t predict cannabis use, weakening the ‘self-medication’ argument made by cannabis supporters that people start using it to relieve early psychotic symptoms.

Another study published in the BMJ found those who start cannabis younger and use it more heavily are at greater risk of developing mental health problems, and of the drug harming their development, achievement and behaviour. For those with mental illness, it added, the more they used the drug, the worse they got. (The Drug Foundation recommends people with a family history of mental illness avoid cannabis entirely.)

In 2011, summarising 83 studies, the Journal of the American Medical Association reported evidence of a relationship between cannabis use and earlier onset of psychotic illness. Cannabis seemed to play a causal role in the development of psychosis in some people, and moreover, the age at onset of psychosis for cannabis users was 2.7 years younger than non-users.

[Chapter Break]

Kate Kennedy is one who nearly lost her mind, and her life, to the drug.

She started smoking cannabis when she 14, in the most timeless way possible: parents out, incense burning, Pink Floyd on the stereo. She liked how it elevated her from being the mayor’s daughter in a small South Island town to part of the cooler, older crowd. But it wasn’t until she was 24 that a breakup, work stress and a life crisis plunged her into an alcohol and cannabis binge that ended in a psychotic episode. She remembers the feeling of her mind splitting apart.

“I completely broke with reality for a time,” she says. “I didn’t really know what was happening.”

She stopped smoking and went to Narcotics Anonymous (NA), quitting her daily habit abruptly. But that caused further problems: depression, insomnia and severe anxiety. Her cat began to talk to her. She believed the letters on Wheel of Fortune were offering her important, eternal truths. She made plans to kill herself.

Nine months later, she was admitted to Ngawhatu, a Nelson psychiatric hospital.

“While I was there, I was amazed at how many other people in the hospital were in after they’d been smoking lots of pot and something really bad had happened, similar to what had happened to me,” she says. “It blew me away, because I’d always been under the impression it was fairly harmless and everyone was doing it.

“I’d been smoking it every night after work and still getting up and functioning as a regular human being during the daytime, and I had no idea it could have this effect.”

But Kennedy couldn’t stay clean. She loved being stoned. Released from Ngawhatu, she drifted towards a new crowd of friends and started smoking again, cocktailing it with her new supply of Prozac. But another psychiatric break soon came—a bipolar high that saw her hitch to Auckland, where she stayed awake for several days, causing havoc. Police escorted her back to Nelson, where she was detained in hospital under the Mental Health Act and put into seclusion.

“Everyone in the cannabis movement is exhausted,” says Angela Gardiner, acting manager of Dunedin’s Whakamana Cannabis Museum. “We’re angry because all the information is out there and politics get in the way.” Gardiner has trigeminal neuralgia, one of the most painful afflictions known to medicine. She uses cannabis to manage her pain and the side effects of medication: “If you’re sick, you don’t need to worry about getting busted, too.”

When Kennedy got out, she continued to smoke at what she thought was a maintenance level, and went on medication to keep some of the psychiatric symptoms at bay. Soon, she lapsed into severe depression, spiked with anger.

Her family intervened one summer holiday after she threw a tantrum—and a mallet—while putting up a tent. Her years of addiction had been tough on her family, and they told her they were sick of it, and that they’d lost her.

“I had to totally admit to myself that I was completely beaten,” she says, “that I’d tried using every which way and it seemed like no matter what I did I always got to this place where the drug owned me.

“I craved it. I would do anything to get it, I put myself in a lot of really risky situations, I did crazy shit like driving from Motueka to Christchurch in the middle of the night because my dealer didn’t have any.”

She was 33. She returned to NA, going to meetings up to five times a week, and faced the realisation that she could never pick up a joint again. She hasn’t. In May, she celebrated her 50th birthday: “It’s a miracle to me that I got here at all.”

The problem, she says, is that people don’t feel they can reach their full potential.

“The solutions lie not in prison sentences, but in constructive ways of reconnecting people to the greater whole, and creating a society that people want to be a functioning part of.”

She doesn’t think legalising cannabis is going to do that—she knows how hard it is to go clean. “I got up in the morning and I would hand my life over to the great unknown and I would say, ‘Help me get through the day without picking up a joint’. And the desire slowly left me.

“Now it’s over,” she says, relieved and joyful. “The rollercoaster is over.”

[Chapter Break]

In the wake of law changes internationally, sick people and their advocates say New Zealand is still in the dark ages, that its treatment of suffering citizens is inhumane.

Meanwhile, Steve Wilson breathes in his steam five times a day and battles on, coaxing his body into a semblance of normality. Winter makes the pain worse.

But what would he have done if his dealer was busted over the summer? Wilson, normally affable and chatty, is speechless as he considers the question.

“I would be a much worse dad,” he says, finally. “I don’t know what I would do. I would function less well as a human being. I would go from being someone with a disability who can contribute, to a lump on the couch.

“My treatment options are dictated by someone who’s got no idea what they’re talking about,” he adds. “I don’t think you could show my friend having a violent 45-minute seizure to any politician against medicinal cannabis and have them say what they’re doing is right.”

Recently, Wilson stopped hiding his Volcano vaporiser when his in-laws visited. They’d seen him nearly die from kidney failure; now, he decided, they’d have to accept the realities of his daily life as well. How cannabis is what keeps him out of bed and functioning as a taxpayer, a husband, and a father.

These days, the Volcano lives on the computer desk in the living room, rather than concealed in the garage.

“When it was in there, I would limp down the stairs and walk back up,” he says. “It’s that simple.”

He’d prefer to take it in a form that is cheaper, regulated, dosed, and legal, like all the opioids he’s prescribed. But he can’t.

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