The first time I tried to buy weed in Auckland, a small-scale drug dealer said he could hook me up with a tinnie. It was the first Kiwi custom I learned—tinnie: noun; a $20 gram of cannabis wrapped in tin foil.
I found the tinnie both adorable and puzzling. I love that New Zealand has that kind of price standardisation and insider stoner slang. The tinnie also seemed to signify a sort of apolitical weed in its simplicity and evenness across the board. I come from America, a country where, in some states, you can walk into the store and buy an ounce, and in others, be sent to jail for years for getting caught smoking. Our policies on weed and the multi-billion-dollar industry it has spawned are inconsistent, contradictory, and mostly rooted in decades of racist policing. American liberals tend to look to New Zealand as a model of woke governance, so it surprised me that the laws on marijuana didn’t seem as progressive, especially with smoking being so widespread. Here’s what I’ve learned:
Weed first came to New Zealand in the mid 19th-century. Starting in 1868, newspapers across the country advertised “Indian Cigarettes of Cannabis Indica” to ameliorate the symptoms of asthma, coughing, laryngitis, hoarseness, loss of voice, and insomnia.
These advertisements ran daily for a few decades, then disappeared around 1920. By the beginning of the 20th century, the United States and England had begun to pass legislation banning the use and sale of cannabis. New Zealand followed suit with the 1927 Dangerous Drugs Act, which introduced the first prohibitions on cannabis.
For a few decades, cannabis flew largely under the radar in New Zealand. By the 1960s, cannabis was drawing attention as a global problem: the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs was the first international treaty to control the use of the drug, and in 1969, the World Health Organisation urged a ban on cannabis, arguing that the drug was a risk to public health. The next major law in New Zealand regulating the use of cannabis came with the 1975 Misuse of Drugs Act, which categorised cannabis as a Class B or “very high risk of harm” along with morphine, MDMA, and opium among others.
While weed was legally prohibited, public and regulatory attitudes surrounding its use tended to be relaxed. Detective Superintendent G. Perry noted that while police will still prosecute those who grow and distribute marijuana, his priority was those dealing harder drugs. News reports from the time, though, note that police would often let offenders off with a warning. The courts, too, took a softer stance on enforcement, fining offenders as low as $35 for possession charges.
“The situation with cannabis could really be described as ‘de facto’ decriminalisation,” said Matthew, a small-scale cultivator to The Press in March 1982, “At present, people discovered with cannabis receive the same fines as a speeding motorist, and everyone speeds. It is just unlucky if you get caught.” Matthew noted the positive effects of smoking cannabis, including its ability to lessen the shackles of the bourgeois mentality and allow one to use one’s mind in a freer fashion.
Unfortunately for Canterbury-area growers like Matthew, the mid-80s saw a huge crackdown on cannabis cultivation. Using helicopter-bourne units and air force vehicles, police conducted aerial surveys of plantations and seized plants by the thousands. One particularly notable nation-wide raid in the summer of 1988 seized upwards of 80,000 plants and arrested 363 people.
A 1985 report on global narcotic use by the United Nations described the “illicit cultivation of cannabis” in New Zealand as “widespread”. The year before, a member of parliament representing Hauraki valued the cannabis industry in New Zealand at $302 million—more than twice the value of kiwifruit exports ($126 million) for the same year. In 1988, an article in the National Business Review argued that the seizure and destruction of New Zealand Green cannabis plants was not in the national interest, noting that the strain was selling internationally at high prices.
The pressure against towards legalisation built into the 90s and into the early 2000s, both in the form of student advocacy and small-scale demonstrations, as well as national political movements. In 1996, the Aotearoa Legalise Cannabis Party formed and won 1.6% of the party vote. Two candidates from that election would go on to become Green MPs. In the leadup to the 1999 election, the Green Party called for the legalisation of cannabis for possession and personal use.
In 2003, members of the University of Otago branch of NORML, the National Organisation for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, hotboxed the foyer of the Dunedin Central Police Station. The approximately 20 people who smoked cannabis inside the station were not arrested, nor were those who planted cannabis in the front garden. Police Inspector Dave Campbell told the Otago Times the force “had better things to do.”
In 2019, the Misuse of Drugs Act was amended to treat drug offences as health issues rather than criminal ones issues and affirmed police discretion in prosecuting possession charges. However, allowing police discretion to determine who is and who isn’t arrested for cannabis use has proved problematic. When people are arrested for cannabis possession, Maori are disproportionately represented in arrests, and often given harsher punishments. A 2003 study confirmed that the enforcement of cannabis laws was not applied equitably along racial lines. According to a 2021 report by the Prime Minister’s chief science adviser, Maori are three times more likely to be arrested for cannabis use than non-Maori. After the referendum to legalise cannabis failed, the Maori Council called on police to address the discrimination in cannabis arrests, and to use their discretion to stop sending Maori youth to jail for low-level drug crimes.
In 2021, police quietly stopped undertaking large-scale helicopter-based drug busts, with the Police National Headquarters cutting the $700,000 allocated annually to finding cannabis plots. But after just a year local forces resumed cannabis plot raids, just not on a national aerial scale. Green Party MP Chloe Swarbrick expressed disappointment in resuming the “wasteful and ineffective operations” to Stuff, arguing that since they began in the late 1970s they have not had a “notable dent” in cannabis consumption.
Opponents of increased policing also pointed out the discrepancy in targeting illegal cannabis while medical cannabis is legal and government funded. Last year, the Minister of Primary Industries awarded medical marijuana company, Puro, $13 million to develop a blueprint for the industry, stating that cannabis could be New Zealand’s next wine.
So why is cannabis illegal in a country where one can smoke in a police station with impunity? Why is a country that funds medical marijuana also funding raids on suspected growers? Seriously, I’m asking you guys.