Sending out marijuana smoke signals

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An estimated 400,000 Kiwis smoke cannabis despite it being illegal. With the Act Party calling for it to be decriminalised, Carly Gibbs looks at the debate for and against marijuana.

After taking a drag, holding it and exhaling, grey smoke builds and weaves its way into the lungs, and a feeling of relaxation takes over.

For Tom Moss, a cannabis smoker, a feeling of creativity also sets in.

From his blue and white bus, Moss creates art when he's stoned.

But there's no thick pinch of pot packed into a bong today.

The travelling Mount Maunganui artist is on probation for possessing and cultivating cannabis and says he's upset at being deemed a criminal when he's harming no one but himself.

With a crown of untamed gold dreadlocks, and wearing skate shoes and jeans, he's the first to admit he fits the stereotypical "stoner" image.<inline type="recurring-inline" id="1003" align="outside" enforce-sites="no" />

But Moss is quick to point out he's no fool and smoking cannabis is a lifestyle choice.

Like thousands of New Zealand teenagers, the now 36-year-old stumbled across cannabis at an early age. He was 15 when he first smoked dope, sparking up a joint with a mate.

Twenty years on it's as habitual as waking up to a morning cup of coffee, but he says he's not addicted and can take it or leave it.

Moss is supportive of Act Party leader Don Brash's call to see cannabis decriminalised. Dr Brash says too much valuable police time is spent enforcing a law that is flouted by about 400,000 people a year.

It helps the creativity

Moss chooses to smoke pot because it helps fuel his "creative fires".

He smokes cannabis through a water bong, "billy", or joints - and if finances allow will puff his way through $80 a week. He says this equates to about two joints a day.

"When I was inside [Waikeria Prison for three months] I didn't miss it. I choose to smoke it," he says from inside his travelling home.

"I'm constantly working at my own projects. In jail I found I had all this time on my hands and I wanted to write scripts for my next production, but I found I couldn't come up with funny lines or be spontaneous - it blew me backwards. There was just nothing there, so it helps the creativity very much."

Moss is a tattoo artist but also makes jewellery, plaster sculptures, is a carver, and does animation which he posts on YouTube. He says he's able to speak freely about his habit, because he's not answerable to an employer.

"I know a lot of professional people that have to look a certain way and they're going through a lot of bottles of Clear Eyes ... It's here and I don't think it's going anywhere."

Health experts will tell you Moss is right. Legal or not, cannabis is a big part of Kiwi culture.

David Benton, who has 21 years' experience in drug and alcohol rehabilitation in New Zealand and the United States, says marijuana is widely used in the Western Bay.

Of 580 clients who went through Tauranga's Hanmer Clinic, an outpatient drug and alcohol rehabilitation centre, 82 per cent had alcohol dependence, 48 per cent had cannabis dependence, and 12.7 per cent had stimulant dependence.

The figures, taken over a five to six-year period, overlap because many clients have "poly-addiction".

Clinic director Benton says that according to the 2007/08 New Zealand Alcohol and Drug Use Survey, 46 per cent of Kiwis have tried marijuana in their lifetime, and 15 per cent of adults aged 16 to 64 have used cannabis in the past 12 months.

He says it's about time cannabis hit the spotlight.

"On one hand we're making noises about eliminating cigarettes in New Zealand but on the other hand we're talking about legalising a drug more harmful than nicotine. It's nonsensical," he says.

Benton says a study by Otago University showed marijuana to be more carcinogenic than nicotine. Nicotine is the leading cause of drug-related death in New Zealand, with alcohol a close second. New Zealand still has more people addicted to alcohol than marijuana.

Why do they smoke?

Well, aside from enjoyment, a group of cannabis users told Bay of Plenty Times Weekend the drug was used for medical purposes.

***

Reform supporter Billy McKee says tolerance of medicinal cannabis may well provide the message to young people that it is a medicine instead of the illusion of the blind rebellion it reaps.

The 57-year-old says patients who are using cannabis medicinally at the moment are being put under more stress than their physical condition already creates.

McKee, who is director of medicinal cannabis organisation GreenCross, was hit by a drink driver at age 20. He lost his right leg and has suffered nerve damage and other significant physical pain since. Emotionally, he also struggles.

"I'm pretty much buggered and have contemplated suicide. Cannabis helps me to sleep and helps me with [my] depression. When I haven't smoked it for a while, I get depressed and moody."

He says his GP supports his choice.

McKee "medicates" three times a day by smoking a pea-sized piece of cannabis in a pipe. "The size of a small pea gives three inhalations."

When he has a sufficient amount of cannabis he uses it as a poultice for his nerve damage. He will tape four or five grams to his skin and says within 10 minutes the pain has settled right down. Within 20 minutes, it works as a sleep aid.

"Look at Canada, the USA, Europe - they're all decriminalising it and regulating the market. The harm is caused through prohibition laws, not the drug itself."

In places such as Portland's Cannabis Cafe, it is perfectly legal for medical marijuana patients to burn, eat, rub, filter and roll marijuana.

McKee wants to see policies relax in New Zealand also.

"A good policy should include education, certification, including a medical check-up, safe supply and support [counselling for problem users]."

He is supported by other medicinal users, including a 73-year-old grandmother of 10 who has used cannabis in the past for arthritis and in the lead-up to a hip operation.

The woman, who asked not to be named, says any other drug she tried for pain relief was far less effective and far more addictive.

"There are thousands of people like me, elderly people, using it for pain. The decisions being made about the law are not based on science, they're based on politics.

"Cannabis also has been a medicine, and always will be."

The founder of Cannabis Law Reform Waihi, Ann Vernon, 39, has smoked cannabis since being trampled by horses 12 years ago.

When she can, she smokes the drug three to four times a day and just under a gram in total (about a tablespoon worth).

In doing so, she has been able to cut out sleeping pills and prescribed pain relief.

"I think if I had an ongoing source of cannabis I believe I could actually return to work." Smoking dope softens the dull aches and sharp pangs of pain she still experiences.

Realistic, or an excuse?

One Mount Maunganui GP says cannabis does have harms, but unlike alcohol, has medically proven benefits for neuropathic pain, muscle spasm in multiple sclerosis, and reducing tics in Tourette's syndrome.

The Law Commission recently stated New Zealand should view cannabis use as a health issue, not a criminal or justice issue.

This is in line with recent global policy statements on drugs.

Dr Tony Farrell says society's judgment of cannabis smokers is unfair, because many cannabis users are highly functioning recreational users, similar to those who use alcohol.

Low-risk cannabis consumption has not been formally determined, but it is generally thought that once-weekly consumption is relatively low risk for health concerns, which compares with less than 14 standard drinks per week of alcohol.

"The legal status as a judgment causes problems. For example, a study from Dunedin has shown Maori who are apprehended with cannabis are five to six times more likely to be convicted than non-Maori ... This is one of the harms of a prohibitionist stance on cannabis.

Further, Dr Farrell says a 2010 study from Society for the Study of Addiction shows urine drug screening for cannabis in the workplace has not been shown to be an effective diagnostic tool in reducing workplace accidents, which means that pre-employment and random urine drug-testing in the workplace may discriminate against cannabis users.

"It is important to keep the debate around drug harm, not whether a drug is good or bad, as prohibitionist policies for many drugs are now regarded as failed and expensive," Dr Farrell says.

When it comes to mental health, David Benton says there is a correlation between marijuana and the deterioration of mental health to those already predisposed. Individuals who are susceptible to mental illness put themselves at greater risk of psychotic symptoms when using cannabis.

However, psychosis can also occur in people who try it for the first time.

It is also addictive to those who have a tendency to be addicted, whereas many others can take it or leave it.

"The evidence is there is a lot of genetic predisposition that accounts for anywhere between 40 to 60 per cent of drug use. If there is addiction in the family it can cause increased risk of being addicted yourself," he says.

"The genes for that are not specific to any particular drug - and increase vulnerability if you happen to try any drug in sufficient quantities."

Marijuana tended to relax people and gave a mellow, sedative-type effect.

"An effect that people like," he says. "It often reduces anxiety and stops racing thoughts."

A New Zealand immigrant in Tauranga, who smokes two grams ($40) of cannabis a week, says it enhances the senses. "It can make the supermarket seem like an adventure; seeking out food like a hunter, where everything is prepared for me. I love the supermarket."

And, as a side note, 20-year-old William from Waihi, who hauls out a vaporiser, a smoking device that heats the cannabis rather than burns it, says that like a wine drinker he loves the flavours, tastes and aromas of cannabis.

He sources locally grown pot from friends and says: "It's not just about getting high."

When asked if it was possible for marijuana to fuel "creative fire", Benton says that he has heard this from some users.

"I imagine you get the same kind of effect from meditation. You get into the zone where your world opens up and I suspect it does happen.

He jokes: "I'm sure people get that after a bottle of whisky at 3am when a lot of the world's problems get solved."

***

Someone smoking cannabis just now and then is George (not his real name) - a Western Bay secondary school teacher who holds a masters with first-class honours.

The 43-year-old says he first tried dope as a teenager. He didn't smoke for 15-odd years and then three or four years ago he and a friend had a "session" one Christmas.

He's smoked it about once a week since.

To smoke or not to smoke is an issue of choice and personal freedom, he reckons.

"I see no difference between this and drinking. In fact, I see it as so much better than getting drunk. I haven't been drunk in years," he says.

Until recently, he sourced his cannabis from New Zealand's first cannabis club, The Dacktory, in West Auckland. The building founder is now in prison after being found guilty on cannabis-related charges.

George says in no way does he fit the bill of "a domesticated pot fiend".

He, his wife and friends have been known to share dinner, a bottle of wine and a joint.

"If you have an evil law then the right response is to not co-operate with it. A law has to be sensible, fair and just. And this is none of them."

As a professional, he says conversation around cannabis can be uncomfortable.

"It's a little bit like homosexuality in the '80s - you could be thrown in prison.

"Everyone knows someone that has smoked and everyone knows someone that does smoke, they may just not know they smoke. We all rub shoulders daily with a smoker.

"From politicians down to freezing workers, we should be allowed that choice."

The police will fight for people not to be allowed that choice.

In their opinion, cannabis is not only harmful, it's responsible for almost one-third of the social costs of illicit drug use - that's 32.9 per cent or $431 million.

Western Bay of Plenty Inspector Mike Clement says the impacts of cannabis use and offending go beyond the individual user, often translating into other areas of crime as well as the value of life lost from premature mortality, homicide, or road deaths.

Clement says the growing and selling of cannabis continues to be a focus for Bay of Plenty Police.

"Our strategy includes targeting organised crime groups who are earning a living through the growing and distribution of cannabis, through to 'tinnie' houses and users."

In addition, youth policing teams are involved in working with youth and in schools, providing information about the harm of drugs, he says.

At Get Smart, Drug and Alcohol Services, Tauranga manager Stuart Caldwell says they see about 11,000 Tauranga people, aged up to 20, a year. And anecdotally, those who stop using cannabis testify to a clearer head and better grades.

"You don't actually have to be a biochemist to work this out, it's pretty self-evident." Caldwell says decriminalising cannabis would send the wrong message to youth.

"It's time to stop the rot, not further perpetrate it."

Those who smoke, though, will continue to fight on.

J'nette Saxby, a former primary school teacher who is studying for her masters in health science, says not all people who smoke cannabis are "pot-heads or losers" but few professionals will go public because they have too much to lose.

Saxby, 45, has been smoking cannabis since she was 17 and even now smokes it on a daily basis.

She believes it's a myth that smoking marijuana leads to harder drugs.

"It's like saying does milk lead to beer? And does beer lead to whisky?"

She wants to see the cannabis issue become like the prostitution law reform in that it becomes decriminalised, regulated, and discrete.

That there is an R18 policy, it's sold by weight, and only good-quality cannabis is sold.

Completely legalising and regulating the drug takes it out of the hands of the gangs, enabling rules and safe access. At the moment, people who are otherwise law-abiding citizens are in hiding for fear of being rapped over the knuckles, she says.

A Tauranga man who asked not to be identified, for fear of losing his job, says the reality is that smoking pot is as much a normal part of life as having a beer after work for many Kiwis.

"I earn good money ... I am a motivated, physical kind of person ... I certainly don't see myself as a criminal," he says.

"It's not going anywhere, it's just making people's lives harder by persecuting against it.

"The Government is losing out on a multimillion-dollar New Zealand-based industry."

- BAY OF PLENTY TIMES

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