Tuari Potiki (Kāi Tahu, Kāti Māmoe, Waitaha) is the chair of the NZ Drug Foundation, and director of Māori Development at Otago University. He has also been general manager of strategic operations with the Alcohol Advisory Council of New Zealand (ALAC). www.drugfoundation.org.nz
I grew up in a state house in Rongotai, the youngest of four. Dad worked three different jobs and mum cleaned houses for rich people in Seatoun. Sometimes mum took me with her and that's when I figured out that some people had more than we did. I didn't know we were poor, it just was what it was, I didn't worry about it.
School wasn't a particularly happy place for me, but it was good for getting away from home because the old man was a bit of a nutter, an undiagnosed schizophrenic, and us kids copped a lot of that. I was also pretty useless at school. I don't remember shining at anything and I got into a bit of trouble. This is back in the 60s when teachers weren't shy about calling students dumb, so that's what I thought I was.
But now I understand how family dynamics work. How your upbringing affects what you do and how you do it, that there's a connection between a dangerous home life and misbehaving. With the benefit of hindsight and therapy, I now see how things unfolded for me, because when the authority in your home is violent, and you can't disagree, or have your own opinions, as soon as you're out of that environment, with people who can't inflict the same damage, you challenge them. That's why I learned to hate authority, and it started with teachers, which is probably why we clashed.
As a kid, I used things to deal with life - the first thing was food. For a time, I was weight for age, two stone at 2, four stone at 4, and by the time I was 11, I was 17 stone. Then my parents split up and my dad shifted back to Bluff. He was born and bred there and I went with him, while the others stayed with mum. I left school a week before my 14th birthday, I lied about my age and got a job in the wool store. At the time I thought leaving school was cool.
In Bluff back then, for morning tea, lunch and afternoon tea, all the workers would go to the pub but I was too young so, when the oldies went to the pub, I'd head off with a couple of Aussie guys and smoke dope with them. The wool store was good work and I felt like an adult. I was doing an adult's job, getting an adult's wage and getting out of it like an adult. But Bluff was also really dark. No one was looking out for me, we didn't have communication like we do now, and I was very isolated. Then I got sick, my appendix burst and I ended up in ICU with peritonitis, so when mum said I should come back home, I did.
It was cool being back with mum, although I was huge, so our family doctor gave me diet pills. Then I couldn't sleep, so he prescribed Valium. I was 16, still smoking pot, and my mates were now into alcohol. But the problem with diet pills - there are lots of problems - but one of them was I could drink heaps and still feel pretty on to it but, when the pills wore off, the alcohol caught up and I ended up pretty messy.
Then Mum died. She was only 50. The night before she'd complained about a sore chest, so I called the doctor and he said if it got worse, to call him in the morning. But she was dead in the morning. I found her and that's when the shit hit the fan. The doctor turned up and wrote a prescription for valium. A couple of guys I worked with also turned up, including the boss, and he went to mum's booze cabinet and poured me a big glass of vodka. He said, 'get that down ya', so I did. Pretty much from then on, all day every day, that was my way of coping. Or not coping. Mum was the rock in our whānau, and without her I wasn't anchored to anything. I was 19.
I used hard drugs for the first time in 1981. In my experience, cannabis is not a gateway to harder drugs, no more than alcohol. For me the gateway was the dealer. I went to see my usual man, he didn't have any pot but he had other stuff and, because I was on the hunt, I said OK. That's also the first time I used intravenously. I know it's anecdotal, but that's what I saw - people who sell drugs are the gateways.
Without a doubt it was the best feeling, total numbness, but it quickly wore off, and before long you need more and more to get the same numbing effect. That costs more money and it spirals really quickly. I started getting busted for drugs and other rubbish, doing what I had to do to get by.
In 1988 I went to court on a couple of charges. The judge told me I was going to jail so I had my bag packed, but when he was sentencing me he said, "When I came to court this morning, I had every intention of sending you to jail for two years, but I've changed my mind. I think your problem is drugs and alcohol, so your sentence is probation with a requirement to go to Queen Margaret Hospital in Hanmer Springs."
That was pretty enlightened for a judge back then. This was way before people knew that drugs were an underlying factor, or cause, for a whole lot of crime. But for whatever reason, he decided to do this - and I was so arrogant. He looked at me all solemnly and I looked back and thought, 'sucker'.
I used all the way down. I was loaded getting off the plane and when I arrived, my arms were bleeding from self-harm. I was angry and wasted and they didn't want me. They said I was meant to be clean for a month before coming and I said, "That's stupid, If I could be clean for a month, I wouldn't have to come here". They said I had no acceptance, no commitment but that oppositional thing of mine kicked in. As soon as they said I couldn't stay, I wanted to stay. I kicked up and tried to convince them I needed to stay. The thing with Hanmer, there's only one bus in and out each day, so they had to at least put me up for one night. They couldn't let me roam the streets, and for whatever reason, the next morning the doctor said they'd decided to keep me on.
A woman in my group told me she'd been given Valium to help her sleep. I didn't think that was fair. We had the same doctor, so I went to him and said I wanted something to help me sleep. He told me to come back at four, so I was pretty happy. I went back and he told me to take off my pants and sit in the chair. He stuck needles in me, including one in my top lip. He gave me acupuncture instead of pills. I sat there for what felt like ages and the weird thing was, when he took all the pins out, I felt the best I'd felt in a long time. That night I ended up in the common room with the others, singing. For me, that never happened. The next day I went back to the doctor and said, 'I want more of that acupuncture but this time, not enough to make me sing'.
After about a month I felt really good. I was buzzing on all these clichéd things, like birds and flowers. And I didn't feel angry. I told the doctor and he said it was probably the first time I'd been totally straight since I was 13, that this was what life without drugs could be like. It was as if the thing I'd been looking for in drugs, a sense of peace, contentment, the more I used, the further I got from it. I'm not saying it was easy. I still had heaps of demons, but I hung in and finished the programme.
After Hanmer I ended up in a halfway house in Christchurch but, because I'd left school at 13 with no qualifications, I was at a bit of a loss. Then two older Māori women who worked at the centre told me they'd enrolled in a two-year counselling course and they'd enrolled me as well. The reason being, the course was at an old monastery in Cashmere up a long, windy, steep drive, but they hated driving up it and wanted me to drive. During the course, rather than drugs and alcohol being a waste of life, those experiences became a source of valuable information, and gave me a level of understanding the others didn't have.
I got a job with Te Rito Arahi, a Māori alcohol and drugs agency in Christchurch. I worked in prisons, and those guys listened to me because they knew my learning wasn't out of a book, then a job came up at Queen Mary Hospital's Taha Māori programme. The guy who hired me took a punt and I became the boss of two of my former therapists from five years before - and eventually I ended up in management. I was studying too, and still doing face-to-face work, but I moved up the ladder, because I saw how the whole system worked and found opportunities to change things.
People need to vote at the referendum. They need to understand the issues and see the opportunities. A 'yes' vote for the regulation of cannabis is our opportunity to reduce harm. I know that might sound counter-intuitive, and I understand how some people think it sends the 'wrong' message, but what a lot of people don't understand is that we currently have one of the highest rates of cannabis use in the world – and that is under our existing legislation. Most people try it and decide it's not for them, their preferred drug is alcohol. A smaller group goes on to use regularly or irregularly and it doesn't cause them any problems - but it's the law that can cause them problems because it criminalises over 5000 people a year and perpetuates the illegal black market.
With regulation, we have a chance to control availability and content, how potent it is, to have an age limit. There are really good things in the Act - money gathered from tax revenue can be put into better prevention, better education, delaying the onset of use in young people, for both alcohol and cannabis, and increase opportunities for people who do have problems to get help.
The Misuse of Drugs Act that we are currently governed by was established in 1975 and is connected to the 'war on drugs' rhetoric, which has failed spectacularly everywhere. Drugs are now more available and cheaper than ever before. At what point will we as a country say – this hasn't worked, we need another approach? As Helen Clark said, this referendum isn't about whether we want cannabis to be available, because it is, it's about how we want it to be available and who to.
Another thing that drives me to actively support law change is the racist way the law is applied. Due to so-called unconscious bias, Māori are three or four times more likely to be stopped, arrested, convicted and jailed than others who use exactly the same quantities in the same frequencies. One reason Māori get over-convicted, the law isn't some amorphous spirit that hovers over everything fairly. The law is applied by human beings, and unconscious bias needs to be made conscious, that's what's got to change. History has shown us, police with all the best intentions in the world cannot apply discretion in an even-handed way, so the best way to enforce the law fairly is through a new law. Police will tell you, cannabis has been decriminalised for non-Māori for years because police have discretion which means the current law has failed.
Educating your kids about drugs is about communication. It's also about understanding that people need to find their own way, bump into their own walls, learn their own lessons. But if we create the safest environment possible - which leads me back to the referendum - and if your kids or grandkids are going to try it, and chances are they will, do you want them going to a gang pad to get it? The referendum gives us the opportunity to introduce a 20-year age limit, provide resources and education around delaying use, and be given the right information to make good decisions. Yes I am passionate about the need for change, but with good reason.