Russell Brown travels to the Far North, where the green fairy lives.
Somewhere in Northland, 10 kilometres along an unsealed road and another four or five up what is fondly referred to as a "driveway", there is, nestled at the edge of the bush, a familiar kitchen.
You might have seen it if you watched TV3's highest-rating show for 2019, Patrick Gower on Weed, or its successor last year, or a Marae report last June. This is Gandalf's house.
His real name is rather plain but he's been Gandalf since the Lord of the Rings films were being made and a joke at a party became a nickname and eventually something approaching a brand.
Gandalf is a "green fairy". He grows particular strains of cannabis and makes them into oils and balms for patients – hundreds of them at any one time and thousands since he started doing it.
Because what he does is strictly illegal, you won't see his face on TV. Not that there's much of his face to see today – just a peek behind his spectacles, framed by his bushy silver whiskers and a battered garden centre cap that keeps his locks in some sort of order. The whiskers make him look older than his 62 years but his arms are tanned, strong like cables.
He and his wife Sally (not her real name) have lived in this place – an old farmhouse somehow dragged in two pieces up the driveway by the previous owners – for many years now, raising kids along the way, and it's easy to see why. Even on what is, by Northland standards, a cool morning, the cicadas' song fizzes through the native foliage. You could spend all day on this couch, on this veranda. Not that Gandalf does. He's busy.
"I used to grow up there," he says, sipping his coffee and gesturing towards the bush. "I'd carry it down, 20 kilos on my back, down waterfalls. If I'd fallen, I would have been dead or [had] a broken back and that's when I realised, 'I'm getting a bit too old for this.' That's when I took a punt and brought it here."
"Here" is three small polyhouses, right on the property, where he might spend 12 hours of his day tending his plants. The risk is obvious – he's been busted for cultivation three times before and the second time he went through Mt Eden Prison and Paremoremo before eventually being granted home detention. So why, I say, would he even want to talk to me about it?
"Well, one of the reasons why is the fact that there's a little bit of a lull. I feel it's necessary to keep the momentum going. Pearl [Schomburg, cannabis patient advocate] has certainly been doing her fair share of that and I just want to lighten to load from her and give everyone a different perspective from an actual green fairy that's actually doing the work. And who's been through all the stress and everything that's involved with it. You know, Russell, a lot of people think that it's just a select few doing little bits here and there, but they don't realise that a lot of us are passionate. We're very serious in what we're doing."
We walk up to his biggest polyhouse. There's a small bed of marigolds at the door, part of his organic practice.
"The bugs tend to go for the marigolds first. Same with nasturtium. Whitefly and aphids will go for those first."
Behind the flowerbed, the polyhouse is crowded with cannabis plants nearing harvest; sativa strains cresting the 3m ceiling, the indicas pushing bushily outwards. There are buds like forearms in here.
"This row here is dedicated to stoners," he laughs, pointing to the right. "And the other three are all medicinal."
Although he grows some recreational strains for sale or trade, most of his crop wouldn't be of much interest to the average smoker expecting high-THC retail weed. It's lush in here and feels unlike the places where big-city weed is bullied through flowering cycles under artificial light. It smells sweet and musky, rather than pungent.
"I still want to replicate outdoors as much as possible, but it's different every year with the weather patterns. You've got to be very flexible."
Gandalf launches into an explanation of the crosses he's making, the delicacy of the timing when crossing sativa and indica (the former has a longer flowering cycle) and the tricky business of transferring pollen from male plants to selected female plants without spoiling the others.
"It's a bit of a nervous time for me, I must say. Some people use a very fine paintbrush, I use my fingers. The pollen on your fingers has less chance of blowing off – it sticks to the oil of your skin. And you can go to a bud like this and just gently rub it. You'd be amazed at how many seeds that will produce."
Not everything is good in green heaven. The third polyhouse is more sparse and a row of plants has reached about a metre and a half in height before yellowing and, it appears, starting to die. His guess is that there's something bad in the commercial compost he used.
He points to a small sphere of twisted copper up on the timber frame of the polyhouse that he thinks will help. It's an agricultural energy harmoniser, made to a design patented by the American inventor and mystic Slim Spurling. It's supposed to project a toroidal field, which is a real thing – but any physicist will tell you that's not how it works.
Gandalf happily identifies as a hippie – he was once the only vegan in Whāngārei, years before it was fashionable. He stopped only when he began culling wild goats that were destroying regenerating bush – he killed them by hand, with a bush knife – and figured he shouldn't waste the meat. But if some of his new age ideas would not find favour with with scientists, his results bear noting.
In 2019, ESR's Manager of Forensic Toxicology and Pharmaceuticals, Mary Jane McCarthy, quietly collected as many green fairy products as she could for analysis. The results were a little alarming. Oils that were supposed to be low in THC and high in CBD turned out to be the opposite – and at least one such product had been given to a child to treat epilepsy. But one group of oils stood out as being true-to-label – and all of them were Gandalf's. More recent private testing suggests higher levels of so-called minor cannabinoids that been all but bred out of modern retail weed. He is extremely good at growing medicinal cannabis.
This kind of story is not unique. Brandon Wevers, the affable head grower at Rua Bioscience, which is listed on the NZSE, spent two decades growing cannabis illicitly, always organically and had never used a laptop before he joined the company. Gandalf, too, declares himself a Luddite ("my emails tend to be very short because I don't like typing"). He left school at 14.
"I fronted up at the gates one day and realised the school curriculum held no interest for me whatsoever."
He settled into a life doing "basic jobs" and "then I started experimenting with mind-altering substances. And that's what opened my eyes to separate realities, and that what we see is not necessarily real. And I discovered quantum physics – that really opened a whole new world to me."
He became a vegetarian while he was still a teenager in Sydney, after picking up a copy of Hi-Protein Meatless Health Recipes, a book by the sometimes-controversial American health food advocate Paul Bragg. That, in turn, led to self-taught organic growing. He drove heavy machinery in a quarry for six years, then had his own business. He later took up wood-turning, making big, bewitching bowls that sold for top dollar in Parnell galleries.
"But something was missing and I knew I was always good at growing cannabis. I started growing cannabis when I was 19 and I thought maybe I should go back and start the cycle again. So basically I've been growing off and for about 40 years."
His move into making oils and balms came later.
"I'm a very slightly built man and I was working way beyond my physical ability, so I had a lot of ongoing pain issues. That's when someone said to me, 'Look, I've made a balm, do you want to try it?' So I did – and thought, 'My God, this is good s***.' I thought, 'Right, this is my next step.'"
Becoming a fully fledged green fairy didn't curb what seems a lifelong tendency to overwork. He admits to suffering stress over his responsibility to patients and even wound up in hospital with pneumonia several years ago. There are limited chances to take a break away when you're tending a high-value illicit crop and its associated products – Sally compares it to running a seven-day dairy.
He hasn't smoked cannabis himself since he was 24, but each evening he has several drops of his own oil, made from a high-CBD strain called durga mata, which is usually characterised as calming and relaxing.
He seems, on one hand, tough as nails and capable of startlingly coarse humour (he relates with some delight the story of how on his first night in Mt Eden prison he taught his young cellmate the correct technique for lighting one's farts) and, on the other hand, strikingly sensitive. Twice during our kitchen-table interview, he suddenly breaks into sobs talking about the people he helps.
He provides his medicines either directly or through a small network of medical herbalists, who stay roughly on the right side of the law by not supplying themselves. Most of his customers, he says, are older than he is. Some of them are cancer patients, most are dealing with various kinds of pain.
Does the medicine work? The reality of cannabis as medicine is that a great deal is plausible – including treatments for several kinds of cancer – and far less is clinically proven. The business our new, well-capitalised cannabis companies are in over the long term is developing silver-bullet medicines and proving them through the long, expensive clinical trial process. What can be said now is that recent surveys conducted by both Otago and Massey universities found that using cannabis led a strikingly high proportion of people to either give up or substantially reduce their use of onerous prescription pain medicines.
Gandalf says he sees that. "Constipation [from opioids] on its own, regardless of any other health issues, it's not a nice place to be. You feel full, you feel lethargic, you can't sleep. So if we can get them off their pain medications, or reduce them – some of them still have a psychological attachment to their pharmaceutical pain drugs, so they won't give them up totally – that's good."
Ironically, it was his last bust that opened up his new network about five years ago. He was fulfilling his sentence of community service in a kitchen when he met someone who had worked for a legal cannabis grower in Oregon and who introduced him in turn to Schomburg and her patient group, and then to Gower ("he's really nice guy – and he's got a wicked sense of humour") and Green MP Chloe Swarbrick ("a lovely lady – she has helped me so much").
I first met him in 2018 when I came to Schomburg looking for help for my friend in his final days. Gandalf, who happened to be visiting, simply gave me a bottle of his oil, $200 worth, in appreciation of my friend's work as a musician. As I wrote later in a submission to the Health Select Committee, my friend's doctors urgently wanted to render him unconscious until he died, insisting it was the only way to prevent further seizures related to his brain tumour.
"He didn't have any more seizures," I wrote. "I can't tell you that was because of the medical oil. But he didn't have any more seizures."
In truth, I think it's highly likely that the cannabis oil did help quell the seizures and let my friend say goodbye. Most of us would break the law for that. This is the twilight in which the green fairies dwell, between what appears to be the genuine relief of pain and suffering, and a law designed for other purposes, which could put them in jail.
Gandalf is considering an offer to help him apply for a research licence under the new medicinal cannabis laws but is wary of the costs and strictures that would impose. He'd like to see an amnesty for green fairies until something better is worked out. So where does he stand with the cops now? Does he think they know who he is?
"I would be naive to think that they don't," he says evenly. "I think the two documentaries that Paddy did and the Marae programme I was on exposed me a little bit more. And I think that perhaps the law realised that I'm really not a criminal. I'm just doing the best that I can."