Simon Prast learned the law the hard way. In his final year at law school, he studied the case of one Colin James Prast - just sentenced to 17 years in prison.

His dad was sent away in 1981 after admitting to running a drug ring, smuggling heroin and morphine into New Zealand.

The court heard he used false identities taken from dead children in the Hillsborough cemetery, near Prast's home.

His accomplices brought in the drugs from Singapore, Penang, Bombay and Bangkok, hiding the packages in compartments on Air New Zealand DC-10s flying out of Sydney.

"In my final year in law school we got to study his case so it's not something that I hide," he says.

"It is ancient history for me - I have looked at life from many sides."

So Prast knows a bit about the law. Now he wants to make the law.

First known for playing Porsche-driving bad boy Alister Redfern on 1980s soap opera Gloss, he carved out a more substantial career on the stage, acting in and directing shows at Auckland Theatre Company. He still appears on TV, including the TV2 show Go Girls.

But after years of putting out the begging bowl to councillors and local officials, seeking funding for the arts, he has had enough. He is campaigning to be the first mayor of the new Auckland Supercity, writing the bylaws and handing out the funds.

PRAST, 48, is comfortable in the Karangahape Rd cafe where we meet: as a leading light of Auckland's arts community, this should be his alma mater.

Indeed, one of his first mayoral campaign promises is to restore the trendy neighbourhood's Hero Parade, whose previous funding was cancelled by the council.

Comfortable, but for one thing: he can't smoke in Hallelujah cafe. So out we go to a park bench, where he can indulge his 25-a-day habit.

When it begins to rain, we retreat to a stoop: like Sir Walter Raleigh for Queen Elizabeth, he dramatically lays down his tan jacket on the tiled steps for me to perch on.

This man is a Shakespearean actor; when I ask questions, he doesn't just answer. He orates.

Born in Otahuhu, Prast attended Auckland Grammar, where Graham Henry would mark his maths papers. He befriended one Russell Crowe, also embarking on a rather promising acting career.

It was after a night on the town with Crowe in 1996 that Prast quit the booze. Heavily hung over the next morning, Prast was two hours late on the set of Hercules and lost his place on the show.

Didn't matter. Within the theatrical world he is known not for his screen roles, but for launching the Auckland Theatre Company out of the ashes of the Mercury Theatre, bringing hits like Ladies Night, Rocky Horror Show and Middle Age Spread to the Queen City.

Easygoing by nature, Prast has been known to throw the odd hissy fit, famously banning Listener magazine critics from ATC shows in 2001, after a run of critical reviews.

But it is the disastrous 2003 financial collapse of the Auckland Arts Festival - of which he was in charge - that may hang most heavily over him in his new career of politics. He was dropped as director, and took it hard.

Did he begin using "P"?

"I don't want to discuss. I have tried everything that wouldn't kill me. I have danced with my demons and embraced them and we have parted as friends and I don't regret a second."

SO I phone him back later. Did he have a problem with P?

"'No' is the answer," he replies.

But has he used it? "Do we have to go into this area?" he retorts, uncharacteristically angry. "I have been as frank as possible. I don't want this to be the headline."

He has no drug convictions, he adds. "If I led a life half as glamorous or as dangerous as what people have rumoured I did, I'd be dead by now. I have tried a lot of things - what more can I say?

"I can look Aucklanders in the eye and tell them I have been through most of the things you have faced in your lives and I have come out the other side. I have become a better, wiser person. It has given me great empathy."

So was "P" one of his demons?

"I have to say I have danced with all my demons. I have had many of them."

THE PHONE rings. It's Prast. "Hi, I have tried P. It is something that was becoming an issue but before it became a problem I dealt to it.

"I didn't want to dance around with you. I have been thinking about it and thinking about it. I thoroughly enjoyed our conversations and I just wanted to be straight up with you."

"I am aware of the rumours, that I have done things in the past and what a dickhead I was."

And he launches into an astonishing discussion of the disparity between laws prohibiting P, and those allowing the Government to profit from tobacco and alcohol excise. Prohibition, he says, has never been effective in dealing with drugs and substance abuse.

He wants a drug policy that gets results - and outlawing drugs like P is not the answer, he says.

Prast knows there could be an enormous, potentially outraged, response to his admission and views on drug policy. For many New Zealanders, the face of P is wild-eyed samurai-sword killer Antonie Dixon, or the pathetic, hunched Steven Williams after killing his 6-year-old step-daughter Coral-Ellen Burrows.

Not the mayor of the Supercity.

But Prast doesn't seem too worried - it's just one of the issues he wants to deal with.

He wants to keep public assets in council ownership. He wants to secure arts funding. He wants to open up the wharves at the bottom of Queen St to pedestrians, and to stop the building of the Mt Eden Prison tower block.

The first thing he would do as mayor is refund everyone who was fined for using the Grafton Bridge bus lane.

Prast admits he doesn't have much hands-on political experience, but building the Auckland Theatre Company and the Auckland Arts Festival meant "close and constant" involvement with local, regional and central government over more than 10 years.

He thinks the $580,000 mayoral campaign spending limit is "appalling, quite offensive". Unlike John Banks or Len Brown, an impoverished stage actor is unlikely to have that kind of money to throw about on a campaign.

He doesn't believe he needs billboards, marketing. Just his reputation, his record, his focus. He's single, doing a bit of occasional acting and agent work - few distractions.

But Prast is a theatre director. He knows about casting actors in roles.

"You can have the best script in the world but if you cast wrong then you are swimming upstream the rest of your life. A very basic thing the voters can do is get all the photographs of the candidates on the table and ask themselves, which one of these best describes someone capable of vision, someone capable of leadership, someone who best represents the face and voice of Auckland?

"Now, I wouldn't cast Mr Banks or Mr Brown as the mayor."