At the peak of her addiction, Elizabeth Baird rammed her car into the back of another at 165km/h, believing its boot was a portal to parallel universe.

The other driver escaped the smash on Auckland's Harbour Bridge with whiplash. Baird suffered whiplash and bruising.

She avoided police charges because her psychiatrist declared her insane. Questioned by her insurance company, Baird said it was an accident.

Hooked on synthetic cannabis before developing a serious marijuana addiction, Baird had lost her job and full-time access to her children.

Advertisement

Years of drug use caused psychotic breaks, weight loss and paranoia. She now takes four different types of medication to counter the damage done to her brain.

Baird had a high-powered job as a respected lawyer. Her resume included big-name firms Chapman Tripp and Heaney & Partners. When she had her first drug-induced psychotic episode she was working as an in-house counsel for the Far North District Council.

With a referendum on recreational use looming, she's warning against the legalisation — and normalisation — of marijuana, which she says left her life in tatters.

"I can see mothers like me going to dinner parties in the future and being offered a toke of cannabis because 'it is now legal'," she says.

"They are part of a demographic who would never have dreamed of being involved in illicit drugs."

Now rebuilding her life and living in Devonport, Baird has reached a milestone — nine months clean from both synthetic and natural cannabis.

But speaking to the Herald on Sunday about her road to recovery, she says her life is still a shadow of what it was before drugs.

"I feel like I've woken up from a nightmare that lasted eight years, basically."

The first time Baird picked up a packet of synthetic cannabis from her local dairy was in 2010.

She had moved from Auckland to Kerikeri with her two children to work at Far North District Council. The role, she says, involved more day-to-day stress than she was used to.

Elizabeth Baird lost her children and her job after becoming addicted to cannabis. Photo / Doug Sherring
Elizabeth Baird lost her children and her job after becoming addicted to cannabis. Photo / Doug Sherring

Synthetic cannabinoids were made illegal four years ago. Then, they were freely available, in dairies, bottle shops and more.

Baird thought it would be a harmless form of stress relief. Checking on the internet, she read that the five listed ingredients were "mood-altering herbs".

"I assumed that if the substance I was smoking was legal then it must have been okay."

At first she smoked with her boyfriend when her children were back in Auckland with their father. Then there were sessions after the kids, then aged 8 and 4, had gone to bed.

Boundaries became hazy, and when her ex took the children on holiday she went on a bender. After her kids returned, things spiralled out of control.

When Baird discovered her ex-partner had contacted mental health authorities, she locked herself and her children in her room.

Under the false impression he had been abusing the children, she took the kids and fled to a friend's — driving over the speed limit with her son unrestrained in his car seat.

The next day Baird called her husband, asking him to collect the kids.

"Within 30 minutes of them leaving the police arrived with the mental health people. I was admitted to hospital without my consent, on the grounds that I had put my children's lives in danger," she says.

"That was the day I lost custody of my children and my life turned to s***."

During what would be her first, but not last, drug-related hospital admission, Baird was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. She believed this was a result of her psychotic episode.

After five days Baird was discharged to find her life turned on its head.

Her husband, from whom she had been separated for around two years, had successfully applied for custody of their children.

Back at work, colleagues at the council, she says, treated her differently. She started to believe she had gone "nuts".

Pressure mounted. She began smoking natural cannabis with a new man she had become acquainted with.

"I'd convinced myself that synthetic cannabis was bad and that marijuana, being a natural substance, was good.

"But within three months of regular use with him, I suffered another psychotic break down which resulted in a four-month stay in the Whangārei Hospital psychiatric unit."

Baird left hospital a "broken woman".

She went to live with her stepfather and his wife in Christchurch. She was "whacked out" on psych meds and, at times, suicidal.

"In August 2011 I moved back to Auckland and within three days I took a massive overdose of sleeping tablets and everything else I could get my hands on."

She was admitted to a mental health unit on the North Shore and released a month later. The next two years was a saga of drugs, hospitals and mental health wards.

There's been a big drop in the number of people appearing before the courts on cannabis-related offences. Photo / File
There's been a big drop in the number of people appearing before the courts on cannabis-related offences. Photo / File

Baird, talking with the knowledge and support of her ex-husband, is brought to tears thinking about how she treated her children.

She forgot to keep phone dates, sent them rambling emails with elaborate stories about the Illuminati being out to get them.

"At times I did things that were really scary, like kidnap the children a few times, thinking they were in danger," she says.

After the Harbour Bridge crash in 2013 she was served a notice by the Family Court advising access to her children had been limited to two hours on a Saturday, at court-approved premises with supervision.

Finally accepting she was an addict, Baird got clean by going "cold turkey". But while the 4am smoking sessions ended, her psychotic break downs did not.

"My doctor told me it was the after-effects of the synthetic cannabis use and he could not predict how long they would last," she says.

"I believe that I had developed a propensity to become psychotic due to the drug use and that various stressful events triggered me back into those states."

In 2016 Baird fell off the wagon and smoked cannabis with her boyfriend. There was another psychotic episode last year. Baird came close to being kicked out of her flat after threatening to take her neighbour's baby, but managed to avoid eviction.

And then, in January, a breakthrough.

Baird had just turned 49 and, once again, hit some form of rock bottom.

She called her support person at the Waitakere District Health Board, asking to be admitted to hospital.

"I was emaciated, I was down to 43 kilograms, when my normal weight is about 60," she says.

"It took them a month to get me back to some sort of physical health when I was in hospital."

Her paranoia was severe.

"When I was in hospital I believed the government was out to get me, I believed my children were being abused. I have the most horrendous paranoid beliefs and delusions when I've been affected."

Looking back, Baird says she would never have believed such damage could have been done by two drugs.

"For that reason, I don't think cannabis should be legalised.

"Laws are designed to protect the vulnerable members of our community. That includes young people and those who are predisposed to mental health problems or addiction."

Baird continues to attend regular group sessions at Narcotics Anonymous. Her sponsor, Amanda Nicol, says the damage drugs did to Baird was devastating.

"Some people can use casually. But I do know plenty of people in those rooms have started with cannabis and moved onto other drugs."

Baird's story was a reminder of how differently people responded to drugs, and that all substances could be addictive when in the wrong hands.

Canada last month became the second country to fully legalise recreational use after Uruguay in 2013.

Here, penalties range from a $500 fine for possession to 13 years in jail for supply. Growing it can result in a jail term of up to 7 years.

Legalisation for personal use in New Zealand could be in the hands of voters.

The Government will hold a referendum no later than the 2020 election as part of the confidence and supply agreement between Labour and the Greens.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has said it will be non-binding but wants to see what the public thinks. Opposition leader Simon Bridges has said he would be "very unlikely" to support decriminalisation for recreational use. Polls have suggested around two-thirds of voters would back change.

According to Ross Bell, from the Drug Foundation, 80 per cent of young New Zealanders have used cannabis at least once. Photo / Mark Mitchell
According to Ross Bell, from the Drug Foundation, 80 per cent of young New Zealanders have used cannabis at least once. Photo / Mark Mitchell

According to the Drug Foundation, 80 per cent of young New Zealanders have used cannabis at least once. But there's been a big drop in the number of people before the courts. The Ministry of Justice said 4117 people charged with cannabis-related offences went through district courts last year, less than half the number in 2008.

Foundation executive director Ross Bell doesn't think police have relaxed their attitudes — rather that they're being pragmatic about prioritising limited resources.

They also have access to a broader range of alternative resolutions such as adult diversion schemes and justice panels.

While Baird is warning against legalisation, Bell believes a law change could stop others suffering like she has.

Bell acknowledges cannabis causes dependency in some people and says there should be better help systems.

"The problems we have with cannabis — including, for some people, cannabis-related psychosis — those problems exist now in the criminal black market.

"Treating it as a health issue, rather than solely through the criminal justice system, would give ample opportunity to warn young people of the risks.

"Education could particularly benefit those with existing inclination towards mental illness and be funded from an estimated $240 million annual tax take from a regulated industry.

"This is what we've decided around tobacco, and alcohol — we've decided it's better for governments to put regulations around those products than to leave it in the hands of the criminal black market.

"Decriminalisation, or, as we're arguing, a public health regulatory model, it isn't relaxing the rules — it's actually putting more rules in place.

"We would have quality control, there wouldn't be pesticides for example. We could control the potency, so there could actually be rules in place so that there's lower THC — that's the stuff that's going to cause psychosis."

WHERE TO GET HELP

If you are worried about your or someone else's mental health, the best place to get help is your GP or local mental health provider. However, if you or someone else is in danger or endangering others, call police immediately on 111.

IF YOU NEED TO TALK TO SOMEONE ELSE:

Alcohol Drug Helpline: 0800 787 797
• 1737: Free call or text 1737 (available 24/7)
• DEPRESSION HELPLINE: 0800 111 757
• KIDSLINE: 0800 543 754 (available 24/7)
• LIFELINE: 0800 543 354 or 09 5222 999 within Auckland (available 24/7)
• RAINBOW YOUTH: (09) 376 4155
• SAMARITANS – 0800 726 666
• SUICIDE CRISIS HELPLINE: 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO) (available 24/7)
• YOUTHLINE: 0800 376 633, free text 234 or email talk@youthline.co.nz or online chat.

THE CANNABIS ISSUE: BY THE NUMBERS

2 countries have fully legalised recreational cannabis use

50 New Zealanders are believed to have died after using synthetics

80% of young Kiwis are believed to have used cannabis at least once

3 months prison and/or $500 fine is the maximum penalty for possession of cannabis

2014 is when synthetic cannabinoids were criminalised under the Psychoactive Substances Act

4417 people charged with cannabis-related offences went before district courts last year

8876 people faced similar charges in 2008

$240m is the estimated annual tax take from regulated cannabis market, according to Drug Foundation

THE MEDICINAL DEBATE

Change is coming faster for people who are terminally ill or in chronic pain.

Legislation to improve access to medicinal cannabis is going through Parliament with the support of Labour, the Greens and New Zealand First.

The Misuse of Drugs (Medicinal Cannabis) Amendment Bill, introduced last December under the Government's 100-Day Plan, is expected to become law by March.

Currently, medicinal cannabis can be prescribed to patients granted ministerial approval.

According to figures from Health Minister Dr David Clark's office, 328 people had been approved to use medical marijuana spray Sativex.

Another 47 people had been approved to use other cannabis-based drugs, like CBD oil.

Clark told the Herald on Sunday he doesn't believe it is for MPs to lead the debate, with the matter headed for referendum.

"What I can say is that I believe drugs, including cannabis, should be treated as a health issue."

Elyse Johnson with mum Casey, dad Jamie and brother Blake is starting to show improvement in mobility after starting on a cannabis mouth spray. Photo / Taupo & Turangi Weekender
Elyse Johnson with mum Casey, dad Jamie and brother Blake is starting to show improvement in mobility after starting on a cannabis mouth spray. Photo / Taupo & Turangi Weekender

A Taupō toddler with an incurable brain stem tumour is among Kiwis using Sativex, which is normally used to treat symptoms of multiple sclerosis.

Elyse Johnson had been unable to bend her legs, let alone walk. Four weeks after starting on Sativex she could flex her lower limbs.

The family of Ollie Venables, 22, got permission to use an oil-based medication.

Autistic, intellectually disabled and with mild spastic cerebral palsy, Ollie was in near-constant pain and suffered from muscle spasms and other side-effects while on previous medications.

His mother, Shelley Venables, has said the oil stopped his tremors and helped him relax.

Shelly Venables (left) and her son Ollie Venables, have lobbied Parliament for better, cheaper access to medical cannabis. Picture / Supplied
Shelly Venables (left) and her son Ollie Venables, have lobbied Parliament for better, cheaper access to medical cannabis. Picture / Supplied

A couple of Kiwi companies are leading the charge on legally cultivating marijuana for medical use.

Helius Therapeutics, from East Auckland, has a license allowing cultivation and research.

Hikurangi Cannabis, based in the small East Coast town Ruatoria, has a licence to breed cannabis strains that could be used in medicines.

The first license issued by the Ministry of Health went to a university.