New Zealand's early history of cannabis prohibition was much on my mind as I set about disobeying its contemporary descendent.

My partner and I live in a small home — once a bach, built in the 1940s — on the watery edges of West Auckland, where the bush almost successfully conspires to hide human habitation. From the nearby beach the city flashes its Morse code — cars bouncing sunlight back from the distant Māngere Bridge — through the Manukau Harbour's hazy lid. Rain falls in luscious tropical bursts, turning overworked drains into manic but temporary torrents. Spring arrives and those bursts are interspersed by brilliant sunshine, the hills' dull wintergreen lightening into vibrancy. First the kōwhai, then the pōhutukawa, open their flowers to the sun, sending the tūī and a resident pair of backyard kererū into an orgy of activity, sexual and otherwise. One day, driving home from town with the windows down, I momentarily found myself, as I eased around a corner, enveloped in an invisible cloud of cannabis odour. "Grow," it all seemed to whisper.

A contact gave me a handful of seeds — two strains, an autoflowering Durban Poison and a Bubba 76/Zombie Kush hybrid — and the most rudimentary of growing instructions. I secreted the seeds — dark, marbled little things — in a couple of envelopes of moistened tissue paper and stuffed them at the back of the hot water cupboard to await germination.

I am not a gardener. Vegetable gardens I have dug with the noblest of intentions invariably turn to weed-choked jungles. Prohibition, of course, was the other problem I had. My partner is a lawyer. I am a journalist, which is to say we desperately need her income. The law is clear: "Every person commits an offence against this Act who knowingly permits any premises ... to be used for the purpose of the commission of an offence against this Act." My partner could have been disbarred if it was found she knew her property was being used to grow weed. Or worse. Knowingly allowing your property to be used for cultivation carried a three-year stretch in jail. My little experiment would not, of course, attract anything like that but I thought it better to be safe. If she didn't know, on the exceedingly small chance that somehow the police found themselves on the property and falling over my plants, she could at least claim legitimate ignorance.

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James Borrowdale author of the book Weed: An New Zealand Story. Photo / Supplied
James Borrowdale author of the book Weed: An New Zealand Story. Photo / Supplied

At first, of course, there was nothing to hide — just half a dozen little nuggets, like mouse droppings, on the furrowed tissue paper at the bottom of a couple of plastic supermarket containers. Within a couple of days, though, four of them — one Durban Poison and three of the Bubba 76/Zombie Kush — had germinated, the taproot's little milky-white tendril squirming outwards. I potted them in the cut-off lower halves of soft-drink bottles and moved them to the spare room we used for storage. When my partner left for work in the mornings and as I wrote at the dining-room table that doubled as my desk, I would get up during the day to move the four little tubs to sit under whichever windows the moving sun painted itself most vibrantly below. Soon, little green hooded figures had arched upwards, the first embryonic leaves signifying that — so far, at least — I had successfully shepherded these four seeds into their first chapters of superterraneous life.

It became a chore, as much as anything, the seedlings a psychic weight whose health or otherwise I soon came to associate with the growth of this book, this photosynthesis of words and ideas. One morning, a couple of weeks after that first green frond had pushed through the soil, I found the Durban Poison seedling gone. Not chewed or dying: just simply not there, as if its growth had never ruffled the circle of dirt below it — eaten, I assumed, by some housebound critter. It seemed an omen; I didn't get much writing done that day.

That loss left me with three robust-looking seedlings, all Bubba 76/Zombie Kush, to rehome. I replanted them in a big ceramic pot that had previously homed a now-dead houseplant and hid it in what was once a vegetable garden, now just a raised section entirely overrun by mint. There they sat, far from the street, where the morning sun edged around the deck and for most of the day shone down on them through a loose filigree of overhead mānuka branches. Later, when we had a builder come to do some work on the house, I moved the pot to the bottom of the garden — where a concrete path, long lost in a flood of foliage, had once led the way down. I would sometimes retire, when the stress of daily word targets and mounting insomnia overwhelmed my ego, to the bottom of the garden to commune, agnostically, with this angiosperm to which I had, for the purpose of this book, linked my fate.

When summer hit proper, heat rose in crenelated waves of vapour from the front-deck suntrap. The garden path had been re-established by my repeated journeys, foreshadowed by lizards scuttling half-tailed into the grass, to and from the bottom of the garden. Tūī alighted from overhead branches, announcing their sudden absence in a flash of brilliant blue-black iridescence that left the tree limbs bouncing. Kererū cavorted above, speeding skywards to hang in momentarily still wings-out crucifixions, before gravity regathered to drag them down once more.

Weed: An New Zealand Story by James Borrowdale . Photo / Supplied
Weed: An New Zealand Story by James Borrowdale . Photo / Supplied

The smallest of the remaining plants had, one night, suffered at the teeth of possums. I sledgehammered some stakes into the ground and surrounded the waist-high copse with chicken wire. There, they stayed only for a couple of days. In my paranoia, I imagined the wire shining as a beacon to the builder. The dining-room table was stacked high with books bearing weed leaves on their covers. If he had seen them, it was of course entirely obvious what was inching upwards in the garden's lower reaches. When I fell out with the builder — after a misunderstanding, he accused me of accusing him of overcharging — I felt suddenly very vulnerable and that in his anger he had something over me. Police surely — surely — wouldn't care. But, my mind retorted, but, but, but ... I was breaking the law, as absurd as it seemed and the fire of my fear was stoked by the research — of lives dented by the same law I was ignoring — that interspersed my trips down the garden path.

So I moved the two remaining plants. (The possum-afflicted plant had never recovered, fading in the shadow of its abundant siblings.) Our property backs on to a band of unfenced native bush you can access through any of our neighbours' properties. Near the enormous trunk and creaking arms of my favourite pūriri tree, where a puddle of sunlight gathers on the forest floor near the top of a rise, I rehomed the remaining plants — technically still on our property but well hidden now among the punga ferns in the shadowy bush. I continued my regular commute, now up the hill to bring water and to sit in the shade as, centimetre by centimetre, the two plants turned the elements of nature into upwards progress.

Prohibition, in a roundabout way, had motivated the move. Prohibition had motivated many such moves. Even the cornucopia of strains — AK47, Maui Wowie, OG Kush, White Widow, Acapulco Gold, et al — links its heritage back to the laws against the plant. Until the mid-1970s, most of the weed smoked in the United States was grown in Mexico. At the behest of the US Government, the Mexican authorities began spraying the herbicide paraquat over crops — and when that adulterated and poisonous product began turning up in the US, production shifted north. Initially, much of this home-grown weed was no good: the equatorial sativa plant, well suited to Mexico, needs a tropical climate in which to prosper.

Enter indica into the West's cannabis consciousness. Grown for centuries in the mountainous regions of Central Asia, the smaller and hardier variety was brought to the US as seeds by travellers returning from the hippie trail. Cannabis could now be grown in all 50 states, from Alaska to New Mexico. By cross-breeding indica and sativa, as American growers soon started doing, the plant was pushed in entirely new directions. When — under President Ronald Reagan's renewed war on drugs — outdoor harvests were liable to attract the attention of police and military helicopters, growers simply moved indoors. "And it was there," Michael Pollan writes, "under the blazing metal halide lights, that Cannabis sativa × indica attained a kind of perfection." Cannabis has never been the same since. According to the US Drug Enforcement Agency, before these prohibition-inspired shifts in cannabis husbandry, THC levels in the unpollinated female flower reached as high as 8 per cent. In 2001, Pollan wrote, 20 per cent was not unheard of. In 2018, a sample from an Oregon outfit was tested at 37.28 per cent. Away from regulation, the fetishisation of the plant's intoxicating properties pushed its development in that inevitable direction; in states like Oregon, that arms race has now been legalised.

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By the 1980s, as generations of the plant adjusted to our soil and climate, powerful weed was being grown in Aotearoa. Soon, there were indigenous strains deserving of their own names, like the famous Te Puke Thunder. New Zealand's own early technological advances were more humble — and indefinably more of New Zealand — than those that revolutionised the American scene. The so-called "chickens*** breakthrough", whereby Coromandel growers dug in henhouse fertiliser to aid the growth of their crops, pushed once-spindly New Zealand plants upwards and outwards. And now, in a world of international illicit seed exchange, the progress has been globalised. My own Bubba 76/ Zombie Kush blend, happily tending sunwards on the hill behind the house, owed its very genealogy to prohibition, and to the human enterprise that had flourished in its shadow.

Weed: A New Zealand Story by James Borrowdale (Penguin Random House NZ) is out now.