It's a plant that has come with links to gangs and violence — but a steady income — for the tiny settlement of Ruatoria. But now, in a place with a high unemployment rate, the community is excited to offer the country's first legal cannabis course. Michael Neilson reports.
On a small plot of whānau land near the tiny East Coast town of Ruatoria, a dozen locals tend to their budding cannabis plants.
Two years ago this would have been hidden, way off in the bush.
The mostly Ngāti Porou iwi members are students on the country's first legal cannabis course and, for now, they are growing the low-THC variety, also known as hemp.
The students are proud of what they are doing, and about their community starting a new relationship with a plant that has previously given the region a notorious reputation.
Marijuana, hemp's high-THC cousin, has been used by generations as an income supplement in an area of high unemployment, and associated with gangs, violence, and prison time.
"When I got into growing dope the real benefit was putting clothes on our kids' backs, food on the table and getting them to school," says one of the students, who asks to remain anonymous.
"I worked, but still grew to make ends meet. It is exciting now, the legal opportunities, from hemp, to CBD, to medicinal cannabis."
Ruatoria is about as isolated as it gets in this country. It is an 8-hour drive from Auckland or an expensive flight to the closest city, Gisborne, followed by a further 2 hours' drive north.
The roads become increasingly windy and rugged the closer you get, packed with stacked logging trucks that roar past.
The scenic beauty is overwhelming: rolling green hills, the majestic Raukumara Ranges crowned by Mt Hikurangi - Ngāti Porou's sacred maunga, picture-perfect, pohutukawa-lined beaches doused in glorious sunshine for most of the year, no crowds to be seen.
But, like many small east coast towns, it is littered with run-down and abandoned factory buildings, shuttered shops and desolate streets, with a small bump in activity over the summer months through tourism.
Once a prosperous region fuelled by farming - largely based on the sheep and beef industry - urban drift and decades of neglect has seen unemployment and poverty rise.
Forestry is now the largest employer in the region, with over a quarter of Gisborne households connected to the industry.
But locals are becoming fed up with the associated environmental issues - the slash, the silt build-up in the rivers and covering the sea beds, and logging trucks ripping up the roads.
Unlike other iwi who were subjected to mass land confiscations from the Crown, Ngāti Porou, who sided and even fought alongside the Crown, kept much of their land.
Their settlement, reached in 2012, was based more on the social and economic neglect of the region since the Treaty of Waitangi was signed.
Many coastal whānau might be financially poor, but they are resource rich.
The cannabis-growing site is about 15 minutes outside Ruatoria, a region long known for its exceptional growing conditions (the original name was Rua-a-Tōrea, the storage pit of Tōrea).
The Herald on Sunday visits early in the growing season and while the plants are still small, they are immediately recognisable: the deep green leaves, crystal-like buds, pungent smell.
With the country changing its relationship with the plant, first in legalising commercial hemp in 2006, liberalising medicinal cannabis (the high-THC kind) this year, and a referendum planned on legalising recreational cannabis in 2020, there are real – legal - opportunities for this town of just 750 people and the wider region.
With an unemployment rate of about 15 per cent, change cannot come soon enough.
Unlike marijuana, it is near impossible to get high from smoking hemp.
It is low to zero in THC - the psychoactive chemical that induces the high - meaning one would need to smoke a joint the size of a power pole to have any effect, and even then they'd likely be very sick first.
Hemp varieties do contain cannabidiol (CBD) - the medicinal component - which can be extracted to treat conditions including anxiety, depression, acne, heart disease, and as pain and symptom relief for cancer.
The plant fibres from other varieties can be used in products from building blocks to clothes, and its protein-rich seeds contain fatty acids omega-3 and omega-6, and can be pressed into highly sought-after oil.
Protein powder containing hemp is becoming a popular additive to smoothies, often consumed by bodybuilders.
Across the country, interest is surging in the plant. In 2017, the Ministry of Health issued 121 licences to grow hemp, and last year a further 154.
There are three active licences to cultivate high-THC medicinal cannabis, but the ministry will not say which regions they have been granted to or how many applications are in progress. Given a medicinal cannabis reform law passed its final reading in December, the number is likely to increase.
At least a few dozen whānau in Ruatoria are interested in growing the low-THC variety.
In 2017, acknowledging the locals' unique skill base in the black-market cannabis trade, the local Hikurangi Cannabis Company - the first company in New Zealand to be granted a medical cannabis cultivation licence - teamed up with the Eastern Institute of Technology.
They offer the country's first certificate in sustainable primary production, specialising in cannabis.
The course takes about 14 students for the 22-week course, running from November to April.
They have received hundreds of queries from across New Zealand, and even Australia, but prioritise locals to help grow the East Coast industry. Into its second season, 13 students hail from Ngāti Porou, and one student married into the iwi.
The course enables students to test different growing techniques and utilise sustainable resources around them. They gather seaweed from the coast and horse manure from surrounding farms.
The hemp grown by the students is for experimental purposes only. None is allowed to be taken off site, and any harvested is burned on site.
They work on consistency - key to any commercial operation - and seek to develop different strains for different purposes, such as high CBD levels for medicines.
The course and the hype around town has helped to reduce stigma attached to the plant.
The students hope to then take those skills and develop their own crops on whānau land, with the ultimate aim of contributing to Hikurangi Cannabis Company.
Cannabis cultivation tutor Rob Thomson is now able to apply his trade legally.
"Generations here have been growing marijuana, and many have been locked up for it.
"I am one of them. I've spent six years of my life in jail for marijuana, cultivation and possession."
Missing his babies growing up, and wanting to reconnect with his culture, Thomson found a path away from that life.
"At that time I was in Tauranga. During my last stint I met a guy from Hick's Bay who said 'You need to go home, learn your whakapapa, learn your roots'.
"And so I did, I went home to Te Araroa, started growing food, Māori food, set up maara kai [food gardens] all around."
Thomson has become a bit of a local legend for his passion for growing kai - passion he has taken with full force into the hemp course.
Even Thomson's mother and some of her friends are applying for licences to grow hemp.
"We call them the 'nanny hempsters'."
Thomson says he feared those with criminal convictions for growing marijuana illegally may be kept out of the future legal industry, as has happened in some American states.
However, he is buoyed by the Government announcement licensed producers will be allowed to utilise illicit cannabis strains already grown in the country.
"People have been growing it for generations [illegally], and now they can come out of the bush, create jobs, and bring our people home.
"The possibilities are huge for our people."
Thomson's partner and fellow tutor Lisa Beach also grew up in the area, before moving to Waikato to study and eventually coming home to "help my people".
"We are still losing many young ones to Australia. When we can't offer them any opportunities here, why wouldn't they leave?
"We are also losing links with our culture, there are less on our marae who can speak te reo, can karanga, know the tikanga.
"We see hemp as an alternative crop to not only utilise the land but keep whānau home."
Beach is excited about the medicinal benefits too.
"This plant can produce CBD oil to stop my nephew having seizures, or help my granddaughter who gets really bad eczema. This one here can help my aunty with cancer."
A lot of the hype in Ruatoria is due to the local Hikurangi Cannabis Company, which aims to have a cannabis processing facility built in Ruatoria and manufacturing facility built in Gisborne in the next 18 months, creating about 60 jobs.
In August, the company became the first in the country to receive a medicinal cannabis licence, enabling it to breed strains that can be used in medicines.
It has commissioned clinical trials to start next year for the first New Zealand-made cannabis medicines.
They are initially looking at two products, an oral syringe and a topical balm that can be rubbed on to painful areas, particularly for those with arthritis.
The company evolved out of a charitable trust, formed in January 2016 to stimulate economic opportunities in the rohe.
It ran a survey of 512 Ngāti Porou members living outside the rohe, finding 90 per cent wanted to come home, and a quarter had plans to.
But holding them back were a lack of jobs, infrastructure and lack of cultural and land connection.
Hikurangi Cannabis has been on a public awareness campaign over the past couple of years. In early 2017 the company held a public "smell, taste and touch" day for its first trial hemp harvest.
Last year the company crowd-funded $2.4 million, which crashed the PledgeMe website. It gave preferential shares in its company to locals, with many signing up during a regional road-show.
Since then the company has raised several million more from various investors. The ultimate aim is to have a collective of growers around the region utilising whānau land and contributing to a cannabis co-op.
For managing director Manu Caddie, creating legal employment opportunities in a region that is about 95 per cent Māori is about equity.
"Marijuana has been a bit of a commodity, income and/or benefit supplement in the region for a long time, and Māori have certainly been disproportionately negatively affected by prohibition, from police raids to incarceration," Caddie says.
"Cannabis is one of the few opportunities in the last 100 years Māori have had to lead in a new industry. Now there are legitimate business opportunities, and there are lots of skills from that black market, and we are hoping to be able to support them into legitimate business.
"Internationally we are seeing investment bankers and people already with a lot of money getting into the industry early on and dominating it, so we are keen to offer an alternative for consumers and producers."
With an iwi population of 70,000 in New Zealand, and a further estimated 30,000 living overseas (mostly in Australia), if the right opportunities arise it can prove a real boon for the region.
"The aim is to be able to create more high-value income on the flats, such as cannabis, which could mean the hills could be left to revert to natives, such as mānuka, and in turn assist the mānuka honey business," Caddie says.
• What is it?
Industrial hemp is varieties of cannabis sativa that have a tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) content – the psychoactive component - generally below 0.35 per cent.
• How is it grown?
Hemp can be grown inside and outside. The growing season outdoors is generally from late spring through summer. Hemp is a nitrogen-fixer – taking nitrogen from the air and transferring it to the soil - and can be used to restore depleted land.
• What is it used for?
The seeds are high in omega-3, omega-6 and protein, and can be used in various food products and pressed into oil. The fibres can be used in building materials, clothing and processed into paper, and the buds can be processed for their cannabidiol (CBD), medicinal properties.
• What are the laws?
Industrial hemp varieties are controlled drugs and are listed in Schedule 3 Part I of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1975. People need to acquire a licence from the Ministry of Health to grow hemp and for any further processes.
• How do you get a licence?
It can be obtained from the Ministry of Health, costs $511.11 and lasts a year. This allows for the cultivation, processing, possession and supply of low-THC cannabis varieties approved by the Director-General of Health. Further licences for activities such as research, breeding, commercial cultivation and medicinal purposes also need to be applied for to the ministry.
• 2006 – August: Commercial cultivation of hemp (low THC cannabis) legalised.
• 2016 – January: Hikurangi Huataukina Trust forms from a group of Ngāti Porou hapū to stimulate sustainable job opportunities on the East Coast. Soon after it launches Hikurangi Cannabis Company.
• 2016 – Hikurangi Cannabis plants a trial industrial hemp crop near Ruatoria. At harvest time in February 2017 it invites the community to come and "smell, taste and touch" the low-THC plant.
• 2017 - Hikurangi Cannabis and Eastern Institute of Technology launch the country's first certificate in sustainable primary production, specialising in cannabis (hemp).
• 2018 – May: More than 1500 local families and other New Zealanders invest $2.5m through a crowdfunding campaign for Hikurangi Cannabis. Demand crashed the PledgeMe website.
• 2018 - August: Hikurangi Cannabis becomes first company to be granted medicinal cannabis licence.
• 2018 – November: Law change allows hemp seed to be sold as food in New Zealand.
• 2018 – December: Misuse of Drugs (Medicinal Cannabis) Amendment Act comes into effect, expanding the use of medicinal cannabis to all people needing palliative relief, and aiming to develop a scheme enabling domestic cultivation and manufacture from 2019.
• 2020 – A binding referendum is to be held on recreational cannabis use at the 2020 election.