Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Clamping down on cannabis culture

I'm not much of a conspiracy theorist, at least when it comes to the New Zealand Government. I know it's hard to avoid the conclusion that there is more than meets the eye to 9/11, and yes there is pretty good evidence that the CIA has been complicit in the trafficking of hard drugs at least since the Vietnam war, but this isn't America. In New Zealand, bungling is often a more likely explanation than corruption.

That's why I have to reject the suggestion that the current crackdown on the cannabis culture is designed to boost organised crime. That may be the result, but I just don't believe it is the intent. Drug policy is highly complex, very political and driven by a great deal of smug self righteousness. A better candidate for frenzied counterproductive activity would be hard to find, hence these latest moves. Someone in Government clearly thinks that we have gone too far. Cannabis use has become common-place. It is widely accepted even by those who do not partake. The police often turn a blind eye, and that staid body the Law Commission, in its own tentative way, has suggested easing criminal penalties for pot. Clearly it is time we were stamped on.

After the shambles of Operation Lime (Operation Lemon?) which busted the Switched On Gardener chain of grow shops, the authorities moved quickly to try to close down the NORML News last week. This has been the mouthpiece of the cannabis law reform movement for twenty years and is likely to be an important rallying point. The magazine is also an astonishing source of scientific information on the latest research findings around cannabis – the stuff that never gets reported in mainstream media. It is an excellent source of legal and political information, and offers a range of harm minimisation techniques for cannabis users. It also provides tips for the home grower, which was the excuse used to send it to the censors. Growing advice is not the primary purpose of the magazine. What is the primary purpose (and growing advice is a part of that) is to inform people about their rights and responsibilities as citizens, to get them active in changing the law and to encourage them to take responsibility for themselves. The Government should be sponsoring it, not attempting to destroy it.

Even if it was a grow magazine, taking it out of circulation would be a huge mistake, unless the objective was to increase gang drug profits and give a boost to the P distribution networks. There is no way that the Government can police the cannabis market out of existence, except perhaps with the most draconian excesses, and even this has not worked in the USA. The problem with policing is that any genuinely successful operation drives down supply, which drives up the price, which creates more incentive for people to get into the business. One way to seriously dent the illegal market, although not destroy it, is for more cannabis users to grow their own. A more effective way is to tax and license its sale. Either way means less money goes to the gangs and fewer cannabis users come into contact with P through the tinny houses. It’s a win / win. Of course it means accepting that responsible adults, for very good reasons, will continue to have a quiet toot when they feel like it, just as they have always done.

The raids on Switched On Gardener have had the opposite effect. I'm sure that the police officers behind the two year stake out thought they were on to something big, at least at the beginning, but by the time they realised that they were wasting their time and our money it was too late. They had to make arrests in order to justify the sunk costs and they have been inflating their results ever since. Deputy Police Commissioner Rob Pope says that the arrests will "break the cornerstone of the illicit cannabis cultivation industry". I just hope for the police's sake that he actually knows that he is talking rubbish. Serious commercial cannabis operators don't buy their gear from Switched On Gardener. Think about it. If you were a large scale commercial grower would you buy your lights there? Any cannabis growers that do buy from there are most likely to be small time personal growers, people who just want to grow for themselves and a few friends so they don't have to buy it from gangs.

Any attempt to clamp down on the cannabis culture is a wasted effort that is doomed to fail. It's part of being Kiwi now. A better idea would be to follow the examples of Holland and Portugal during the Euro 2000 and 2004 football championships. The official tolerance of cannabis use noticeably reduced incidents of violence around the games. Police spokesman Johann Beelan said that cannabis “was part of the conditions which meant everyone had a good time". NORML NZ President Phil Saxby has suggested something similar for the Rugby World Cup next year. Thoughtful, stoned punters instead of loud, drunk and aggressive? What a delightful idea.

(from Monkeywrenching)

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Reading Colenso

I decided this week that it was time to read William Colenso's eyewitness account of the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi. The Waitangi Tribunal is currently hearing Nga Puhi's version of those events so it seemed fitting. It's actually quite a lively read and gives a reasonable idea of what Governor Hobson and the missionaries said to the gathered Nga Puhi chiefs, as well as some inkling of their debates about what they thought it might mean.

Ever since that day in 1840 the Crown has contended that Maori signed away their sovereignty. I have always struggled to understand how they come to this conclusion. Colenso recounts that the rangatira had the Maori language text read to them and that a number of them signed it the following day. None of them were told the content of the English version and none of them signed it, nor did Hobson. So even though the English version cedes sovereignty, it is difficult to see what that has to do with anything.

The Maori version affirms Maori rangatiratanga (chieftainship) over their own people and possessions but yields kawanatanga to the Crown. What is kawanatanga? It was a new word for Maori, adapted from the Bible, and its meaning is ambiguous. Reading Colenso helps identify what people might have thought it meant.

Before reading out the text of the proposed treaty, the Reverend H. Williams gave a speech on behalf of Hobson. He said that Queen Victoria had sent Hobson out of a desire to do good for the Maori people and for her subjects living in New Zealand. The Queen had no power to restrain British people outside of her own dominions and so asked the chiefs to sign the treaty “and so give her that power which shall enable her to restrain them”. Remember that most Pakeha in New Zealand at that time were pretty savage compared to Maori. He went on to say that the Governor had not come to take their lands but to secure them in their ownership of it, and to ensure the return of lands unfairly taken from them.

The speeches that followed demonstrate that many of the rangatira were suspicious that the real aim of the Governor was indeed to usurp their lands and power. What is clear, though, is that none of them were agreeing to this. There was no consent for the Crown to rule over Maori, but rather for it to restrain the excesses of the Pakeha. The ongoing and unceasing assertion by Maori of their own political sovereignty, such as by Nga Puhi before the tribunal this week, is justified on that basis alone.

Ngai Tuhoe, of course, did not sign the Treaty at all. However they had terrible atrocities afflicted upon them by the Crown and it is their lands that were used to establish the Urewera National Park in 1957. John Key has said this week, in an extraordinary breach of good faith, that the Urewera will not be returned to Tuhoe. Once again this demonstrates why allowing the thief to adjudicate their own case is so problematic.

Apart from sheer racism, it is difficult to see why Tuhoe should not be returned their own lands. The Crown has always said that stolen lands now in private ownership will not be taken for restitution and this is a position that Maori have generally accepted on the basis that although it disadvantages them (since most stolen was settled and farmed) it would create a new injustice to seize it from its current occupants. What the Prime Minister is now saying is that even land owned by the Crown will not be returned unless in dribs and drabs. It would seem to be the sheer size of the Urewera forests that is the sticking point – that is to say it is simply the fact that the Crown is in a position to return the bulk of the land taken that is the very reason it will not. Talk about wanting to steal your cake and eat it too.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

My thoughts on Saturday's anti mining march

I had a great time on Saturday, for someone who doesn't much like going on marches. Marches are a bit like petitions in my opinion – a huge amount of effort for something that usually gets ignored. Very often, marches do little more than demonstrate how marginal the issue is to the vast majority of people, and how bereft of ideas the campaigners are. Saturday was an entirely different matter.

First of all, it was HUGE. I started the day somewhere nearish the front, bemoaning what seemed like a poor turnout. Then I realised that the sidestreet was also full of people, that the front was quite a long way ahead of where I thought it was, and that people were continuing to pack in at the back. I spent the march drifting slowly down the line, catching up with old friends, meeting new ones and getting a sense of the size. By the time I got to Myers Park I was in the back row, discussing with John Whyte and Mike Finlayson whether this was the biggest march we have ever seen in Auckland, or one of the biggest. When you get to these sorts of numbers it’s a distinction that is of academic interest only.

Also important was that there was a broad cross section of people, although Maori were not fully represented. The biggest tino rangatiratanga flag in the world was there, but almost no Maori on the mic despite (I understand) being asked. After their shameful vote on the Emission Trading Scheme, I can't help speculating whether the Maori Party is leaving the door open to support the mining proposals. I hope not. Even so, no one who actually looked could argue that this was a crowd of anything other than a wide range of New Zealanders of all ages and walks of life gathering to say a resounding “NO” to the Government's plans to open schedule 4 conservation lands to mining.

Thirdly, it was creative, at least in parts. There is no doubt that the activist movement has been bunkered down for a number of years and this showed. The crazy theatrical displays of other times and places were not much in evidence and I saw no stilt-walkers, dalek beehives or bicycle power soundsystems running off the back of 6 person velomobiles. There was a blow up earth bouncing around, and – joy of joys – some satirical street theatre in the form of CRAP.

CRAP stands for 'Capitalism Represents Acceptable Policy' and CRAP stunts generally consist of people dressing up in suits and representing those corporate interests that are usually invisible at these events. The interesting thing is that attempts to articulate the most extreme and over-the-top satirical propositions actually sound very similar to the lines coming out of mainstream economic and corporate mouthpieces. It indicates just how wide the chasm between us actually is. However putting ourselves in the shoes of our opponents is always a powerful learning experience, and one that the green movement often shies away from. The issues that we campaign on are important and urgent, but this must not prevent us from both reflecting on how we communicate with other people and from thinking about what we can learn from our opponents. Sadly quite a few marchers failed to see both the joke and the point behind it.

Anyway, it was a great march. Lots of fun, empowering and inspiring. A huge thank you to all of the people involved in organising it, and all those who came from far and wide to attend. I went home with a renewed enthusiasm for the campaign. This was not dampened by the predictable response of the Government. Gerry Brownlee had to laugh it off in public and dismiss its importance, despite the consternation it must have caused behind closed doors. The fact is, no march has ever changed a Government's mind as far as I can see, but it will have them privately worried. It is the first serious public demonstration against John Key's Government. And it is at the beginning of the campaign, not its culmination.

What was important about the march, then, was not how it affected the Government, but how it affected those of us who participated. It was a catalyst for all the simmering discontent around this Government to become manifest. It delegitimised the Government's plans and legitimises the opposition. People can argue about how big the majority opposing the mining plans actually is, but regardless of that, like the Springbok tour of 1981, this issue is set to bitterly divide the nation if the Government goes forward with it. Polls do not tell the full story – the powerful passions that this issue arouses in the hearts of ordinary New Zealanders. The covenant that was made between Government, business and citizens in the past that drew the line around the conservation estate is being broken. This march was the first sign of a gathering storm, and one that will not be bought off with token gestures. John Key's Government will rue the day if it decides to ignore the message of Saturday.

(from my TV3 column, Monkeywrenching)