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July 21, 2008 | by  | in News |
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Cannabis protesters arrested on campus

Otago’s National Organisation for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) President Abe Gray and two other members of the cannabis law reform group were arrested on the University’s grounds recently.

Police officers approached Gray while he was manning the NORML stall at the Radio One Market Day on 3 July.

“The University’s Proctor’s office received two complaints during the day,” the University’s Chief Operating Officer John Patrick said. “Those complaints were referred to the Police.”

Critic, the University’s student magazine, reported that there were three uniformed police officers and two plainclothes officers at the stall, who told Gray that he was suspected of possessing cannabis and utensils, as well as complaints made that he had been seen smoking a cannabis pipe.

Gray told Critic that there was no evidence that the substance he had been smoking was cannabis, and that he did not consent to a search. He did not recall that the police invoked the Misuse of Drugs Act before arresting him for obstruction.

He was taken to a police car on Albany Street while complaining that the police were being unfair and physically hurting him. NORML member Daniel said that Gray appeared to be in so much pain that he was close to tears.

At Critic’s time of print, Gray was going to the Dunedin Hospital’s A&E department, saying that his wrist had been sprained when he was handcuffed.

“He was protesting innocence the whole way,” says NORML member Bert Holmes.

Green MP Meritia Turei was coincidentally on campus and witnessed part of the incident. She is unhappy with both the University and the police response.

“Initially I saw Abe getting arrested by two very large policemen who had him in an arm lock where both his arms were being held behind his back and his wrists bent,” she says. “He was in pain and asking for him to stop hurting him and for people to intervene to stop him from being injured. He did not want to get into the police car.”

“It’s questionable whether having someone else say they saw him smoking, or somebody smoking, is reasonable grounds [for a search],” Turei says.

If a person refuses consent the police must invoke the ‘search without warrant’ procedures in the Misuse of Drugs Act if they intend to conduct a search.

“If they don’t do that they failed to use proper law and they’re not entitled then to arrest. So I think there are real issues here about whether the arrest was legal and the eye-witnesses said the police did not invoke the Misuse of Drug Act so I think the police have got some serious questions here to answer.”

Gray told Critic that he was charged for possession although he had no cannabis on his person. He also says that the police confiscated a large sum of money that he had been carrying as he had been in the process of switching banks on that day, money that the police claimed could be from the sale of drugs.

Gray says he was kept in the police station for nearly five hours, without being given any food or water, with some time spent barefoot in a cold cell smeared with blood and faeces.

OUSA President Simon Wilson points out that the attention of authorities highlights the success of NORML’s activism. “The attention they’re getting now is the result of a successful civil disobedience campaign.”

He says now that the issue is firmly in the public eye, the University only has two options: “Ignore it or do something about it.”

Turei speculates that the police were feeling pressure from the University to take action against the group. “I think the University has the responsibility to take care of and protect the student body,” she says. “The protests have been peaceful up until now other than police action – I can’t see any justification for allowing the police to go onto campus and arrest students like that.”

OUSA, which supports the smoking of cannabis on campus as a form of protest, was still assessing the situation as Critic went to print. Wilson planned to sit down with Gray and the others on Friday before deciding on a course of action. The matter is to be discussed at tomorrow’s executive meeting, open to members of the student body.

Wilson does disagree with the action police took. “Students shouldn’t be targeted for being involved in a political movement,” he says.

However, he has reservations about the way supporters acted after Gray’s arrest. “I understand they were upset, but I don’t think people should be doing things like [jumping on police cars].”

The University has said that it would be inappropriate for the University to comment further given that the matter is now with the police. The three arrested students have been issued trespass notices covering the Union lawn and quad area, and will appear in court next month.

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