The first time I smoked weed was also the first night I tried BZP, NOS, had my first kiss with my boyfriend to be for a few years, and helped my older brother blow up a neighbour’s mailbox. It was Guy Fawkes 2005, I was 15 and so high. I had the dry horrors like you wouldn’t believe (I’m sorry Sam, that kiss must have been painful), and I finally felt a bit grown up. My best friend Ruth was there and it was her first time doing the same things. We both went to work at PAK’nSAVE the next day, and hellish though the hangover was, I couldn’t wait to try it all again.
So followed my first forays into recreational drug use. Like many middle-class bored suburban teens, nights were spent in a hot-boxed car at a dodgy abandoned carpark; days spent tripping too hard on freshly picked mushies; nursing my head in my hands trying to ease the killer headache from teeth grinding after popping too many legals; or pinchin money from mum’s purse to add to the tinny fund, etc. The pervasive feeling though, when I reflect on my teen and early adult years, aside from fun and I’m glad I tried it all, yadda yadda yadda, is guilt. I don’t feel guilty now, but each memory I have is laced with the guilt that I felt at the time. That I was doing something wrong, that I was going to go to hell (yes, my parents are Catholic), that anything this pleasurable, must be inherently sinful.
I know I’m not the only person to have felt this way—a lot of people think drug taking is morally wrong. We’re told from the get go that drugs are plain wrong with no explanation of why. So why? And what would a better drug culture look like? One that encompasses harm reduction, positive education, and looks at ways of dealing with addiction and drug related crime that move from criminalisation to compassion and rehabilitation.
On the world stage, there are basically two big players when it comes to the drug conversation—the United Nations and the Global Commission on Drug Policy. The former is like your arsehole grandad who winces at the very utterance of “cannabis” and the latter is your dope-as nana who remembers the days of wacky-baccy and mushroom tea. This past April, the United Nations General Assembly held a Special Session (UNGASS) dedicated to discussing the world’s drug problems and it was basically a big piss take. In 2014 Mexico, Guatemala, and Colombia, who all have massive problems that stem from narco-trafficking, called for this session. They were hoping for a positive solution that veered away from prohibitionist style drug laws and that considered a more humane approach that encompasses decriminalisation and legalisation where pertinent.
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But the outcome document, that detailed the assembly’s discussions, is almost like a step sideways, even backward. Big players—Russia, China, Egypt, and Indonesia—all still back stale ideas about drug policy, with Indonesia going so far as to say that capital punishment is “an important component” of drug policy (although the spokesperson was met with a good amount of booing). The UN is still working towards a pipe-dream (lol) of a society free of drug abuse which is absolutely fucking ridiculous and I know I could have said that more articulately but seriously COME ON. People have been using drugs since 5000 BCE, do they honestly think that drug use will just vaporise (lol)? There is a divide between the hard-arses and those wanting to take a more progressive approach, and because of this the final document failed to address issues such as a potential ban on capital punishment for drug criminals and harm reduction—both should be primary concerns in any serious discussion on drug law reform.
Groovy Nana aka the GDCP is all up in UNGASS’s mix, being like you guys are legit delusional and a world without drug abuse is never going to happen, so instead of being ARSEHOLES and continuing to make all drug users criminals, why don’t we develop drug policies that decriminalise, legalise, de-penalise, and work towards harm reduction? Uruguay legalised Marijuana in 2014, US states Colorado and Washington legalised marijuana in 2012, and Portugal has had a blanket decriminalisation of all drugs in place since 2001. They are all leaders in progressive policy reform. Portugal has seen a decrease in overall drug addiction and imprisonment due to drug-related incidents, as well as a decrease in HIV cases since its decriminalisation policy took place. Of course, there are other factors that could contribute to these figures, but it’s positive to see that less is being spent on incarceration and more on effective treatment for users who suffer from addiction.
So where does New Zealand stand? Peter Dunne, our representative at UNGASS, claims we have a commitment to “compassion, proportion and innovation” as well as “boldness” when it comes to drug policy reform. Dunne hasn’t said anything too controversial about New Zealand’s drug reform, he’s playing it pretty safe. He does, however, agree that New Zealand’s Misuse of Drugs Act 1975 is due for a remodel. He also states that New Zealand is open to making available marijuana products for medicinal purposes, but not without rigorous medical research and testing as all other drugs are subject to. If marijuana is legalised it could then be sold on a regulated market.
Drugs have only been a central focus of legislation for the latter half of the twentieth century. The War on Drugs refers to the global effort to abolish drug use, following Richard Nixon’s 1971 declaration that narcotics are US’s “public enemy number one”—at the time, about 10–15% of Vietnam vets were addicted to heroin or opiates. A huge crackdown on users and dealers followed. New Zealand’s Misuse of Drugs Act came into effect in 1975, following the US diligently. Drug addiction and problems surrounding drug use had been around long before the 70s obviously, but this was the biggest, targeted operation against drugs and drug users in the twentieth century. But why?
The war against drugs happened at the perfect time—the crackdown on drug use is about more than just drugs. It came in the wake of the Vietnam War and Civil Rights movement. What’s the connection? As John Ehrlichman, White House Domestic Affairs Advisor at the time put it:
“The Nixon Campaign in 1968 and the Nixon White House […] had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people […]. We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or blacks, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”
If we accept this is a possible truth, then so much of what we understand around drug policy blows open.
The negative associations we are indoctrinated with don’t come out of nowhere. They are deeply embedded into a socio-political structure that actively associates drugs with low-socio economic groups, outsiders, and minority group. I mean come on—remember that anti-drug video featuring the Smurfs, Garfield, Alvin and the Chipmunks, and friends, we all had to watch as part of the DARE programme? This video was meant to turn kids away from drugs (my older brother sincerely believes that after watching that video, the only thing he wanted to do was try weed, which he did and then became Tha Weed King). The inherent ‘badness’ of drugs is not so inherent. If we really interrogate the fallacies that our cultural myths of drugs are based on, they begin to feel hollow.
There are risks to drug taking, but like most illegal things the illicit nature results in an increased lack of knowledge, in turn increasing the risks. Users don’t know how to be safe when taking drugs. It’s hard to know for sure that what you’re buying or taking is legit (aside from buying test-kits etc.), so safe and responsible drug use minimises harm for you and those around you, and increases enjoyment. Things you should optimally consider: what you’re taking; who you’ll be taking it with; where you’ll be taking it; telling someone sober who knows that you’re taking drugs; will there be a sufficient water supply at hand; if you’re going to mix, be cautious; know your limits; if you plan on having sex, be prepared safety-wise. I can’t stress enough sticking with friends, and having someone sober around to watch out for you in this regard—ending up in a situation where you are out of it and at risk can and does happen.
You have to think about why you’re taking drugs. If you’re taking drugs for a good time, for meditative purposes, or for shits and giggles then great. If you ever find yourself at the point where your answer is because everyone else is, because you need them, because they’re just there, because you’re trying to escape yourself, then perhaps it’s time to reconsider. Never underestimate the effect drugs can have on your mind. If you are suffering, or have previously suffered mental health issues, consider seriously whether you should be taking recreational drugs at all.
If you ever feel like your drug use is getting out of hand, talk to a friend or family member you can trust. If you don’t feel like you have access to this, the university provides student health and counselling. Also available are services like Lifeline, and the Drug and Addiction Services. These people are actually there to listen and help, not narc on you.
If you are worried about the legal implications of being caught with possession of drugs, KNOW YOUR RIGHTS. In New Zealand, police have a right to a search only if you let them, they arrest you, they have a search warrant, or they have reasonable ground to believe that you have drugs on you (this might include smelling drugs, seeing the drugs, or seeing you use them) in which case they might invoke the Misuse of Drugs Act. If they do they must tell you. Remember that silence is consent. If you don’t want to be searched you have the right to say, “no, I do not consent to a search. What is your lawful authority?” What is their reason for thinking you have drugs on you. If they invoke the Misuse of Drugs Act, they must file a report with the Police Commissioner within 72 hours. You have a right to obtain a copy of this report, the right to watch the search, and the right to a witness.
When it comes to harder drugs, it’s important to understand how serious the addictive side is. Sure, some people say all it takes is once, and some people say that’s bull. It depends on your constitution, your situation, and some would say, genetic makeup. I would recommend not taking harder drugs purely because they can mess with you something chronic, and addiction is not a joke and is all too easy to develop. It creeps up without you even noticing it. As a person close to me who has suffered P addiction said, “it’s fine and just a weekend thing for a while, and then one day—bam! Your heart feels like it’s missing something, like that pang of missing a loved one, or yearning for home. It’s just there all of a sudden, and you find yourself fixing to get your hands on some.”
New Zealand has a ‘War on P’ going on here. In March police executed 30 search warrants for the manufacture and sale of P across the country. Without critiquing our system of dealing with abuse on the whole, this crackdown seems to be a police display of power, showing the concerned public that they’re really doing something about the situation, and instilling fear in those who are targets. It’s a bandaid and a pretty flimsy one at that. What needs to be treated is the wound.
Drug legalisation, or at least decriminalisation, in Aotearoa would mean a reduction in harm, fewer people in prisons, and a more open and informed society. A place where addicts are supported; a place where those who do use drugs won’t feel like outsiders. Perhaps this is all wishful thinking, and if it’s in our future, it’s a distant one. Unlike the delusional idea of eradicating drug use from society entirely, thinking about a future where drug use is acknowledged, dealt with intelligently and compassionately—humanely, is not difficult.
In discussing this, I acknowledge the privileged position I’m in, as an educated person who can make informed decisions about what I decide to put into my body and be able to discuss these matters freely. There are large pockets throughout Aotearoa where drug addiction is a part of everyday life. There are children who grow up without the critical skills to discernibly choose between drug use or not. There are people who have grown up witnessing the negative effects that our current drug policies continue to inflict on communities, and thus likely think that this discussion is marginalising. Which I think it definitely is, in more ways than one.
Who am I to be speaking on this issue? I come from a working class family, and went through a pretty standard New Zealand school system, receiving likely the same piss poor drug and alcohol education that the rest of you did: drugs, don’t do them, or else you’ll get addicted, and probably die. As I’ve mentioned, I went about trying them in (probably) a pretty stereotypical NZ teen manner.
I’ve also seen the ugly side of things. I’ve got family members who’ve been deeply involved in P addiction, dealing, and manufacturing. They have been privy to and been a victim of the reach of the damage that it can do. I’m not trying to whitewash drug use, but I’m most definitely saying that hey, the way to deal with societal problems caused by the misuse of drugs is through positive education, positive drug reforms that aim to minimise harm, to provide help for communities who do suffer the adverse effects, and to provide a safe place for those who wish to dabble, to dabble.
I understand the difficulty in talking about this multi-faceted topic, and the realness of it. This isn’t just some drug-user utopia, or maybe it is. But there is no way that we’ll move away from problematic drug use to positive drug use under the paradigm current mainstream attitudes continue to align with.
Remember though, stay safe, stay informed, tell someone what you’re up to, and enjoy the experience. And I’ll catch y’all in Portugal.
If you are concerned about your drug use, or that of someone you know, please seek help. The following links offer information on addiction services.
If you wish to learn more about drug policy in New Zealand, as well as internationally, check out the following.