By Tess McClure
The road to Ruatoria is long—eight hours from Auckland, and two from Gisborne, the nearest town to pass as an 'urban centre'. Often, you are the only car on the road. On the radio, channels drop away one by one, until the only station is Radio Ngāti Porou: bulletins in Te Reo, Jukebox Jams with Ken. As the road carves through the hills, undulating manuka gives way to the dark uniformity and order of radiata pine. At an isolated sheep-shearing shed in a Ruatoria valley, a crew of growers arrives to pick up planting pots.
It’s well past harvest time now, but a few weeks back this room was filled with bunches and bunches of drying hemp. A few sacks of buds are still here, giving off their sweet, heavy scent. One of the men ducks out of photos. “Camera shy,” he murmurs. Before he did this, he used to grow cannabis illegally. “Got sick of ducking and diving,” he says. Now he’s looking at doing hemp by the books. “Think about it. That’s a positive thing,” his companion chips in. “These guys”—he sweeps a hand around at the sheep shed—“they’re thinking about the people. That’s different to corporate companies coming in and taking over.” ‘These guys’ are Hikurangi Industries, racing to be among the first legal producers of medicinal cannabis in New Zealand. Currently, they hold a commercial hemp-growing license. As they wait for New Zealand’s medicinal cannabis reform to move through the legislative process, they’ve begun training locals to grow and process hemp—the plant cousin of cannabis—so they’re ready when the time comes.
Legal cannabis is big money. Over in Canada, the newly legal industry will be worth $6.5 billion within two years. The global industry global cannabis market is projected to be worth $87.8b by 2024. As the framework for a legal industry begins its slow trundle through New Zealand’s parliament, investors know there’s cash to be made. But overseas, a chasm has emerged between the communities of colour disproportionately hit by drug policing, and the primarily white entrepreneurs making huge sums off a billion-dollar legal industry.
In 2016, a Buzzfeed investigation found just 1 percent of weed dispensaries were owned by black people. A number of states had introduced laws meaning those with drug convictions were banned from involvement in the legal industry. “After having borne the brunt of the ‘war on drugs’,” they write, “black Americans are now largely missing out on the economic opportunities created by legalization.”
Here in New Zealand, it’s Māori communities who have been hit by racial bias in drug policing. Even when accounting for rates of use, at every stage of the criminal justice system, Māori are more likely to be apprehended, charged, and given a prison sentence than their Pākeha pot-smoking counterparts. In this 2007 report, for example, Corrections notes that on the basis of equivalent usage of cannabis, Māori experienced arrest at three times the rate of non-Māori users.
Now, New Zealand is poised to legalise. But who stands to benefit from a medicinal cannabis industry? In a remote East-Cape town, some of the community hopes hemp presents a way forward: bringing safe jobs, healing the land, bringing whānau home, offering some restitution for the drug arrests that once destroyed future prospects and put their men in prison.