THC News December 2016 - Page 17

You can get to thinking about the Alanis Morrisette song "Ironic" when hearing Abe Gray tell his story of how and why he came to New Zealand from his native Minnesota.

Except in the sense that most of the things Morrisette regarded as being ironic actually weren't, and yet the last 17 years, for Gray, really have been.

A cannabis activist in the U.S.A., Gray felt compelled to move to NZ when he saw a story in the media about the country having elected a Rastafarian - former Green Party M.P. Nandor Tanczos - to Parliament.

"[Tanczos] admitted that he currently smoked weed and said it didn't affect him negatively in any way, and he was a really inteligent guy who was completely respectable," recalled the former botany lecturer.

"And I thought, 'what an awesome political system'..."

The idea appealed so much to Gray, who felt himself to be hugely restricted within a "police state" system where possession of even small amounts of cannabis were routinely punished with prison time.

"I decided to apply to immigrate there, and at the time my application was going through it seemed very likely that NZ would become the first country in the world to legalise cannabis," said the man who is now the Cannabis Party president.

"From what I'd read, it seemed like the Greens had done a deal with the Labour party (to get cannabis legalised).

I thought they were about to legalise in NZ and that they were never ever going to legalise in America."

Five days before he arrived to settle here permanently, everything changed. The idyllic life he hoped he was coming to was suddenly whisked away from him.

Dunne got super-popular; it was like our Kennedy vs Nixon moment,” he said.

Dunne did well in that 2002 General Election, his United First party increasing their vote share by five per cent and their 6.69 per cent of the overall vote securing them eight MPs.

The party is now down to just one MP, Dunne, but crucially he retains the Associate Health portfolio he was given in 2008 in a deal with National.

The irony, for Gray, is that 16 years into the new millennium the progressive country he thought he was coming to live in continues to officially regard cannabis as a menace while the country of his birth is the one that is embracing change.

Dunne's clear anti-cannabis agenda has held sway since his 2002 election success.

Like Cannabis Party leader Julian Crawford, the former University of Otago student doesn't believe that cannabis will ever be legalised in New Zealand under the current political system because Dunne's power, as drug czar, keeps it from being considered.

Gray said of Dunne: "His only requirement for making the coalition with Labour was no change to the legal status of cannabis."

It's easy to see how someone who had been an activist for cannabis legalisation in the US - but didn't expect to have to be in New Zealand - might wind up getting involved in the movement.

"From the day I arrived in New Zealand, all the positive cannabis stuff that I was reading about - the rug was ripped out from under it and it went totally backwards and all the people who had been supporting it publicly withdrew into their shells," said Gray.

"That's what I arrived to - just everything that I had hoped for and dreamed about deflating overnight right before I arrived."

Having joined the movement for change in Dunedin, he didn't expect there would be much resistence given how close legalisation had been.

However, Gray says Dunne's blocking tactic has endured for the best part of two decades.

"All he's done is make sure that we don't have meaningful cannabis law reform," he said.

"Every action that he's done has been working backwards from 'how do we prevent legal cannabis.'"

A further irony that came to haunt Gray – contributing to him losing his university work - was the NZ government's efforts to target him for his activist stance.

"In the 'police state' of America, they've basically totally legalised in a good chunk of it while here in NZ that I thought was a Utopia the police basically put me under surveillance for being an activist, and for no other reason," he said.

These days the police recognise that targeting politicians can rebound on them, generating negative publicity for them and positive for their victims.

It wasn't always the case, though, as Gray found out when he was on one occasion wrongfully arrested for resisting arrest on University of Otago grounds while he was helping co-ordinate Cannabis Awareness Week.

Students had been aware for around six months that there was surveillance going on, with under-cover cops being enrolled as "students" without the university being informed.

Gray recalls "people with long camera lenses hiding in the bushes...people hitting everyone up about buying weed the same way a cop would."

He was aware of another irony at that point, too...

"We thought this was weird that they would go to so much trouble with surveillance, because we were filming all of our meetings and uploading them on YouTube ... and if they'd wanted to see who was there and what was going on, all they had to do was watch our video blog," he said.

The fake students ultimately revealed themselves in the aftermath of Gray's arrest. There were not enough uniformed police to contain the crowd that was trying to prevent the bogus arrest, so the under-cover cops had to step in and identify themselves and show their police badges.

Isn't it

ironic?

yeah, I really do think...

"Just everything that I had hoped for and dreamed about deflating overnight right before I arrived."

"There was an election, and in that election - because of a specific debate on TV - Peter Dunne got super-popular; it was like our Kennedy vs Nixon moment,” he said.

Dunne did well in that 2002 General Election, his United First party increasing their vote share by five per cent and their 6.69 per cent of the overall vote securing them eight MPs.

The party is now down to just one MP, Dunne, but crucially he retains the Associate Health portfolio he was given in 2008 in a deal with National.

The irony, for Gray, is that 16 years into the new millennium the progressive country he thought he was coming to live in continues to officially regard cannabis as a menace while the country of his birth is the one that is embracing change.

Dunne's clear anti-cannabis agenda has held sway since his 2002 election success.

Like Cannabis Party leader Julian Crawford, the former University of Otago student doesn't believe that cannabis will ever be legalised in New Zealand under the current political system because Dunne's power, as drug czar, keeps it from being considered.

Gray said of Dunne: "His only requirement for making the coalition with Labour was no change to the legal status of cannabis."

It's easy to see how someone who had been an activist for cannabis legalisation in the US - but didn't expect to have to be in New Zealand - might wind up getting involved in the movement.

"From the day I arrived in New Zealand, all the positive cannabis stuff that I was reading about - the rug was ripped out from under it and it went totally backwards and all the people who had been supporting it publicly withdrew into their shells," said Gray.

"That's what I arrived to - just everything that I had hoped for and dreamed about deflating overnight right before I arrived."

Having joined the movement for change in Dunedin, he didn't expect there would be much resistence given how close legalisation had been.

However, Gray says Dunne's blocking tactic has endured for the best part of two decades.

"All he's done is make sure that we don't have meaningful cannabis law reform," he said.

"Every action that he's done has been working backwards from 'how do we prevent legal cannabis.'"

A further irony that came to haunt Gray – contributing to him losing his university work - was the NZ government's efforts to target him for his activist stance.

"In the 'police state' of America, they've basically totally legalised in a good chunk of it while here in NZ that I thought was a Utopia the police basically put me under surveillance for being an activist, and for no other reason," he said.

These days the police recognise that targeting politicians can rebound on them, generating negative publicity for them and positive for their victims.

It wasn't always the case, though, as Gray found out when he was on one occasion wrongfully arrested for resisting arrest on University of Otago grounds while he was helping co-ordinate Cannabis Awareness Week.

Students had been aware for around six months that there was surveillance going on, with under-cover cops being enrolled as "students" without the university being informed.

Gray recalls "people with long camera lenses hiding in the bushes...people hitting everyone up about buying weed the same way a cop would."

He was aware of another irony at that point, too...

"We thought this was weird that they would go to so much trouble with surveillance, because we were filming all of our meetings and uploading them on YouTube ... and if they'd wanted to see who was there and what was going on, all they had to do was watch our video blog," he said.

The fake students ultimately revealed themselves in the aftermath of Gray's arrest. There were not enough uniformed police to contain the crowd that was trying to prevent the bogus arrest, so the under-cover cops had to step in and identify themselves and show their police badges.