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t’s a Kiwi pastime,” a former
West Coast cannabis grower
who operated through the
1990s explains. He agreed to an
inter view on strict grounds of
“It ’s also a culture. People like some bush
weed to relax with a beer. ”
Cannabis arrived on the Coast with
Europeans, packaged up as medicines and
sailed over wild river bars on groaning
merchant ships from the old country.
The medicine Chlorodyne, which
contained cannabis and opium, was
advertised in Greymouth — it was a
drink and as a cough lozenge for
In 1909 a Reefton man died after
“suffocation by falling on his face when
stupid with Chlorodyne or other cause”,
the newspapers of the time reported.
However, apart from Chinese miners,
there is no evidence of recreational drug
Things started to change thanks to
American Henry J Anslinger, first head
of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics. From
1930 to 1962 he went on a hellbent
crusade to turn the weed into the scourge
of America, with the help of Hollywood
and the 1935 movie classic Marijuana:
Weird Orgies! Wild parties! Unleashed
The Dangerous Drugs Act 1927 was
designed to bring New Zealand into line
internationally rather than to control a
But it took another 30 years for cannabis
to reach New Zealand, the mid-1960s,
when ‘hippie’ culture reached New
Zealand. Police responded by setting up
vice squads to combat the problem.
In 2008, when Reefton police pulled up
335 plants worth $300,000, it only filled a
few paragraphs in the paper.
It is hard to know when it arrived on the
West Coast, but in December 1970 the
Greymouth Star reported some plants had
been found in the Lewis Pass.
At that stage police said there were “no
indications” it was being grown on the
Coast. The article contained a description
of the plants (“five to seven leaves”) for its
Hokitika man Stan Dawson retired from
the police force in 1989. He did not know
much about cannabis until he went on a
“Someone from Auckland came down
and told me about it.”
For Mr Dawson though, policing
continued as normal and he does not
remember making any cannabis-arrests.
“Alcohol was enough,” he says, when
asked if there were any drugs back in the
“ But it’s here now ... I suppose it ’s here
These days, the courts are full of
cannabis or cannabis related crimes.
Stories abound — forestry gangs
stumbling on patches, people who grow
it under the powerlines so the police
helicopter can’t fly over, secret growing
One “avid” Coast grower spoke on
condition of anonymity.
He grew throughout the 1990s but
gave up after being caught with a small
He only grew it for personal use.
“It was a lot of hard work to make a plot.
Some people use cages and others put
them in the ground hoping there are no
“ Possums eat it, goats eat it, wind blows
it over, the rain nails it, the cops catch you
with their helicopter, a possum hunter
stumbles on it, people from Canterbury
come looking for it, a deer eats it.
“ You can have made all that effort for
nothing and you stress yourself out.”
The majority of growing on the Coast
was for personal reasons, he said, pointing
out no one in South Westland had ever
been arrested for selling to children or
The growing season runs for nine
months, from August to about March. In
the early days, they could get the seeds via
mail order from Amsterdam.
Seeds are also passed between friends,
and plants are deliberately left to go to
seed: “we ’re all sustainable growers”.
Like a weed, it grows easily and does not
need spraying or very much attention at
all. It does need full sun, and a fair bit of
In the end the stress was too much, and
he decided too much in his life was at
stake. He gave up growing and smoking,
these days putting his efforts into a vege
“I just pulled out a 1200g potato. The
growers are good growers,” he laughs.
But he does regret that more people are
being pushed to grow inside.
Rather than relaxing bushweed, they
are producing the stronger “skunk which
completely wipes them out ”.
A former Coast policeman agreed there
were few large scale growers here. He said
some growers had moved into cannabis
oil, which is processed with the use of
“There’s lots of that.”
Interesting, the price of $20 a tinny has
not changed in many years.
Brian McGurk was a constable in
Greymouth from 1981 to 82, and officer
in charge in Hoktika from the late 1980s.
He was involved with some of the
flyovers, though they were not as regular
Once, armed with good intelligence,
they flew all the way to Haast: “it was a
big effort, but probably worth the trip”.
“ We knew where we were going.”
Sometimes finding a patch was as simple
as following tracks off a road.
“Most were not large and were not
big businesses, though many had a
He first heard about cannabis as a
student at Westland High School in the
By the time he was in the force, it
was established. Living in a smaller
community, police had a good idea who
was growing it.
It gradually began moving indoors,
where growers were not limited to one
growing season, away from possums,
where they could produce a more potent
And here we are in 2015, when a new
drug is appearing in the court news — P
Legalise Cannabis spokesman Steve
Wilkinson, of Golden Bay, said a good
cannabis crop could bring in $30,000 to
$40,000 a year.
There was a shortage of cannabis in
parts of New Zealand at the moment
because the organised criminal element
was moving into drugs like P, which had a
bigger profit margin.
“The cannabis is more labour intensive.”
West Coast police area commander,
inspector John Canning, said the current
trend was towards indoor cannabis
growing, though police still recovered
large numbers of plants in their annual fly
“Indoor growing is a lot more covert, we
can’t pick them up in our annual (fly over)
“And it ’s a lot more controlled
He is more cynical about the claim many
Coast growers do so for personal use,
pointing out the sheer number of plants
recovered at times.
“If you ask a person, they will always say
it’s for personal use.
“ When you are har vesting hundreds of
plants it’s hard to believe it ’s for personal
Which brings us to P, a drug widely
The evidence, Mr Canning says, is
But workplace drug tests pick up
cannabis for up to six weeks after it has
been smoked. P can be gone before
they return to work. And, he says, those
workers often have the disposable income
It seems hard to believe that in the
1970s, just one generation ago, cops were
learning what a cannabis plant looked like.
Despite the rise of P, cannabis remains
an entrenched part of West Coast life.
“Cannabis is as strong as it ever was.”
Down concealed bush tracks, on north facing slopes, or in secret growing rooms, cannabis is being
grown Coastwide. It arrived here only in 1970, but soon became a part of Coast life. LAURA MILLS
talked to police, and a former grower about his struggles with possum, deer, goats, thieves — and stress.
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