Patrick Gower reckons he now knows more about marijuana than anyone else in New Zealand.
The Newshub journalist searches for the truth about cannabis – and whether or not it should be legalised here – in his new TV documentary On Weed.
Making On Weed gave Gower extraordinary access to people involved with cannabis, he tells Jesse Mulligan.
“Doing the documentary has given me the absolute privilege of going to the East Coast, for instance, and meeting the people with the seedlings – the illegal growers. I go back to the East Coast, to the Coromandel, and I’m with the police when they pull it out. I’m able to go to all sides of the business, different businesses that are competing with each other, and see the different ways they’re doing things. I’m with the scientists, the illegal dealers, the green fairies ... the users, the abusers. So in doing that I’ve been very lucky in that I’ve actually pretty much got to go everywhere.”
There’s also a personal angle for Gower.
“My mum, she died of cancer, lung cancer … and that has helped frame the documentary because I actually go and see my dad and ask him about the management of mum’s pain – which was left to him mainly – which, in the end, was, not to put too fine a point on it, just bucketloads of morphine.
“It’s not giving anything away to say that as soon as I started learning about cannabis and – medical cannabis in particular – that I just realised that I had actually missed a real opportunity to give it to my mum … it can work alongside chemotherapy, radiotherapy and even opioids. At the very least it can help someone sleep or just feel a little bit better."
Gower says there are two parts to his investigation – is marijuana the medicinal wonder drug that anecdotal accounts suggest, and what could legalisation look like?
He says he tried it both medicinally and recreationally.
“It wouldn’t be much of a doco if I didn’t try it … The first time was a medical situation with a doctor who gives it to me through a vape to treat my stress. The second time I try it recreationally at a company called Kikoko – which is actually run by a New Zealander –mand that is [taking] a weed tea that is aimed at women over 50.
“It did help my stress and I did have fun.”
Medicinal anecdotes and green fairies
There is a huge illegal medicinal marijuana industry in New Zealand, and in On Weed, the first so-called 'green fairy' we meet is a man dubbed Gandalf, Gower says.
“[Gandalf] supplies medical cannabis to over 1,000 people. Now, we’ve got another green fairy also in the first episode who also supplies over 1,000 people and I can tell you there are people like this in every town and province. In New Zealand, we have a massive illegal medical cannabis market run by green fairies … they’re all helping people with various cancers or pain relief.”
The effects of medicinal cannabis depend on how it’s formulated, Gower says, and it does not always have a psychoactive effect.
“CBD, which comes out of the cannabis plant, is used for medicine … it is just a plant extract, there is absolutely no way of getting high off that and people are finding a lot of medical benefits from that. If there’s THC in it, then yes, you have the same effect as getting stoned – that’s the psychoactive substance.”
Gower says that before making On Weed, he didn't know that green fairies supplied medical cannabis in the form of a tincture.
“It’s not this illegal kind of thing wrapped up in tinfoil or anything like that. It looks like medicine, tastes like medicine.
“I can talk about it as much as anyone. Anyone who has had a relative in a terminal state knows how frustrating it is to not be able to do anything for their pain.
“Medically, there’s no need for it to be smoked, to cause lung damage.”
Other than marketing, there is no substantial difference between cannabis used for medicinal purposes and that used recreationally.
The science of weed, or lack thereof
The evidence of marijuana's medical benefits is so far only anecdotal because the science simply isn’t there yet, Gower says.
“The war on drugs, it went on for so long that there just isn’t that kind of research … that kind of double-blind, peer-reviewed research which tells us ‘well, maybe they just feel a little stoned, maybe you know, they just feel better’. We don’t actually have that.
"It has been legal in a few places but there isn’t that definitive piece of research yet ... it takes a long, long time to peer-review and go over and over and over again.
“Look, in the [US] at the moment ... they can’t actually do [the research] because federally [cannabis is] illegal.
“What we do have is a massive wave of anecdotal evidence saying ‘this stuff helps me, this stuff makes a difference to me, why isn’t is available to me, I need it, it’s a plant, give it to me now’.”
Recreational legalisation and decriminalisation
Meanwhile, the question of recreational cannabis is looming for New Zealanders, with a referendum coming alongside next year’s general election.
In California, legalised recreational use has quickly become hyper-capitalistic, Gower says.
“Best way of describing it … it’s like an Apple (tech) store in there. You show your ID and get in. Every kind of cannabis that you can think of was there: salted caramel chocolate, gummy bears, stuff for your pets if your dog’s got anxiety or whatever.
“It’d be mindblowing for any New Zealander to see something marketed in this way, but that’s America. They’re experts at marketers: once something’s legal they’re into it totally.”
However, Gower doesn't think that’s very realistic.
“My feeling is that even with a tightly regulated market, as soon as money gets involved and the nature of cannabis itself is that it’s going to push and push … a tightly regulated market sounds good on paper, [but] whether that would actually happen if we legalised I’m not too sure.”
Global pharmaceutical companies have often worked to stop the proliferation of cannabis, Gower says, but now that it’s catching on, they, along with the tobacco and alcohol industries, are beginning to try to capitalise on it.
“All three – big pharma, big alcohol and big tobacco – are taking stakes in the big cannabis companies, and that’s another thing that we’re going to see globally, as well ... There is going to be something called ‘big weed’ and actually it might have the same players that we’re used to behind it.”
It is possible to support medicinal cannabis use without supporting recreational use, Gower says, but in practice, the two often go hand in hand.
“Eventually the GPs are going to get tired of it ... it becomes normalised around you and recreational comes in and everything that comes with recreational goes with that.
“Once it starts to come in legally it actually is just a bit of a force of its own – and you know we’ve seen that here in New Zealand. I mean, it’s illegal here but it’s everywhere, it’s already forced its way into so many parts of society.”
New Zealanders will not have much time to get used to medicinal cannabis before having to decide whether to allow recreational use, Gower says.
“We will have medical cannabis on the shelves, so to speak, in New Zealand next year … but we won’t have it for a long time before that vote.”
Negatives and harms
Legalising cannabis cannot be a purely good thing, Gower believes.
“It's going to come with downsides and some of them are huge downsides.
“Some of the numbers change around ... but we know that it is bad for developing brains, we’ve got the scientists from the Christchurch longitudinal study and [Professor] Richard Poulton from down in Dunedin there, and we’ve been talking about the lack of research, but both those studies have some of the best data on cannabis in the world because they have been looking at it for so long.
“We see that it is bad for young people, it potentially can lead to psychosis as well, which is a massive downside, and it can be addictive as well, which is another massive downside given the struggles that we’ve got with alcohol and tobacco in this country.”
Another problem is drug-driving.
“Drug-driving is out of control in some ways in Colorado because there’s actually no real way of testing for it.”
“In the documentary, we actually go out with the police in Colorado and stop drivers, we stop one driver who’s driving quite poorly. We pull him over, he has cannabis in the vehicle, he openly says he’s going home to smoke cannabis.
"Talking to the police there, they have virtually given up on dusting people for drug driving and here’s the reason: it is so difficult. It’s back to the old days, there’s no simple roadside test for THC in your system.”
Debate on a knife-edge
So far, the government has released very little information about what will be asked in next year's cannabis referendum, although a regime for the regulation of medicinal cannabis is set to be active before we get to vote. Gower says.
“What if a police officer is found to have been using cannabis in New Zealand or have THC in their system and there’s something extreme like a police shooting and he’s able to say the same thing ‘I was using it to help me sleep, it’s legal’?
“What about ambulance drivers? What about all of these other professions? How are we going to police it in the workplace?
“There’s all of these questions that I haven’t seen one piece of work on from the New Zealand government with a vote coming up one year away. All of these questions about what would we actually do if we vote yes, and at the same time what are we going to do in New Zealand if we vote no and cannabis is everywhere and will be medically available as well?”
These are very difficult questions to answer, Gower says.
“It’s a knife-edge argument in my view … I just don’t think there are any clear answers as to what is the right thing to do here.”
Yet, when it comes to cannabis, there are problems with New Zealand's status quo and little to suggest some form of regulation would make things worse, he says.
“We’ve got cannabis here – 50 percent of New Zealanders will try it in their lifetime ... At the moment, there’s no age limit on it when you go and buy it on the black market or from criminals, there’s no restrictions, there’s no data on what’s in there, there’s no standards.”