Finlay Macdonald on weed

As the cannabis referendum draws nearer, Finlay Macdonald takes note of a new book about New Zealand's attitude towards marijuana

Like any number of New Zealanders, I have a rich store of anecdote about my personal relationship with weed. Youthful adventure, horticultural experimentation, bad cabbage, Thai sticks and close shaves with the cops. All of that.

But the memory that suggested itself most strongly while reading James Borrowdale’s excellent account of dope’s place in Kiwi minds and lungs was medicinal rather than recreational. Quite a while ago I suffered significant back pain, the result of a herniated disk, which anyone who has experienced it will tell you isn’t pleasant. The pain would radiate from the pinched nerve in my lower vertebrae and manifest in my legs. Sciatica is a special kind of pain and it drains the colour from your world.

I had the usual pharmaceutical remedies prescribed, morphine and tramadol, plus largely useless physio and any number of well-meaning people swearing by their own crank cures. All to little avail.

But one evening when nothing was working, I remembered there was some weed in the house (can’t remember why officer, honest) so I rolled one up in the hope its reputed painkilling properties might do the trick.

And it did. I was still aware of the sensation that had been creating such discomfort, yet I was somehow dissociated. True, I was also high, but there was nothing unreal about the experience.


It was not an entirely useful discovery, given that I didn’t particularly want to be stoned during the daytime when I had to work and function as a parent. But from that moment I've never doubted people who claim marijuana helps with whatever ails them, and I’ve supported the various legal reform campaigns.

Nothing scientific about my story, of course. Which is kind of the point. As Borrowdale makes clear in his chapter about medicinal marijuana, it took a very long time for science and the law to catch up with the lived experience of people with chronic conditions who found relief in dope when big pharma and a timid medical establishment had failed them.

Despite this year’s election referendum, we’re still catching up. Why wouldn’t we be? Stigmatised for so long by shabby politicians and moralists, associated in the conservative public mind with the counterculture and that weirdo who once tried to date their daughter, weed has had a lot to live down.

The story of its resilience – the product of an enduring human appetite for all its properties – is one that Borrowdale deftly humanises. Like Michael Pollan’s brilliant How To Change Your Mind (about the revival of research into psychedelics), Weed is a personal journey through the dope plantation.  We get the history and science, but we also get character sketches of the users, growers, criminals and activists the author finds on his quest to bottle that mysterious smoke.

This approach is not without risk – boring interviews won’t be rescued by even the best writer – but Borrowdale finds authentic voices and proves himself a sensitive and alert researcher and prose stylist. More than that, he is alert to his own slightly ambivalent feelings about his main subject. He is not proselytising or trying to impress with his weed warrior ways, and the book is the better for it.

Having read this fine and thoughtful book I am more convinced that the cannabis referendum will pass in September. Well, I hope so anyway.

His preface sets the tone perfectly. Wandering around a suburb in Canada on a family visit, he decides to reacquaint himself with the drug he’s been contracted to write about and lights up one of the joints he’s bought legally from a Calgary dispensary. A bit out of practice, he gets too stoned and remembers a lesson from his youth – that when it comes to weed, he’s “a cheap drunk”. Inevitably his mind turns to the challenge of writing the book, to the relatives he’s staying with and the sad reason for his trip, and the anxiety and paranoia creep in.

Who hasn’t had an experience like this? That ability of the weed to find those vulnerabilities or insecurities and amplify them, to smoke out those tendencies towards introspection and self-doubt – it’s one of the main reasons a lot of people try it a few times and never go back.

But it’s also perhaps a learned behaviour, as Borrowdale suggests, the result of growing up with prohibition and societal disapproval. Even in a foreign land where consumption is quite legal, that fear of doing wrong and being punished for it “now stalked the corridors of my mind as I myself stalked through this unknown suburb.”

This isn’t to say Borrowdale doesn’t understand the flip side of smoking dope – the sensory elevation, the heightened sense of the absurd, the ritual and friendship that comes with sharing a joint or a bong. But he also knows this is hardly exceptional. His “unremarkable experiences with the plant” put him with the vast majority of New Zealanders who have at least tried it, making us some of the highest (literally) per-capita consumers anywhere.

Having read this fine and thoughtful book I am more convinced that the cannabis referendum will pass in September. Well, I hope so anyway.

For me it’s less to do with the detail of the science or the law, or that it’s patently more sensible to treat addiction and misuse as a health problem than a criminal one. No, it’s much closer to the feeling articulated by Nándor Tánczos that Borrowdale says stayed with him as he wrote – that to continue to treat dope users as outsiders – as other – is to live in a kind of collective denial.

There are simply too many, there always have been, who have found solace, harmless enjoyment and even salvation in this remarkable plant. Just to say “you actually are part of our society” will be no small thing.

Weed: A New Zealand Story by James Borrowdale (Penguin, $35) is available in bookstores nationwide. Weed is available nationwide also.

* ReadingRoom reviews appear with the support of Creative New Zealand *,dpr_auto,f_auto,fl_lossy,q_auto,w_1200/w2arlk0h57ugaqb9z5cf

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