New Zealand's 'cannabis crisis': smokers confirm chronic shortage

Police seizure of 9,000 cannabis plants sees demand for marijuana far outstrip supply across New Zealand

For once, there’s a bigger problem in New Zealand than its flag being confused with Australia’s: a chronic shortage of marijuana.

The “catastrophic” situation was first reported on by Don Rowe, a staff writer at The Spinoff, who wrote that New Zealand’s most popular illegal substance was “almost unobtainable in any meaningful amount right now”.

“Blame it on the police, the gangs, the weather or just the grow cycle of your average cannabis harvest; no matter which way you slice it, it’s dry out there.”

The island nation is understood to punch above its weight in terms of cannabis consumption with 42% of all adults over 15 having tried the substance, despite penalties ranging from a NZ$500 fine for possession to a two to 14-year prison sentence for growth, cultivation, supply or manufacture.

Usage is most common among people aged 15 to 24, especially men.

Christian, 42, said the current shortage had forced him to seek a prescription for anti-depressants from his doctor in mid-December. “I haven’t had problems sourcing it for the last 14 years.”

Rowe reported that prices had been driven sky-high, with an ounce – typically available for between NZ$300 and $350 – retailing for “well over $400 in some cases”.

“‘Tinnies’, $20 since time immemorial, have not fluctuated in price,” he wrote – though he added that some apparently fell “well short of the expected one gram minimum weight”.

New Zealand Police have been contacted for comment on the apparent shortage.

Jordan, 22, confirmed the report to Guardian Australia. Current prices were high for poor-quality product, he said, with “crappy tinnies and $50 bags going for nigh on $100”. “A lot of people are selling terrible indoor stuff – or old rotted plant, which is even worse.”

Earlier this month, 9,000 cannabis plants were netted by police in their annual aerial recovery operation across the top of the South Island and the west coast – a significant increase in last year’s yield of about 4,000 plants. Thirteen people face a range of drug and firearms charges as a result.

Operation commander Grant Andrews told Fairfax that it was “a success in the fact we have removed that much cannabis”.

But Jordan indicated that the current shortage may have taken root in 2015. He’d heard, through the grapevine, that flooding in the lower North Island and upper South Island early last year had caused “a whole bunch of extra stock” in storage to rot.

That “took out a massive chunk”, as much as 13 kilograms, he said. “But I don’t know how reliable that info [was].”

Thomas, 36, said variations in availability were par for the course, he said, when indoor-grown marijuana was hard to access even during periods of plenty as any operation of scale stood out “like a literal red flag to law enforcement”.

Supply tended to ebb and flow quite tangibly with growth and harvest – seasonal fluctuation that he found “quite charming”, he said.

“Like, living in a post-capitalist blah-de-blah society, I get much more of a sense of a naturally cultivated crop here than even at, say, the vege department down the supermarket. If there’s a drought, like there is now, word of what grows have been hit seems to travel about as fast and easily as the product itself would.”

Though he didn’t know how many links there were in the supply chain “from the growers themselves to the people who give me little baggies and take $20 notes”, he said there was robust information-sharing. His principal supplier was able to tell him within 24 hours when a specific roadside in the upper South Island – across a body of water from his home city – had been sprayed, disrupting the supply chain.

“But I have no way of knowing she’s being straight up,” he added. “She does smoke and sell a lot of illegal drugs after all.”

The shortage, at least, has rewarded those who showed foresight during times of plenty. One Aucklander told Guardian Australia that he was “coasting in 2016”. “I bought too much weed at the end of last year – it will last me until deep in April,” he crowed. “I’m a success story!”

Jack, 25, said the drought seemed to be mostly affecting marijuana users in the centre of the country – “the top of the South”, the capital city of Wellington and the surrounding region. “If you know a guy out west Auckland, you very rarely get droughts,” he said, attaching a photo of “proof”.

Whether or not New Zealand could lead the world in the use of cannabis for medicinal reasons is currently a topic of national debate, after associate health minister Peter Dunne announced a review of the guidelines for considering applications last month.

As it stands, the only approved medicinal cannabis in New Zealand is a mouth spray, Sativex, which costs over NZ$1,000 a month.


Elle Hunt

The GuardianTramp

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