|Week Online: Member
of Parliament Craig McNair filed a complaint with police last week charging
that you continue to violate the law by smoking cannabis even though you
are a parliamentarian. How do you respond to his charge, and how
do you think this will end up?
Nandor Tanczos: I've
always been open about the fact that I used cannabis; I even said so before
I was first elected in 1999. I don't make a big deal out of it, but
when the media ask me, I'm honest about it. Craig McNair from the
right-nationalist New Zealand First Party filed the complaint, and that
was big news here. The police came to visit to investigate the complaint,
but I suspect little will come of it. To prosecute, they have two
considerations: First, is there enough evidence of a crime? I have
not said that I smoked at a specific place at a specific time, and just
saying that I use is probably not enough evidence. The second consideration
is the issue of the public welfare. We are in the middle of an important
policy debate on cannabis, and one could argue that police should not prosecute
because people in public life should be able to address these issues and
to arrest me would suppress discussion of the issues. We expect an
announcement about what they plan to do soon. If they choose to prosecute
me, that's fine. It would become a very interesting freedom of religion
WOL: Are you potentially
subject to parliamentary sanctions?
does not have the ability to unseat me unless I were convicted of a criminal
offense with a sentence of two years or more. That's not the case
with personal cannabis consumption. There could be a motion of censure,
but nobody has tried that. I think what has actually happened is
that most people don't support Craig McNair's actions. This is a
country where about 54% of adults have tried cannabis and about 75% of
young people. McNair is a 27-year-old who says he's a role model
for youth, but adds that he's never even been offered cannabis. I
guess that shows how many friends he has. We have received many messages
of support saying that people basically believe McNair is a twit.
WOL: The cannabis flap
isn't the only attack aimed at you in recent weeks. Last month, you
were slammed in the media and by some politicians over the issue of selling
certain substances at your hemp store. What was that all about?
Tanczos: I am the part
owner of a shop that sells hemp products, among other things. We
also sell two products known as Exodus and Frenzy, which basically contain
extracts of black pepper, chemical compounds known as piperazines.
This became a story because your DEA has just temporarily classified these
compounds as dangerous drugs on a temporary basis. But I read the
Federal Register on the emergency classification and the only danger I
could see was that people were taking these substances and then going out
dancing. They were being found in the same places where they find
Ecstasy. You would also presumably find beer and even coffee at these
locations, but that is no reason for them to be banned.
Media reports appeared saying
the New Zealand Health Department is now investigating these substances,
but we asked the Health Department, and they are not concerned, they are
not investigating these products. The leader of the conservative
National Party and others have said I should resign or sell my shares in
the hemp store -- are they looking to pick up cheap shares in a profitable
business? -- but the real concern seems to be that this is associated with
dance parties. It is extremely poor decision-making if people are
making decisions on whether to ban substances based on whether or not they
like the people who use them.
Also tangled up in the same
debate was a controversy over selling ecstasy testing kits. I've
been criticized for promoting ecstasy use. I don't use ecstasy, but
if other people wish to use such drugs -- and many are -- then we need
to make sure those people are as safe as they can be. We want to
minimize harm. After all, that is part of our national drug strategy.
We are really the only people to take practical steps to help ecstasy users
WOL: What is behind
these media flaps and political attacks?
Tanczos: They are very
much an attack on me personally. I've been consistently vocal about
these issues, and they try to destroy my personal credibility to damp down
a whole movement. The complaint by McNair was an attempt to intimidate
people who come out of the closet. It won't work; instead it backfires.
What happens as a result of the media attention is that we have a chance
to get our key messages out and bring the debate into the public arena.
We do have real problems with people selling cannabis to school kids still
wearing their school uniforms and while, for example, the Nationals may
accuse us of wanting children going to school on genetically engineered
cannabis, we can state our position that cannabis should be legalized for
adults over 18 and that police should concentrate on putting these drug
distribution networks that focus on kids out of business. We are
also seeing an increase in crystal meth, we're very concerned about that.
If we used the $20 million we spend busting people for cannabis, we could
target those drug houses and put them out of business. We could also
use some of that money to focus on effective drug education. A lot
of what passes for education is the abstinence model, and it's pretty clear
that doesn't work. Just say no is a proven failure. So you
see how we turn these attacks to our advantage.
WOL: Last year, a parliamentary
committee was looking into cannabis reform, but it seems to have fallen
off the face of the earth. What happened with that committee and
what is happening with cannabis reform in parliament?
Tanczos: We set up
an inquiry in the Health Select Committee last year. We heard submissions
from the public -- about 75% of them favored cannabis law reform -- but
unfortunately because of early elections, we did not have time to produce
a report. The Health Committee has agreed to complete the report,
and we expect it in the next month or so. I think it will contain
a recommendation for law reform, and once we sit it, we will decide where
to go from there. But since the elections there is a stumbling block.
After the elections, the Labor government sought and won support from the
United Future Party, and one of UF's conditions for supporting the government
was that it not introduce any legislation to change the legal status of
cannabis. That will not change until the next election, when I think
the Greens will forge an agreement with Labor.
In the meantime, I have introduced
a private member's bill to allow farmers to grow hemp. I have not
introduced a private bill on cannabis law reform because I don't want to
introduce legislation until it's clear it will have support. If my
bill is killed on the first vote, the issue is off the agenda. But
private member's bills are a random process; which ones will be considered
is literally determined by picking names out of a hat.
But progress can be made
nonetheless. There are a number of administrative steps that can
be taken without passing legislation. One big step would be to change
the regulations in the Misuse of Drugs Act that allow police to make warrantless
searches. We might get some movement on those sorts of issues.
The other thing is that we can continue to build a consensus and solidify
support and work to ensure that the numbers are on our side. And
we can continue to reach out to educators, health workers, and law enforcement,
where there is actually considerable support for reform.
WOL: What about the
Tanczos: Over the years,
the opposition to ending cannabis prohibition has been effectively refuted.
In the late 1990s when parliament inquired into the mental effects of cannabis,
it found that the dangers had been exaggerated, that some people had problems,
but that making it illegal only made things worse. So opponents ended
up resorting to "what about the kids?" I suspect we have a well-funded
opposition making use of school principals and boards of trustees to attempt
to derail cannabis reform. But their prohibitionist consensus is
crumbling. I have principals come to argue with me, and they come
up to me afterwards and tell me my position is actually quite sensible.
Other educators are concerned about cannabis, but feel a punitive approach
is not helpful. One-third of all students suspended from school are
for cannabis use or possession.
WOL: What sort of impact
do international drug reform efforts have on New Zealand?
Tanczos: They are very
significant for us, especially what is happening in Australia, Britain,
Canada and the US. We New Zealanders share cultural similarities
with those countries. We are a small country, and we are acutely
aware of what is happening in other parts of the world. People know
what is happening in Australia, and the latest moves in Britain, while
modest, are very significant. If Canada enacted reform legislation,
that would also be very important. We Greens are trying to publicize
the fact that we are not going out on a limb all by ourselves, but we are
part of a global wave of cannabis law reform. On the other hand,
the prohibitionist policies that the US exports influence our politics