20 years ago I fought the Law – And I won!


Twenty years ago, as Parliament last investigated the legal status of cannabis, I was arrested and put on trial for cannabis possession. Although I won the case, the fight was lost. Now as another opportunity for reform – the referendum – slips by, we can’t wait another two decades.

It’s been twenty years, but I’m reminded of it every day.

On the 15th of February, 2002, I was found “not guilty” of cannabis possession by Judge Gittos in the Auckland District Court. I had been put on trial for a crumb of cannabis following a police sweep of Karangahape Road, not far from where my shop The Hempstore is now located, where I’m writing this.

It was so mundane; it could have happened to anyone. After meeting a friend for coffee at Brazil café, we talked a while on the footpath and, minding our own business, we paid no attention to a group of cops in the vicinity. It turns out they were moving the length of K Road searching people they came across.

It also turned out they were on a training exercise, with nearby senior officers coaching them on what to do and assessing their performance.

- Sponsor Promotion -

The three young officers approached us with enthusiasm for the task, and dove right into my pockets. I objected, and was told to “shut up, c*nt!”. They made me drop my pants in a nearby alleyway.

They eventually found a tin containing a tiny morsel of cannabis and I was immediately arrested, again with some enthusiasm. I believe her words were “We’ve got you, c*nt, you’re fucken arrested!”

But they didn’t know I would get three wins from that arrest.

Parliament’s health select committee was at the time holding an inquiry into the legal status of cannabis, instigated by former Green MP Nandor Tanczos (also my friend and business partner in The Hempstore).

Police and other apologists for prohibition had been telling the inquiry they did not go around looking for cannabis and certainly didn’t breach anyone’s rights – and yet here they were, caught doing it.

Of course, what they did to me was a routine occurrence repeated by police many times every day across Aotearoa. Contrary to their narrative of only going after Mr Bigs or coming across it while investigating dodgy people for other crimes, the police were at the time arresting more than 15,000 people every year for cannabis, and the vast majority were for possession or use.

Fortune smiled and I was able to raise awareness with the very committee deciding the law. From that point on, committee chair and Labour MP Judy Keall would shout down anyone who tried to claim police did not go around looking for cannabis, often pointing to me and exclaiming “I know someone that’s happened to recently – and he’s sitting right there!”

I took that as a win and resolved to use the experience to help keep the inquiry informed about what happens to people who the police choose to arrest for cannabis.

As my trial approached, there was no way I was going to plead guilty. I had my witness, a great lawyer in Peter Winter, and so many supporters turned up we had to move to a bigger court room.

While those three young officers had been coached to breach people’s rights while performing sweeps of public spaces, they had not been coached well enough on how to tell the same story in court.

They all told different, conflicting versions. Judge Gittos was not very impressed, I was found not guilty, and his ruling set a new precedent: police could not simply invoke the smell of cannabis to get around the Bill of Rights and search people who they had no legal authority to search.

The media helpfully let everyone know. It was the lead on the news that night, and front page of the Herald the next day (Random street searches unlawful – Weekend Herald, 16-17 February 2002). It was discussed in Parliament.

Predictably, the Police said the ruling would change nothing. Police Ass spokesperson Greg O’Connor said they would continue, business as usual, despite accusations of double standards as they took no action against a fellow officer when a larger amount of cannabis was found in her crashed car.

But the precedent from my case can be cited by anyone who police search in public, if they claim they can smell cannabis. Even if they could, that smell could be coming from anywhere, like a car driving past or a person who is no longer there. I’ve personally met dozens of people who have been helped by this.

Then the third win. For some unknown reason The DominionPost published that I had been remanded in custody on cannabis charges. I thought that implied to anyone reading that I was facing serious charges such as large-scale manufacture, or that I had a history of convictions, none of which is true, and that this would seriously impact my reputation.
They refused to retract or apologise, so under Peter Winter’s guidance I whipped up a letter which prompted their lawyer to offer $5000 to go away. Never take the first offer, Peter advised. We got a correction, and their $10,000 settlement let me embark on an epic cannabis-themed (and fuelled) OE.

I started at the NORML Conference in San Francisco, then headed to Vancouver and over to London for J Day then the pioneering British coffeeshops in Lambeth, Bournemouth and Stockport.

Nandor had given me a letter stating I was collecting information on his behalf for the ongoing cannabis inquiry. I met officials in the Netherlands and the UK. I took the Coffeeshop College course which had a practical component of dealing hash in a coffeeshop.

In Copenhagen’s Christiania freezone I bought hash for research purposes. I joined the Cannabis Social Clubs in Barcelona and helped out on cannabis “tea” farms in Switzerland.
Like much of the world at the time, Europe was experiencing a joyous wave of renewed cannabis freedoms. This was all reported back to the inquiry, on The DominionPost’s dime.

But I got back to what appeared a different country. I had left on a surge of reformist euphoria, with Nandor’s inquiry in full swing. I got back to Peter Dunne, the televised worm, and his dirty deal to derail cannabis reform.

The worst thing about it was the change had nothing to do with cannabis. The corngate scandal resulted in Helen Clark going with Peter Dunne’s United Future party and casting the Greens into opposition.

The cannabis inquiry was over. It crawled along for a few months with new members and delivered a watered-down report that made few recommendations of any substance.

Bear with me because this reminiscing does have a point! A senior Labour MP told me at the time “You’re fucked now! It will be twenty years before this is on the agenda again.”

How so? They explained the best chance we had before that had been the mid-80’s under Lange’s Labour. Now we would have to wait for Clark’s government to see out their term, then suffer a period under National, then go for the next Labour-led government.
It won’t be in the first term, they predicted, but in the second. The third term gets conservative again as they lose popularity.

This is the cycle, told to me in 2002. It came to pass, and it looks like it will happen again.

Interestingly, the people at the centre of blocking reform twenty years ago – Peter Dunne, Greg O’Connor, and Helen Clark – now all support making cannabis legal.
So here we are, twenty years and thousands of arrests later, in the second term of a Labour-led government.

A government which decided to run a referendum but not campaign for it; and then decided to bind itself to the result of a question that had only 30% support when they decided it.

This was our time, our chance, to finally put an end to the shameful, oppressive, counterproductive Misuse of Drugs Act. They blew it.

They had better fix it. We can’t wait another twenty years.

Chris Fowlie is the president of the National Organisation for the Reform of Marijuana Laws NZ Inc; developer of the CHOISE model for cannabis social equity; CEO of Zeacann Limited, a cannabis science company; co-founder of the New Zealand Medical Cannabis Council; co-founder of The Hempstore Aotearoa; resident expert for Marijuana Media on 95bFM; cannabis blogger for The Daily Blog, and court-recognised independent expert witness for cannabis. The opinions expressed here are his own.


  1. Pot’s illegal here because we AO/NZ’ers are under the heal of the conservative right wing U$A. If you want to decriminalise Pot you’ll have to lobby the White House.
    This is what happens when, in times of peace, we get complacent and trust those in positions of authority.

    • The War on Drugs country now has over half of its country with some form of legal cannabis while still dictating at the UN level what other countries must do.

  2. Lore versus Law.
    Funny ‘ole Whurl eh?
    Especially when you listen to Her with Her balanced portfolio on RNZ with an ‘ooooweee’, whose guaidnce is not too shabby, but which totally glossed ov4r the non-citizen/resident granted really comparatively easy access to the cuntry.
    lt”ll be fascinating darling, in this political e-space, going forward, and in the fullness of toim.
    Boffin and Her in charge of balanced portfolio keeps His and Her jobbies – for now.
    Until regime change . Whereupon they’ll be wondering in wonderment WTF happened.
    Pfffft. Nek

  3. If one is to really deal with this issue the donations to political parties has to stop, there is too much influencing going on behind the scenes which is why politicians keep saying no, big fat donations coming from the alcohol industry for starters, they dont want competition and will be doing what Jamie Lee Ross exposed – donation splitting. 24,999 can be ignored but 24,999 X 120 well that keeps them to attention.
    Funny how it was the people who made it an election issue and then the govt handed it all to corporations and still treat the rest of us like criminals.
    Referendum was a joke, an issue handed to a political rookie and someone who had zero experience with cannabis was then coerced down the health and safety approach by The Drug Foundation, it was heading in the direction of if you got caught you had to go do rehab!
    Like there was something wrong with cannabis????
    The legislation was way over the top, it made alcohol look safe!
    BERL suggesting $20 a gram was the icing on the cake, who the hell was going to pay $560 an ounce when the black market is $350, they’re all living in lala land.
    None of them asked us what we thing, we got dictated to.
    The govt did nothing about the misinformation (and now not reigning in how misinformation works in this country they now have the results sitting on their front lawn) and let right wing religious nutters spread misinformation that went against the evidence produced by the scientists and the legislation created. A review into the referendum had scope that excluded cannabis, done on purpose so down the track they can say well look we did a review and nothing was found….
    I have lost faith in every expecting the legal system to change this, its black market from now on, the govt had their chance and blew it.
    They can stick their elections too, whats the point they’re only serving the rich.

  4. Well the referendum was highjacked and a complete stuff up. Andrew Little is a dumb knob. I voted no because I thought the legislation was set up for corporate business with big pharma to be put in charge.
    Politicians are self-serving and despicable. There may be exceptions but they must be hiding under rocks.

  5. Jacinda did hurt dear Chloe with her refusal to even have an opinion on one of the most political issues of her day. Cheez, i am still waiting for the Hologram to run on legalizing/decriminalizing/liberating the good weed to the moans of all the other parties. It would be so funny.

Comments are closed.