As the country heads further into election year, the effect the dairy industry has on the environment looms as a politically charged issue. The Green Party, for instance, has made swimmable rivers a key election platform —many of New Zealand's waterways are threatened by dairy run-off. According to the Ministry for the Environment, nearly two-thirds of the country's monitored river swimming spots recorded levels of pollution that rendered them unsafe for swimming last summer. In a 2015 report, the Ministry found that the area of land under dairy farming had increased 28 per cent over the preceding 10 years.
It was against this backdrop that billionaire businessman Sir Richard Branson, on a recent trip to New Zealand, told Newshub that marijuana presented a huge opportunity for the country. "You should legalise it, grow it, tax it, regulate it," he said. "I think that would be wonderful because obviously the amount of dairy cows that New Zealand has is damaging the rivers. If you could put some of that land over into growing cannabis it would be just as profitable for them, if not more profitable."
VICE wanted to put these comments to an expert, so we asked Cannabis Party candidate Abe Gray, the man behind Dunedin's Whakamana Cannabis Museum, for his take on Sir Richard's ideas.
VICE: Hey Abe, so what do you make of Sir Richard Branson's comments?
Abe Grey: It's not an original idea. I mean, people have been saying this for a long time and I'm sure he doesn't claim to have thought it up by himself on a whim, but it's great that somebody of that stature is actually saying what we've been saying for a long time. If it has to be treated as an original thought of Sir Richard Branson's for it to be taken seriously, then by all means, whatever it takes, because this is what I've been saying with the Cannabis Museum and the Legalise Cannabis Party for 20 years.
What does it mean for your movement to hear someone like Sir Richard Branson say this publically?
We've never questioned whether or not we were right, but it's great to have the media taking the idea seriously and it not being mocked and denigrated. It's totally sound.
Other than the law, what are the practicalities of large-scale weed production?
I am a hemp farmer and it was really interesting to learn first hand how difficult it is to A) be a farmer and B) deal specifically with hemp. With any of these agricultural industrial processes you have to have scale to make it worth it. You've got to have expensive machinery that's worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, you know, to process the plants into its specialist parts. No one person can afford those, so it would be really nice if you could have the Fonterra of weed, and essentially this is what's emerging in places like Colorado.
But that's just from a hemp perspective. Richard Branson wasn't talking about hemp. He was talking about selling the weed on the recreational market. This is the elephant in the room; this is what is worth half a billion annually at a minimum, the value of our black market for recreational cannabis. Not to mention exporting to other countries that already take our exports. There are many cannabis-legal jurisdictions that would love some clean-green New Zealand weed, and we would market it just as effectively as we would our honey or other primary products.
Much has been made of the negative impacts of the dairy industry on the environment. How would weed help?
Imagine if Nándor Tánczos hadn't been mocked and marginalised and New Zealand had gone along with legalisation back in 99, and we had never done the dairy expansion. Imagine if the agricultural expansion had all been in the cannabis industry. And imagine if all of these benefits that we're seeing in places like Colorado and Oregon and Washington had been accruing in New Zealand for 15 years, and we hadn't had the environmental degradation. That would be crazy. We wouldn't be having this debate about swimmable rivers. It would just be moot point. It would be like the old days, when everyone could just swim in every river and we took it for granted. That's one of the main talking points coming into this election year. I'm not going to claim that it would fix everything, but with increased tourism and a better economy, Kiwis would have a lot more money to play with, and there would be more economic opportunities.
What's in it for farmers?
We have a weed industry that already exists and we have a demand for recreational cannabis that already exists so the starting point for any of this is legalising cannabis. Then your farmers could grow weed instead of cows because they would have the economic incentive in a free market to do so. This will only work if you totally legalise weed. Decriminalising isn't really going to cut because the supply to the recreational market is where the value is really at. If it's legalised for recreational use, and there's regulation around licensed premises, no advertising, things like that, then we could see that the existing $500 million-demand for weed was satisfied, and our farmers would want to meet that. As that market grows, we'll see people planting rows of cannabis in those paddocks that they converted to dairy and the environment will start to heal because there won't be cows shitting in every river. If a farmer can just cut the bud and dry it in a shed, and they're going to be worth, you know, hundreds of dollars per ounce, then that's a lot better than wheat or soy or milk solids, with hardly any effort to produce it.
And the diversification of our agricultural economy, which is heavily reliant on dairy, can only be a good thing?
If you told any farming group that you could add a $500 million market per year and grow that, they would be right in there… Federated Farmers is now starting to come around to this. They would have laughed in your face [before], but if Richard Branson says this, then it's worth exploring.
And would you envision similar restrictions to alcohol and tobacco?
Having an argument about which one [marijuana, alcohol, tobacco] is more or less harmful probably isn't productive, and we would just agree to have the same type of restrictions as alcohol and tobacco, even though we believe that cannabis is less harmful than both of those. Those seem like reasonable restrictions: keeping it in the hands of adults only. In the States the age is 21, and that's probably closer to the age of complete brain development, so maybe that's a good idea.
What about effects on mental health?
I think it's a moot point because I don't think use would increase, but I also think it would be guarded against: the point-of-sale would have responsibility criteria attached to it, whereas in the current situation it doesn't. Basically, if you were mentally ill, you know, all the efforts would be made to make it so you couldn't buy cannabis. Alcohol, especially, should be more controlled in that way. The cannabis community would be more than happy to agree to whatever sort of controls were needed to make sure it was only responsible adult use.
But generally you think it would be good for New Zealand as a whole?
People are friendlier and gentler when they have a smoke, become more in tune with nature, and that's why it's so popular in New Zealand, that's why so many of our tourists want to smoke. If you love nature, smoking and going for a hike or to the beach are just really fun activities. Imagine if more of our farmers were getting that feeling or catering to that market instead of feeling like they were in opposition to that market, and we had farmers and greenies holding hands and a bunch of happy stoned tourists and all our rivers were swimmable and everybody was getting paid.
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