Mrs J is a 50-year-old grandmother and one of the founders of marijuana activism in New Zealand. She's been a primary school teacher, a drug and alcohol counsellor, and ran a clandestine marijuana café in West Auckland for three years. Police busted her High Tea Cafe in 2014 and she ended up with seven months home detention for possession. Now free of her ankle monitor, J hasn't given up her crusade. She runs a cannabis baking delivery business, M'edibles, from her home in a small town a few hours drive from Auckland.
With freshly baked biscuits on the counter, VICE sat down with J to talk about her years of activism, the trick to running an illicit cafe, her new cookie venture and why the political mood towards cannabis use is changing.
VICE: Hi J. How did you get into cannabis?
J: Really early on I was involved in music and selling records in Christchurch, and I just preferred to smoke [rather than drink]. I preferred the way I felt. I discovered cannabis at 17 and I was going to bars to see bands. I wasn't a groupie, but I wanted to be a part of that music scene—so I sold weed.
How has life as a decades-long marijuana activist been for you?
I think we [activists] live with post-traumatic stress disorder. It's very, very hard to not lose your shit. If you're fearful of going to jail, if you're fearful of having police coming around and tip your place over again looking for more pot. I think all the activists have come from a background where they're willing to take a bigger risk than people who may be employed and quite safe within their job and their income bracket.
If you look at most of the activists in New Zealand, it's been done by people who've been arrested and seen the unfairness in New Zealand and who are compelled to not go away and say "Hey, I'm going to keep fighting this until it changes".
What do you think about the recent NZ Drug Foundation poll which said that 65% of New Zealanders favoured (at minimum) the decriminalisation of cannabis?
Well, there are a lot more cannabis smokers than there are police. We don't have to listen to them, they have to start listening to us. Having a few plants and growing your own isn't actually a major crime and they have to get their heads around the fact that we're not hurting people.
Why do you think there's been this tangible change in public opinion?
Two women have really brought it about —Rose Renton, her son dying—which is the ultimate sacrifice. And then Helen Kelly, she's dying and she's had the balls to say I'm dying, I've got cancer all over me I've got tumours breaking out of my back so I use cannabis. The men, Martin Crowe and [Paul] Holmes, they wait till they're dead [before anyone finds out].
Why did you start the High Tea Cafe?
We haven't got any alcohol-free venues to go to. If you go out in the evening, it's alcohol. You don't have a choice. I mean, you don't have to buy it, but you don't have any cafes, they all close at four. I thought it was needed, somewhere upmarket, nice and inclusive of women, where people can hang out and drink a coffee, a soft drink—I sold loads of soft drinks—and have a cookie.
How did you keep it running for three years?
I didn't advertise it as selling cannabis, I said it was an adult, alcohol-free bar, and I was only open very short hours. It was also an industrial area and it was word-of-mouth.
When did you get busted?
The first time the cafe got busted was in 2011, I think, and they only found 18 grams so they couldn't prove any commercial operation. And then just bang on two years later I got done again, off the premises. I could have appealed the conviction. I was at another's person address when they found weed at the [High Tea Cafe]. So had I said, "This isn't my address, none of this shit's mine. How do I know it hadn't been planted in the cafe?" But the police wouldn't give me bail and I'm not going to sit in a cell for three weeks, I'm not. [So I took the deal.]
How did you keep it running after the first bust?
Once I had been busted, we tried not to stop so we would do really sneaky things like tell people to go to the cafe and buy a ticket and then go somewhere else to pick up your pot. There was a really good, trusting relationship where people would hand over a $50 and know that you were down at the park. And they'd come join us and hand over a ticket or ten, and they'd get that many baggies. I didn't want anyone to get arrested at my café.
So since you've gotten off home detention for the cafe you now you run your own marijuana cookie business. How do you make your cookies?
I take [the dry leaf] through a decarb process and when it's dry I make the butter and then I use the [cannabis] butter to bake the cookies. I try not to make it too green so it's all strained out. And then I package up the cookies very discreetly and ship them off.
How picky are you with your clients? Do you just send it to people you know or those with medical needs or...?
Nope. Anybody who asks for cookies gets sent some for free. And if they get benefit, they can pay for them. I'm not here to make money. I'm covering my costs—I have to buy the stuff—$100 to $150 will get me up to a pound of dry leaf product.
Do you miss running the High Tea Cafe?
Yeah, but all good things come to an end. It was going to have to have this happen – all three [cannabis] clubs are closed. But it was good, I had an income. I wasn't on the benefit. I paid tax. I set up a company. I didn't do anything that was unlawful except sell pot. The rest of my business was completely legitimate. So yeah, I do miss it, but I put my family through a fair amount of stress, which I regret. So now I've got a little business making cookies.
You've said before that your marijuana activism has affected you personally and has affected your professional opportunities. Do you wish you had done anything differently?
There are too many people being fucked over, so I won't stop. I'm proud of what I'm doing. The only person who I know who was a cannabis user and is dead now, it wasn't because of cannabis but because he got so harassed by the police that he hung himself.
To be a cannabis activist you have to be quite staunch and it's something where you do think, "Ah, I should really stop doing this." But then I think, "If I don't, then who will? I've spent 20 years getting this far. And we are close.
Do you think if cannabis was legalised in New Zealand that people would just misuse it and create the same culture we have around alcohol?
No, I don't think they'd misuse it because it's not a substance like alcohol. Basically, if you have too much pot you just fall asleep, you don't become too aggressive or violent.
I think if we woke up tomorrow and cannabis was legal, there would be a huge amount of people putting their hands up towards the Ministry of Health wanting to make a resource about what safe use is. There's no information for young people. When you talk about cannabis it seems to always involve sniggering and Snoop Dogg. You can't have that conversation about why people smoke cannabis.
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