The road to Ruatoria is long—eight hours from Auckland, and two from Gisborne, the nearest town to pass as an 'urban centre'.
Often, you are the only car on the road. On the radio, channels drop away one by one, until the only station is Radio Ngāti Porou: bulletins in Te Reo, Jukebox Jams with Ken. As the road carves through the hills, undulating manuka gives way to the dark uniformity and order of radiata pine.
At an isolated sheep-shearing shed in a Ruatoria valley, a crew of growers arrives to pick up planting pots.
It’s well past harvest time now, but a few weeks back this room was filled with bunches and bunches of drying hemp. A few sacks of buds are still here, giving off their sweet, heavy scent. One of the men ducks out of photos. “Camera shy,” he murmurs. Before he did this, he used to grow cannabis illegally. “Got sick of ducking and diving,” he says.
Now he’s looking at doing hemp by the books.
“Think about it. That’s a positive thing,” his companion chips in.
“These guys”—he sweeps a hand around at the sheep shed—“they’re thinking about the people. That’s different to corporate companies coming in and taking over.”
‘These guys’ are Hikurangi Industries, racing to be among the first legal producers of medicinal cannabis in New Zealand. Currently, they hold a commercial hemp-growing license. As they wait for New Zealand’s medicinal cannabis reform to move through the legislative process, they’ve begun training locals to grow and process hemp—the plant cousin of cannabis—so they’re ready when the time comes.
Legal cannabis is big money. Over in Canada, the newly legal industry will be worth $6.5 billion within two years. The global industry global cannabis market is projected to be worth $87.8b by 2024. As the framework for a legal industry begins its slow trundle through New Zealand’s parliament, investors know there’s cash to be made.
But overseas, a chasm has emerged between the communities of colour disproportionately hit by drug policing, and the primarily white entrepreneurs making huge sums off a billion-dollar legal industry.
In 2016, a Buzzfeed investigation found just 1 percent of weed dispensaries were owned by black people. A number of states had introduced laws meaning those with drug convictions were banned from involvement in the legal industry. “After having borne the brunt of the ‘war on drugs’,” they write, “black Americans are now largely missing out on the economic opportunities created by legalization.”
Here in New Zealand, it’s Māori communities who have been hit by racial bias in drug policing. Even when accounting for rates of use, at every stage of the criminal justice system, Māori are more likely to be apprehended, charged, and given a prison sentence than their Pākeha pot-smoking counterparts. In this 2007 report, for example, Corrections notes that on the basis of equivalent usage of cannabis, Māori experienced arrest at three times the rate of non-Māori users.
Now, New Zealand is poised to legalise. But who stands to benefit from a medicinal cannabis industry? In a remote East-Cape town, some of the community hopes hemp presents a way forward: bringing safe jobs, healing the land, bringing whānau home, offering some restitution for the drug arrests that once destroyed future prospects and put their men in prison.
Rob Thomson sits with his partner, Lisa, at a veranda table of Te Puia Hotel. The rain drums down around him.
He wears a thick, knitted wool vest, a carved bone pendant at his neck. His dreadlocks reach almost to his waist. His preschooler daughter is sitting in his lap. Lisa has a thick sweep of black hair, moko kauae tracing her chin.
“I’ve spent probably five or six years of my life in prison for growing marijuana,” he says.
“For me, that’s just a waste of life. A waste of our people’s time, for a crime that doesn’t hurt no-one.”
A lot of Māori are suppressed by low-level cannabis convictions, Rob says. They can’t go overseas. They can’t get good jobs, because of a criminal record. Many have had entire years of their lives frittered away in prison for small-scale drug offending.
“For me, it really hurt me, but it was my wahine and my tamariki outside that really suffered,” he says. “I did suffer, but not as much as them. It really put a big toll on our family when our men—or our wāhine—went to jail, for something that is so ridiculous.”
These days, he and Lisa tutor a hemp-growing course at EIC—the tertiary provider partnered with Hikurangi—and are waiting on a growing licence. His 80-year-old mother has applied for a growing licence too, he grins. “Nanny hempsters!”
He believes good, safe jobs will start bringing people home, reversing the years of urban drift. They had some older men on the course who hadn’t been formally working or in education for 30 years. “This was the first time they had gotten out of the bush got out of their comfort zone, they knew the kaupapa was right. They knew this was gonna help our people. They knew it was going to create work, utilise our whenua, bring whānau home.”
On the road from the sheep-shed, thick acres of pine alternate with the red, scabbed earth left by logging trucks.
The white van is packed with around seven men and women who are midway through their hemp-growing course, on their way back toward town.
Justin Tibble is driving, sunglasses perched on top of his cap. He’s from around here, but he spent 20 years away from home, working as a builder and truck driver.
“When you talk about employment on the coast, there’s – for want of a better word – sweet eff-all," he says.
The only place for young men to work is felling the colossal pine trees that line the gravel road he’s driving. And there, they keep dying. Forestry is a dangerous game: 26 dead in the past five years alone. In the records, each death is summarised by a short, brutal sentence:
"Crushed by a falling tree.”
“Struck by falling tree.”
“Struck by tree.”
That toll has turned men like Rob into evangelists for hemp, rather than pine. The cost of forestry is bitter and close to home. Two of his nephews died in forestry. He wants other jobs for young Māori.
“Our people are just sick of the forestry because of how many deaths - especially with young men. So we don’t want to go in the forest, so what’s the next option we’ve got? Hemp is the option for our people.”
When he heard about Hikurangi, Tibble saw it as an opportunity to get home.
“I started following this from day dot,” he says. Before this? “The only way I was coming back was in a pine box.” He laughs over the steering wheel. “Actually! Please make that a hemp box.”
Twenty-two percent of the region are employed in forestry. But Tibble thinks the people out here who went for the promise of timber 20 years ago are done with it now.
“People are sick of the lies they got sold 30 years ago about forestry. They planted up their land with pines, it takes 25 years. But now it’s time to harvest, and-” he points to the banks of pine again. “Out of all these trees, you won’t get many rich landowners. And they’re left with barren land.”
Pine is tough on the land and rivers. Earlier this month, an enormous load of fallen trees and logging debris - around 1 million tonnes of forestry slash - swept down the waterways, damaging 61 bridges in its path. Pine drains the soil of its fertility. Then, when the trees come down, heavy rains quickly wash away topsoil. The erosion clogs and poisons the waterways.
“The hemp, this is something positive for our whenua. We are people of the land, so it’s our turn to give something back. The hemp puts the nitrogen back in the soil, that the pine trees drain out.” He looks out the window again.
“I don’t have anything against the industry. But we’ve got a lot of people dying in forestry. Whereas if we do this, it’ll be safer for our people.”
Peter Solitt, on the seat behind him, is leaning forward, nodding. Solitt has also returned to Ruatoria for this. Before, he was working in the quarries in Gisborne. “I decided to come back home as well,” he says.
“It’s brought a little bit of hope here. A lot of politicians haven’t done much, to be honest. That’s my personal opinion. Hikurangi has created opportunities for us. Something that wasn’t here before.
“Yeah bro,” Justin nods from the front. “That’s it. Something that wasn’t here before.”
Economically, things are tough on the coast. Unemployment in Ruatoria sits at 15.6 percent – more than triple the national rate. At the last census, median annual income for a potential earner - that’s 15 years and older - was just $17,100: about 30 percent lower than the national average, and less than half New Zealand’s basic living wage. In 2015, economic reports found the area had the worst regional economy in New Zealand, and the nation’s poorest population.
But there is also a deep-running spirit of generosity and cultural connection here. Ninety-three percent of the population are Māori, and about half speak Te Reo fluently. According to a McGuinness Institute report, people here donate proportionally more time and money to their community than anyone else in the country.
Further up the road, the white van stops at a greenhouse filled with hemp seedlings, and we pile out.
Kathy, a student-turned tutor, sets up one of the men watering plants. If she wasn’t doing this, she says, she’d probably be on the benefit. She used to get calls from Work & Income telling her if she couldn’t get a job there, she’d need to look at leaving Ruatoria and shifting out to Gisborne, where the jobs were.
Hikurangi’s plan is to grow and process their crop centrally, but local landowners and residents can also get licences to grow on their own land and supply the company.
Further on, over in one of their gardens, the planting team are putting in seedlings. It’s winter time, and there’s no hemp. Instead, there are raised beds for vegetables.
A few metres from the gardens, an enormous pig carcass hangs by thick wire from the tree. A man is propping its ribcage open with a stick.
Is he with Hikurangi?
“Nah. I was just looking for a good spot for my pig,” he says.
“Touch it,” he says, and offers the hacked-off lower jaw. His arm is greased to the elbow with fat from the belly cavity.
“That’s what they’ll rip the dogs open with.”
He scoops up an armload of intestine, stomach, liver, and carries it down the slope, slings it into the bush.
Driving an SUV over unsealed road, Manu Caddie points out the window to a scrubby passage of flat land.
“This used to all be maize a few years back,” he says.
“But it could all be hemp.”
Caddie is Hikurangi’s managing director. His head is shaved and he wears khakis with a grey work-shirt.
“Seems like in the States that have legalised, it’s been good for young, white guys but not so good for young people of colour,” Caddie says. He’d like to see that picture reversed in New Zealand, and the company works with guys who have previously grown illegally, utilising skills that were penalised by the criminal justice system.
“A number of the guys that have grown for us now had been in jail and come out, had not wanted to go back to jail, so they weren’t growing anymore. But they had those latent skills that they’d developed over many years. And so they’ve come back into growing plants - [this time] in a legal way.”
Implicit, he says, is the fact that people can see the writing on the wall for the decriminalisation. Some families rely on the black market for their household income. “People can see that drying up once decriminalisation and recreational laws pass. That may be next year or five or 10 years – but there’s motivation there for people to want to be able to get into a legitimate industry.”
In May, Hikurangi raised $2 million of investment on PledgeMe, generating traffic so high it crashed the crowdfunding website. Currently, they employ 15 growers. If they can get their licence once the law changes, he estimates their growing and processing facility will employ 120 staff, many of them locals. And while one of their key focuses is community development, Caddie resists the positioning of Hikurangi as the slapdash rural player against the slick, advanced corporates of the city. Hikurangi has designed clinical trials and plans to start them this time next year. They have released plans for a pharmaceutical grade GMP medical cannabis processing facility.
But for other smaller community players looking to follow in the footsteps of the Hikurangi model, even a slight tweak to legislation could present challenges to existing in the market at all.
In Canada and some American states, for example, some legislation means those with criminal convictions - or even connections with others involved in criminal activity - are banned from holding positions in the medical marijuana industry. In other parts of Canada, strictly enforced regulations around security and site construction drive up the cost of entry, cutting small players out.
"Bloody stoners ruin a lot of my people’s lives!”
Pinned to the inside panel of Paora Stanley’s office door in Tauranga is a series of life-size portraits. Frontmost, a mid-twenties man in black polar fleece, advancing on the camera. He has four bullet-holes through his forehead. Around 30 more are ripped through his paper torso.
Target practice, Stanley says, from when he was CEO at the Listuguj First Nation reservation. There, he had his own police force, and invested in heftier firepower. “I’m from a weapons and explosives background,” he says, gesturing at the targets. There are very few missed shots.
“Military,” he says. “Big arms, small arms, torpedoes.”
Stanley is chief executive of Te Runanga o Ngāi Te Rangi. He wears an enormous pair of tan work boots, with blue jeans. His head is shaved. On the reservation in Quebec, the tribe said his spirit animal was a bear, and gifted him a bear tooth that hangs from the wall. A coyote skin is draped over the desk chair. A taiaha leans on the windowsill.
He is, in some ways, an unlikely candidate for involvement in New Zealand’s cannabis scene. An ex-military teetotaller – doesn’t drink, doesn’t smoke – he introduced random drug testing when he came to take the position at Ngāi Te Rangi. Before he was with the military, he studied public health and wrote his thesis on Māori experiences of addiction.
“Keep in mind I’d been an anti-drug campaigner for two decades,” he says. “So I really needed to be convinced.”
One day, he got a call from his longtime friend, unionist Helen Kelly. Would he consider getting involved in medicinal cannabis, she asked?
He replied: no. “I was stuck on several things,” he says now. “Bloody stoners ruin a lot of my people’s lives!”
She asked him to reconsider.
“And I said no again,” Paora says. “Then she told me she was dying.”
He decided to have a look into it. As an ex-military man, he found the evidence around medicinal marijuana’s use for treatment of PTSD compelling. Research around its use for treating epilepsy is also strong. But ultimately, it was some of the evidence of medicinal cannabis’ efficacy as a pain treatment for cancer patients that tipped him over the edge.
“Both my mother and father and many of my family have died from cancer, and again that changed my view to it,” he says.
“For the people who are suffering from the side effects -” he pauses. His voice softens with emotion. “I wish my dad who died, didn’t have to go out on morphine. I wish that this was a product he could have used, he would have gone out lucid. I wish it was there for him and some of my other buddies and friends who died.”
Working as the chief executive of Listuguj First Nation reservation, he decided with the tribe to invest in Canada’s emerging medicinal marijuana industry. They started relatively small, investing $4 million into building a medicinal marijuana facility. “That $4 million is now worth $26 million,” he says. Back in New Zealand, in his new role at Ngāi te Rangi, he’s cautiously looking at how the iwi can invest in the medical industry.
Ideally, he is looking for the tribe to invest in facilities in Canada, to develop business experience in the sector. “And then by the time this country opens up to medicinal marijuana, you then bring that back to this country and initiate it here.”
If New Zealand’s model ends up resembling Canada’s highly regulated industry, there are enormous buy-in costs, he says. There, paying for indoor growing facilities - security fences, regulation-thick walls, lighting and temperature controls - can quickly soar into the tens of millions. Overseas, those buy-in costs can mean economically disenfranchised groups – like African-American communities – struggle to enter the industry. Here, iwi have cash to invest on behalf of their people.
Stanley says developing a local industry with Māori as key players means the cash tends to stay in the community, rather than heading off-shore via large-scale pharmaceutical companies. “So the money and the benefit of it actually don’t go out of the province,” he says: “They often don’t go out of the city. Māori organisations, the majority of profits stay within 100km of its epicentre. Ours will usually stay within 50km. 90 percent of our profits and benefits will only be within a 50km radius from here. Māori money that is generated stays locally.”
“You already know that there is a lot of interest in it and there is certainly a lot of iwi interest on it. It’s because of the money. Iwi have got to be able to turn around money for the benefit of their people. Some people with a racist streak will say, ‘You horis are good at making marijuana out south.’ Well, that ain’t really it either. It’s actually about medicinal marijuana, it’s different.”
At the sports bar of Te Puia Hotel, locals shooting pool and drinking Codies know about Hikurangi. The men staying at the hotel while they work the roads have heard about it too. Hopes for the enterprise are high: for the town, and the jobs, and the possible payouts at the other end. Plenty is riding on the small greenhouses of hemp seedlings over the hill. On the main street of Ruatoria, a few shops are open. There’s a bakery, a dairy, a liquor store. A few shopfronts are boarded up. The old petrol station sprouting weeds and lichen. Talk to the locals on the street, and they’ve either bought shares, or wondered about it, or know someone who has.
Keep driving through, and you reach the collectively owned Māori land at Makarika. Caddie’s home is here, on his wife Tarsh’s family marae. The steps to his front door are just a few metres from the wharenui. Bright light is hitting the kitchen table. A lot rides along with the possibility of success.
"Decent, safe jobs," he says.
"Less people dodging the cops, more taxes being paid. And legitimate jobs and real ownership of the enterprise for the people who work in it."
Caddie hopes that good, safe jobs on the land will help draw back whānau from years of urban drift. The language and culture can continue to thrive.
“It’s about whānau being able to live on their land, that they might have been away from two or three generations. It’s about the health of the paepae, speakers and kaikaranga, that can maintain the traditions and ways of doing things.”
Manaaki whenua, manaaki tangata, haere whakamua, the whakataukī goes: care for the land, care for the people, go forward.
Follow Tess on Twitter: @tessairini