In 1994, I was the editor for an issue of Planet magazine focused on cannabis, its culture and the prospects for the end of its prohibition. Part of that issue was an interview with 'Elton', an experienced cannabis dealer.
I recently posted my essay from that issue, and I figured it was worth getting Elton's recollections onto the internet too. It strikes me as a significant oral history. It's a good read too – he was quite the raconteur.
Elton is still around, but he deals in legal things these days. 'Wayne Washington' is a pseudonym I used to avoid the impression I was writing the whole magazine (Wayne also wrote for Ngila's Dickson's pioneering street mag ChaCha). Thanks to Leo Rae Brown for the typing.
“Elton” is in his mid-30s and lives in Auckland. He's done many things in his adult life – travelled and worked around the world. But for much of that time he was a dope dealer, a cog in the New Zealand marijuana industry. It's a career choice that gave him a good lifestyle, made him many friends, and, eventually, put him in prison. He smokes dope only occasionally these days. He talks to WAYNE WASHINGTON about the development of the marijuana industry, what went wrong – and what should be done.
I first came across marijuana, actually came across the goods in 1975, but I was aware of it prior to then. While I was still at high school, there were people – usually the girls because they'd be going out with older guys – who used to come to school and say "wow, I got really stoned at the weekend" and the rest of us would be green with envy.
This was actually before the buddha sticks started arriving in any great bulk – they were the next big thing. What I came across first was the proto-New Zealand Green. The quality was nowhere near as good in those days – it hadn't been acclimatised and bred up.
Initially I just smoked dope and introduced it to my friends. I was working and I had money. It was 30 bucks an ounce in those days and I used to get paid about $37 a week, so I could afford to buy maybe half an ounce and spend the weekend getting all my school buddies stoned. Then, about eight months later, New Zealand was inundated with the famous Asian buddha sticks.
As fate would have it, somebody's older brother was in with the Fulcher people – who was basically the guy that brought it in the first place. There was Terry Clark and that, sure, but Peter Fulcher was the one who brought it in. I actually met Peter back in those days – I was about 17 and I thought he was a pretty weird dude. He was a critter, no two ways about it! But he had good dope, so, y'know, you didn't argue too much …
We used to get it at a ridiculous price. If you got 100 buddha sticks you'd get them for about $3 each. And you could turn around and sell 'em for $5 or $6 dollars no trouble at all. On the street they were about $8 or $10 dollars. So it was a fair inducement to buy a bag of sticks – you'd buy one for $300 and in the space of a couple of days you'd sold them and made yourself $200 or $300. At that time somebody who had a well-paid job on a construction site might take home $95. We could go out and make $200, $300 a weekend.
The local pot was being grown, but there wasn't a great deal of demand for it because the buddha sticks were just so superior. They were also very convenient. One stick a week was enough for most people and it was in their price bracket. It was pocket-sized, too.
That started to peter out in 1977. There was some middle-aged creep from Takapuna walking his dog along the beach and he saw a drum. He opened it and there were 44,000 buddha sticks inside! And he handed it in to the police! That was sort of the beginning of the end for the buddha sticks. There was the gradual unravelling of the Clark empire and the greater vigilance of local Customs agents – particularly the introduction of sniffer dogs.
But the local industry was still here – in fact, they'd been improving it. There was a fairly smooth transition from buddha back to New Zealand Green. I didn't really encounter any consumer resistance. Towards the end of the buddha sticks some weird things started happening. There was an outfit in South Auckland who were taking New Zealand Green and tying it onto little joss sticks, making it look like buddha sticks. But of course it wasn't anywhere near as strong, so they were dipping them in horse tranquiliser, drying them out and selling them as buddha sticks. And of course, people who smoked them got a very unpleasant stone. Horse tranquiliser is a pretty mean buzz. That probably helped change people's attitude towards local dope.
In that transition people were also bringing in what they called 'red oil' from Thailand, which was a very strong cannabis preparation – you can't get a much higher concentration of THC. There was also a lot of hash coming into the country too, even while the police were having success with the buddha sticks.
I had a mate in Wellington who used to import antiques. And what he did in Asia was get chessboards made up of blond and black hash, all compressed and then lacquered over, so it just looked like a lacquered wooden chess set. He brought those in for ages, without any trouble. He only really came unstuck when he got a bit more ambitious and started bringing it in as the slate beds in billiard tables. Things started getting a bit out of control at that stage and eventually Mr Plod came knocking on his door and closed down his operation.
Local growing started in the 60s, but it didn't become a commercial industry until a bunch of surfies started experimenting with growing and really improved the strains. A lot of what was here was cannabis indica, which comes from Asia. But they brought in the American strain, sativa. A surfboard full of seeds came in from Hawaii and what we call the New Zealand Green today is basically from those seeds. Basically we grow Maui Wowie in New Zealand, with a little cross-pollination from indica plants. You can pick it from the little orange hairs – what Billy T. James used to call 'orange roughies'.
That came in in the mid-70s, but they played around with it for a couple of years before they started growing it for supply. There was another guy down the line in Te Puke who got onto one of the American books on growing, which was freely available here. That had a big chapter on a Californian technique called polyploiding – doubling the chromosomes – which was developed for fruit-growing. He was the guy who developed the famous Te Puke Thunder.
So by 1980 you had well-established, very powerful pot being grown in New Zealand. I remember in, I think, 1986, when the Whitbread fleet came through. Simon Le Bon's boat Drum was the English entry. I was partying with those guys and they were just knocked out with the New Zealand weed. They'd just come from South Africa and were saying, Durban Poison is crap compared to this stuff. I would say that the Whitbread fleet as a whole must have taken a couple of pounds of New Zealand Green to get them from here to South America.
Quite a few of the people who became leading growers early on are still leading growers. Some of them have had to scale down their operations a great deal, because of the advent of police helicopters. That's been successful in diversifying the New Zealand dope growing scene – it certainly hasn't stopped it. I personally think it's a complete waste of taxpayer money. What the growers have had to do is instead of having one decent-sized plot far away from civilisation, is grow a lot of small plots of five to 10 plants, well spread out.
Initially, I guess I was a street dealer, introduced to it by my friends who were two or three years older. They developed our market, which forced us to develop a market. It's like any other business – setting up a distributorship around the country and supplying it. I got a lot bigger than I ever intended to – not really through any desire of my own, I just let business grow. I perhaps should have exercised a little self control and kept it small.
It's the Tall Poppy Syndrome – you get too big and you get your head shot off. Small is good in this country. I know guys who've been doing it for longer than I did and they've never had a brush with the law, because they've kept it small and kept everyone happy.
At the bigger stage I was buying directly from growers, buying pounds. I got onto the growers fairly quickly – I knew who they were and just went up and introduced myself. You could do that in those days because you didn't have the undercover cops, so the paranoia wasn't there. Apart from helicopters, paranoia is one of the great problems of the dope trade and you can blame that squarely on undercover work and certain other forms of entrapment. The scene itself would be a lot more open and a lot less criminal if it wasn't for those sort of police tactics. They actively provoke paranoia in the hope that it'll ruin things for the growers and the dealers The SIS got involved – The SIS have got a file this fuckin' long on me! It's unreal what they think I'm up to!
I personally never had an episode that really scared me. I've heard bad stories, horror stories. Guys getting their hands chopped off and then shot through the head … I've never even been in a situation where I've been threatened. I just dealt with people I knew, paid my money, dealt for cash, dealt quality product at a reasonable price.
I chose my customers, too – didn't deal with idiots. Usually, where people have gotten in trouble is that there's something wrong with someone involved – whether it be a mental disorder that someone has had already, or whether they're just one of those people who are criminal by nature. Those people can cause problems – mainly for themselves. Usually, if someone disappears or is badly hurt, they deserved it or shouldn't have been around that scene in the first place.
The growers I know are all rational human beings, family people with kids at school, members of the local PTA and so on. Their neighbours probably have no idea what they do.
I've followed the local cannabis preparation idustry with some interest. Making oil – which, incidentally, is a class B drug while plain old pot is class C – started out basically as a way to find a use for the bales and bales of leaf you end up growing along with your heads. No one wants to buy that leaf any more, no matter how cheap it is or how big the bag. For a while there, growers were actually using the leaf as mulch, digging it back into the plants. Initially, some people tried to market the local oil as imported oil from asia, but there's a pretty massive difference in quality because the local oil is only made from leaf – and it's a different colour too, it's green. There's not a hell of a lot you can do about that. The local grower's like the local butcher – he puts the best cuts in the front window of his shop and puts the rest through the sausage grinder. There are a number of ways of making oil, but we won't go into that. Go to prison in this country and you'll come out knowing the recipe.
I find these days marijuana intoxication is not a state of mind I like being in a lot of the time. I like being in that state of mind occasionally, but not too often. But in my early days I smoked a lot and you got to the point where you could just about tell where it was grown and who had grown it. It's like wine, it varies from region to region. I've even smoked dope that looked great but just wasn't psychoactive – there's a fairly common soil virus that'll get into your plants and take out all the THC. You can decide to grow and be real unlucky and get a first crop that just doesn't work.
I have come across an export sector in the New Zealand industry, but not on any large scale. There's actually more demand from overseas than there are people willing to fill the demand. I've been asked to do that myself. The rewards are potentially large, but it's very complex and risky. You'd be at less risk running a finance company dishing out unsecured loans than you would be trying to grow marijuana for export.
I've seen some odd things in the industry, but the funniest thing that ever happened to me would probably be a drug squad raid. They'd been to my house and I wasn't there. Then they worked out I was staying at my girlfriend's place. So they turned up at six in the morning, as they do. They confirmed that I was who I was and said they were going to search the place. They started making a mess and I told them there was nothing to find and if they carried on like that they'd be getting a damages claim from my lawyer. So they started to search a bit more carefully. Anyway, there was a little corner table in the lounge and one cop opened the drawer in it and found a tin. He opened it up and there was a white powder in it – and then they all got really excited. The cop asked me what it was and I shrugged, so he did the thing of licking his finger, dipping it in and tasting the powder. He looked puzzled and said 'look, what the hell is this stuff?' And I said, 'well, my girlfriend's mother died recently … and she was cremated … and we were just holding onto the ashes until we could do something appropriate with them …' Have you ever seen a Maori policeman turn white? He was mortified! That was the end of that search.
I hope to see deregulation and legalisation. The worst thing about marijuana is that it's very high in tars so it's bad for your lungs. Some of my oldest buddies, growers, have been smoking a lot of very good dope for a long time and they've got emphysemia. So it's a health problem. But every year, the police spend millions trying to stamp out marijuana and they can't do it. The reason they can't do it is if people want to smoke dope, they're gonna smoke dope. It's exactly the same as the prohibition era in America, which gave rise to your Al Capones.
The more illegal you make it, the more the criminal element becomes involved, the tighter the scene becomes. There's a lot more gangsterism involved in the scene now than there ever was when I was dealing. It works for the gangs because they can allow individuals to get picked off, busted, and the rest of the gang can keep on trading, business as usual. The policing of it has created that situation.
Can you imagine what that billion dollars or whatever that gets spent would do in the health sector? Or education? And how many New Zealanders have been marginialised by petty convictions over the years? What sort of individual skills have we lost through those convictions? I just hope my generation can change the law, because it's a waste of time and money.
Originally published as Dealer's Choice – Joining the Industry in Planet #13, Winter 1994