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Les Gray: the man who told the truth

by Paul Shannon

The story of Les Gray, the public sector psychologist who told the truth about his use of cannabis and set off a storm, has a special place in the lore of cannabis reform in New Zealand.

When Paul Shannon interviewed Gray for the 'Dope and Hope' issue of Planet magazine in 1994, it was a decade since he'd first frightened the horses and five years since he'd done the unthinkable and admitted to cannabis use on live TV. As Paul observes, Gray told the story well.

Last I heard, Les Gray was still part of the holistic therapy community in Northland, although his health has been impacted by a stroke. And he still has that jersey.

RB

Thanks to Leo Rae Brown for the typing.

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It was April, 1984, at a meeting of the Dargaville PTA, that Les Gray publicly challenged the then-Minister of Education, Merv Wellington, over his banning of all sex and drug education in schools. Since that night, it seems that Gray and the marijuana debate have been inseparable.

Gray was then a psychologist at the Department of Education, so he was qualified to comment on what he saw as a ridiculous stifling of information. He also thought the laws on marijuana were absurd when the health risk was compared to tobacco and alcohol.

Senior police officials were subsequently interviewed on TV's Close Up. They made it plain they were considering action against Gray because he'd admitted usage. But none was taken and Gray thinks the police decided  the best strategy was just leave him alone and hope he would go away. He didn't.

Controversy raged through the media. Gray was sacked by the Education Department and at the same time established as one of the few people actually prepared to stick his neck out on the marijuana issue.

Then, in 1989, Police minister Peter Tapsell suggested opening up the debate on marijuana. Unheard of. You can imagine every detective senior sergeant in the country just shaking with rage, furious that they had a minister who actually wanted to hear both sides of the debate.

But no sooner had Tapsell made this provocative announcement than he boarded a plane for a “research” junket to Scandinavia. In his wake, the story was picked up by the then-new current affairs show, Holmes. Gray was invited to appear, along with Ian Hastings, a former head of the Drug Squad, who was (and still is) active in prohibitionist drug education.

What follows is a story that Les Gray has told many times before. Indeed, he tells it so well we'll leave him to it. He takes up the chain of events with that Holmes show of Tuesday 23 May, 1989.

“The first question on Holmes I saw come up on his cue screen from where I was sitting. It said: 'Have you used marijuana?' He asked Ian Hastings first. He looked all over the room and finally said no. Then Paul asked me and I said to him 'Yes thank you Paul, I enjoy it.' I wanted to admit to usage, crank it up one notch further and be clear that I enjoyed it, which is more than a use and abuse sort of thing.

“I sensed it was more of an inflammatory thing to say – and it was inflammatory for Sergeant Lloyd Harris here in Whangarei, who apparently didn't even see the programme, but heard the other police talking about it in the canteen. He decided off his own bat that he would do me.

“I'm sure that if he'd tried to clear it from the top they would have said no. I've heard since from some sources that are confidential in the police that he got arseholes. Anyway, he took it upon himself to get a search warrant, which he secured on the Wednesday. Then on Friday 26 May, he came and searched our houseboat that we were living on at the time and arrested me.

“Well my partner Pat was furious. She rang the Holmes show and said 'Look, it's all very well for you bastards to ask cheap sensational questions, you don't have to live with the consequences. Les has just been arrested.' They were horrified and immediately flew a helicopter team up. By the time I got released from the police station and came home, the camera crew were there. I said how I'd told the sergeant when he was fingerprinting me, 'Look you come in tomorrow we'll have a joint, you come in the day after, we'll have a joint. You keep coming back and we'll show how ridiculous this bloody law is. You can come and arrest me every day'.

“The Holmes show then interviewed Police Superintendent Wells and it was a lovely little shot because he said 'Oh, you've caught me on the back foot.' He didn't know anything about it. They were very sympathetic to me. The way they edited made me very strong and confident and made the Superintendent look an absolute dork, humming and haa-ing, saying he'd been caught on the back foot.

“The case went to the District Court in Whangarei for a two day hearing. We pleaded not guilty and Judge McKegg made this amazing 12-page finding that it was more in the public's interest that I was honest on that TV programme than to arrest the one individual. He believed that the public good was served by my being honest and dismissed the case.

“Then the police appealed in the High Court. The charge was formally for possession of about 90 grams – our winter stash. They didn't try and get us for supply. This time they won.

“Then we went to the Court of Appeal in Wellington. The three appeal judges couldn't understand why I'd told the truth. One said 'Well … you could've lied.' Another one said 'Well … you could've avoided the question.' And the summing-up judge said 'Well, perhaps he was caught by surprise.' They couldn't appreciate that I'd deliberately chosen to tell the truth!

“So then it had to come back to the District Court in Whangarei in front of the same judge who'd dismissed it in the first place. He'd been rapped over the knuckles by the Court of Appeal, so he was obliged to fine me.

“He didn't even look at me. He didn't give me any opportunity to speak and fined me $100. I came out of the court and a television crew was waiting. I said 'I'm not going to pay $100 to have a criminal record for life. If they think I'm a criminal they can lock me up, I'm not going to pay the fine.'

“We were then waiting to see what they were going to do about it. A journalist who was tracking the story at the time came up to me and asked whether we minded if he checked with the court to find out what they were up to.

“It transpired that some anonymous person in Auckland had paid it. It was just as well because NORML were going to set up a tent camp outside the jail. They were going to raise hell. Someone defused that situation by anonymously paying it. I still don't know to this day who paid it.”

Gray's stand has earned him respect ever since. He finds that in his work as a psychologist he is better able to help people deal with the downside of marijuana. Many of Gray's patients are marijuana users and, if necessary, they feel they can talk to him about it.

“A lot of them use it for relaxation, to enhance their sensations. Most of them just use it for social recreation. Some people do come to me because they've got out of control with it and are using it far more than they want to and they don't want to go for total abstinence, they want to go for more regulated usage.

“Some come to me because they're in deep shit for having grown it and the heavy scenes that take place because of the illegal nature of the drug; standover tactics and things. They're stressed out by things they can't tell the police about and they feel that I'm the only one they can really talk to.

“I know a lot of men who are very violent on alcohol who have made marijuana their drug of choice because they don't get violent. They just go apeshit when they're pissed.”

It's not only in his office that people feel they can talk to Gray about dope.

“You know, I can go into any pub in the country and after I sit there for a while, someone will come up to me and say 'Excuse me, aren't you Les Gray?' And they'll shake my hand or they'll slip me a joint. Sometimes they'll say 'do you want to come outside for a smoke?

“Because of my stance on the issue, people have told me their horror stories of how they've been treated by the police, how they've had their houses ransacked and some of the things the police have done and some of the heavy things that go on. I've lost track of how many people have died because of this law.

“People have been shot, there've been suicides. One guy was electrocuted on top of a power pole because he was growing some plants on top of a power transformer. A cop fell out of a helicopter and died because he got too excited about a patch. So people are dying not because of marijuana but because of the law.”

Living as he does in the hub of the North, Gray is aware of the trouble many smaller Northland communities would be in if not for the cashflow generated by marijuana.

“There'd be a lot of small communities who'd actually be in economic trouble – the local garage, the local supermarket, dairy – they benefit from the cash provided by marijuana. There must be millions in cashflow. A lot of shopkeepers would be in serious trouble if that cash wasn't there. Mind you, even if it was decriminalised now, sure the prices would come down but there'd still be a market for the stuff – everybody can grow their own cabbages but who bothers? And everyone can brew their own beer but not everyone bothers. So there'd be a market for it, but it wouldn't be such a high-priced commodity.

“I think the present law does far more harm than good. I would say this law is the greatest alienator of young people from the police. Over the last 20 years the police have lost a lot of credibility with the younger generation of the way they've gone about enforcing the marijuana laws.

“On one hand the police are calling for greater co-operation, but they're failing by the way they go about enforcing the marijuana laws. If it wasn't for that the police would have a much higher level of acceptance in the community. Many international reviews point out the great cost to society of alienating the younger generation with blatant hypocrisy. They go around shooting themselves in the foot by the way they're enforcing the marijuana laws.”

“This marijuana law makes a mockery of democracy … the very law that you want to debate is used to shut you up.”

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Originally published as 'Truth or Consequences' by Paul Shannon in issue 13 of Planet magazine, winter 1994.

Other articles from the same issue issue are available as follows:

Time for a New Deal: 25 years on

Dealer's choice: an oral history

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