DRCNet Interview: Nandor Tanczos, Member of Parliament, New Zealand 10/11/02

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Dread-locked Rastafarian Nandor Tanczos was elected to New Zealand's parliament as a member of the Green Party in 1999. Since then, he has used his elected office to become the most prominent spokesman for cannabis law reform in New Zealand. Tanczos was instrumental in pushing for a parliamentary committee to study cannabis reform last year and continues to fight to free the weed. Always a lightning rod for prohibitionists, Tanczos last week was the subject of a criminal complaint filed by an opposition member charging him with continuing to use cannabis while a member of parliament. Thinking it might be time to check in on the Kiwis, DRCNet spoke with Tanczos on Thursday.

Week Online: Member of Parliament Craig McNair filed a complaint with police last week charging that you continue to violate the law by smoking cannabis even though you are a parliamentarian. How do you respond to his charge, and how do you think this will end up?

Nandor Tanczos: I've always been open about the fact that I used cannabis; I even said so before I was first elected in 1999. I don't make a big deal out of it, but when the media ask me, I'm honest about it. Craig McNair from the right-nationalist New Zealand First Party filed the complaint, and that was big news here. The police came to visit to investigate the complaint, but I suspect little will come of it. To prosecute, they have two considerations: First, is there enough evidence of a crime? I have not said that I smoked at a specific place at a specific time, and just saying that I use is probably not enough evidence. The second consideration is the issue of the public welfare. We are in the middle of an important policy debate on cannabis, and one could argue that police should not prosecute because people in public life should be able to address these issues and to arrest me would suppress discussion of the issues. We expect an announcement about what they plan to do soon. If they choose to prosecute me, that's fine. It would become a very interesting freedom of religion case.

WOL: Are you potentially subject to parliamentary sanctions?

Tanczos: Parliament does not have the ability to unseat me unless I were convicted of a criminal offense with a sentence of two years or more. That's not the case with personal cannabis consumption. There could be a motion of censure, but nobody has tried that. I think what has actually happened is that most people don't support Craig McNair's actions. This is a country where about 54% of adults have tried cannabis and about 75% of young people. McNair is a 27-year-old who says he's a role model for youth, but adds that he's never even been offered cannabis. I guess that shows how many friends he has. We have received many messages of support saying that people basically believe McNair is a twit.

WOL: The cannabis flap isn't the only attack aimed at you in recent weeks. Last month, you were slammed in the media and by some politicians over the issue of selling certain substances at your hemp store. What was that all about?

Tanczos: I am the part owner of a shop that sells hemp products, among other things. We also sell two products known as Exodus and Frenzy, which basically contain extracts of black pepper, chemical compounds known as piperazines. This became a story because your DEA has just temporarily classified these compounds as dangerous drugs on a temporary basis. But I read the Federal Register on the emergency classification and the only danger I could see was that people were taking these substances and then going out dancing. They were being found in the same places where they find Ecstasy. You would also presumably find beer and even coffee at these locations, but that is no reason for them to be banned.

Media reports appeared saying the New Zealand Health Department is now investigating these substances, but we asked the Health Department, and they are not concerned, they are not investigating these products. The leader of the conservative National Party and others have said I should resign or sell my shares in the hemp store -- are they looking to pick up cheap shares in a profitable business? -- but the real concern seems to be that this is associated with dance parties. It is extremely poor decision-making if people are making decisions on whether to ban substances based on whether or not they like the people who use them.

Also tangled up in the same debate was a controversy over selling ecstasy testing kits. I've been criticized for promoting ecstasy use. I don't use ecstasy, but if other people wish to use such drugs -- and many are -- then we need to make sure those people are as safe as they can be. We want to minimize harm. After all, that is part of our national drug strategy. We are really the only people to take practical steps to help ecstasy users avoid harm.

WOL: What is behind these media flaps and political attacks?

Tanczos: They are very much an attack on me personally. I've been consistently vocal about these issues, and they try to destroy my personal credibility to damp down a whole movement. The complaint by McNair was an attempt to intimidate people who come out of the closet. It won't work; instead it backfires. What happens as a result of the media attention is that we have a chance to get our key messages out and bring the debate into the public arena. We do have real problems with people selling cannabis to school kids still wearing their school uniforms and while, for example, the Nationals may accuse us of wanting children going to school on genetically engineered cannabis, we can state our position that cannabis should be legalized for adults over 18 and that police should concentrate on putting these drug distribution networks that focus on kids out of business. We are also seeing an increase in crystal meth, we're very concerned about that. If we used the $20 million we spend busting people for cannabis, we could target those drug houses and put them out of business. We could also use some of that money to focus on effective drug education. A lot of what passes for education is the abstinence model, and it's pretty clear that doesn't work. Just say no is a proven failure. So you see how we turn these attacks to our advantage.

WOL: Last year, a parliamentary committee was looking into cannabis reform, but it seems to have fallen off the face of the earth. What happened with that committee and what is happening with cannabis reform in parliament?

Tanczos: We set up an inquiry in the Health Select Committee last year. We heard submissions from the public -- about 75% of them favored cannabis law reform -- but unfortunately because of early elections, we did not have time to produce a report. The Health Committee has agreed to complete the report, and we expect it in the next month or so. I think it will contain a recommendation for law reform, and once we sit it, we will decide where to go from there. But since the elections there is a stumbling block. After the elections, the Labor government sought and won support from the United Future Party, and one of UF's conditions for supporting the government was that it not introduce any legislation to change the legal status of cannabis. That will not change until the next election, when I think the Greens will forge an agreement with Labor.

In the meantime, I have introduced a private member's bill to allow farmers to grow hemp. I have not introduced a private bill on cannabis law reform because I don't want to introduce legislation until it's clear it will have support. If my bill is killed on the first vote, the issue is off the agenda. But private member's bills are a random process; which ones will be considered is literally determined by picking names out of a hat.

But progress can be made nonetheless. There are a number of administrative steps that can be taken without passing legislation. One big step would be to change the regulations in the Misuse of Drugs Act that allow police to make warrantless searches. We might get some movement on those sorts of issues. The other thing is that we can continue to build a consensus and solidify support and work to ensure that the numbers are on our side. And we can continue to reach out to educators, health workers, and law enforcement, where there is actually considerable support for reform.

WOL: What about the opposition?

Tanczos: Over the years, the opposition to ending cannabis prohibition has been effectively refuted. In the late 1990s when parliament inquired into the mental effects of cannabis, it found that the dangers had been exaggerated, that some people had problems, but that making it illegal only made things worse. So opponents ended up resorting to "what about the kids?" I suspect we have a well-funded opposition making use of school principals and boards of trustees to attempt to derail cannabis reform. But their prohibitionist consensus is crumbling. I have principals come to argue with me, and they come up to me afterwards and tell me my position is actually quite sensible. Other educators are concerned about cannabis, but feel a punitive approach is not helpful. One-third of all students suspended from school are for cannabis use or possession.

WOL: What sort of impact do international drug reform efforts have on New Zealand?

Tanczos: They are very significant for us, especially what is happening in Australia, Britain, Canada and the US. We New Zealanders share cultural similarities with those countries. We are a small country, and we are acutely aware of what is happening in other parts of the world. People know what is happening in Australia, and the latest moves in Britain, while modest, are very significant. If Canada enacted reform legislation, that would also be very important. We Greens are trying to publicize the fact that we are not going out on a limb all by ourselves, but we are part of a global wave of cannabis law reform. On the other hand, the prohibitionist policies that the US exports influence our politics as well.

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Issue #258, 10/11/02 Editorial: Just Claims | Ordeal of the Pain Doctors: California Physician Still Struggling to Clear His Name, Trial Date Set for December | DRCNet Interview: Nandor Tanczos, Member of Parliament, New Zealand | California Medical Marijuana Chronicles: A Widening Conflict | MedMj Chronicles I: The Feds Are Deadly Serious: Bryan Epis Sentenced to Federal Prison | MedMj Chronicles II: San Jose Police Department Cuts Ties with DEA Task Force | MedMj Chronicles III: Marijuana Patients and Caregivers Sue the Feds, Seek Order to Stop Raids | MedMj Chronicles IV: Marijuana Rescheduling Petition Revived | FDA Approves Buphrenorphine for Home Addiction Treatment | Whose Brain on Drugs? Stanford Symposium Focuses on Addiction and Chemistry | Newsbrief: Colombian Ombudsman Petitions Government for Suspension of Herbicide Spraying | Newsbrief: RAVE Act Stalled in House, Could Be Dead for the Year | Newsbrief: Wisconsin Couple Commit Suicide After Pot and 'Shroom Bust, Forfeiture Notice | Newsbrief: Ban on Narcocorridos Spreads in Mexico | Newsbrief: School Districts Drug Testing for Tobacco, Too | Newsbrief: Leaders of Former Soviet Republics Meet to Fight Drugs and Terror, Drink Wine | Newsbrief: Canadian Researchers Seek Approval for Heroin Maintenance Study | Calling on Students to Raise Your Voices for Repeal of the HEA Drug Provision | Action Alerts: Rave Bill, Medical Marijuana, Higher Education Act Drug Provision | The Reformer's Calendar

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