Rasta Reason – Interview with Nandor Tanczos

The Dread has left the House. New Zealand’s highest profile cannabis campaigner is no longer a Green MP, but in this discussion with CHRIS FOWLIE, Ras Nandor Tanczos says you can expect to hear more from him soon.

Chris: Gidday mate, and welcome back to the land of regular people! What were your expectations at the beginning? The impression perhaps was that you felt disappointed with your time there or with what happened.

Nandor: I went in really expecting nothing from the place. I joined the green party because I felt there was a kaupapa that was vital for the 21st century the Greens were the only party that had anything to say of relevance to the world we were going into as far as I could see. So I wanted to support that kaupapa. When the Green party became independent of the Alliance I got involved in various activities as you will remember. When people in the party asked me if I was going to stand or asked me to stand as an MP I thought about it a lot, because I come from an anarchist background, I’m a Rastafarian, both of those things we don’t really engage in parliamentary politics. And I never expected anything from parliament. I’ve never seen parliament as a place where real change is going to happen, progressive change, the kind of change that we need is going to happen. I stood because we had a chance to and I felt it was important that there was someone in parliament who was outside of the box. To say, you can be yourself, and you can be in there, and you can cut it and you can be as good as any of them, but you can be yourself. You don’t have to conform to all that bullshit about who you’ve got to be to be a power broker. I wanted to break down
prejudice. I wanted to confront them with the reality of who we are, which I think I have done after nine years. Interesting the things that people are saying about me when I left compared to what they were saying about me when I entered are quite different.

So I went in really as a symbolic thing as much as anything else. And I never expected to be able to do anything useful in parliament because I already recognised it as a place coopted by corporate agendas and coopted by power itself, you know people become inflated with their own self importance because of those positions of power so when I came out telling them off it wasn’t that I was disappointed or disillusioned, it wasn’t as though I had any illusions in the first place, but nevertheless those things still need to be said.

You said you were there for almost symbolic reasons and yet it was the things that you stood for, the symbols as such, that got held against you. Your hair, your alleged cannabis use. Because of these reasons, doors were closed.

And that got in the way of some of the things I was trying to do. Let me say as well that having gone in kind of symbolically, what I discovered, the first thing I discovered was that there were more opportunities to make changes than I had at first thought. What I hadn’t realized was the power of being there, having a seat at the table, having a vote at the table. The ability to articulate dissent is an important one even if it doesn’t change the result. To articulate it and have it on the record. We need a historical record of those that stood against them. You can change things, I changed legislation, I made amendments, I introduced legislation. I’ve made a practical difference in terms of legislation and policy which I’m really proud of, but also after going through that I then also came back to the realisation that the changes that you can make in there are limited, because the place is so co-opted and governments and almost all political parties in there are so compromised by corporate agendas and their own self importance, that the really fundamental changes that we need to make in the world today – I just don’t see them coming from them.

The cannabis inquiry got stalled for political reasons, purely to get back at the Greens for Corngate or whatever. Yet cannabis arrests have dropped about 20 percent every year since then. Society has changed and the Police have changed.

I think that the cannabis inquiry did have a really big impact even though we didn’t get the law changed. I mean if you go back to the report, its still actually an excellent report that lays out what the issues are, lays out still a pretty good guide to the health impacts and all those things, it does weigh up all the policy options, it doesn’t come up with a recommendation saying we should change [but] if you read those pros and cons its pretty clear that prohibition is the worst one. So those Select Committee reports they actually do have impact. I’m sure the select committees report is part of the things that’s changed the attitude. There was really good coverage of the issues through that inquiry and also people came and made representations for the first time to a select committee, really courageously. I was really impressed and inspired by all the people that came forward. I think it did make a difference. I certainly wouldn’t want those people to think that it was a waste of their time, because I don’t think it was.

Coming back to your earlier question, the fact I was a dreadlocked Rastafarian, that I openly used cannabis and unashamedly and are honest about it you know and all the kinds of stuff that goes with being part of the marginalized, outside the main stream, I think it was really important being there but there is no doubt that that also created an obstacle, which is why after two terms of holding the cannabis drug policy portfolio, even though I was an expert at drug policy, I gave the portfolio up because it became increasingly apparent that I had become an obstacle to change. Having kinda opened the door by being open about it also became a blockage. My hope was that by standing aside, some of that blockage would go away. Now I am actually optimistic that the tide for cannabis law reform is still coming in. And I hope that now someone will pick up the championing of the cause in parliament but who doesn’t have the same political liability that I have.

Where is that going to come from – who is our next hope?

I’m not sure, I haven’t seen it coming forward yet. I don’t know where it is going to come from, but you know its early days yet. No one was going to pick it up while I was in Parliament maybe now that I’m out, that will create a space. In some ways the real thing is again a conscience vote because there are a lot of people in National who want to support law reform, and if you generally follow the kaupapa of the National Party, you should support drug law reform. This is the curious thing about the left and right thing, and why I for a long time have tried to position myself outside that continuum. In a lot of issues I’m left wing, there is no doubt about it, but cannabis law reform seems  to me more intrinsically more a right wing issue than a left wing issue because it is about individual freedom.

In hindsight we came really close to changing the law about five years ago. If get to a similar position, what can we learn from that so we actually get something through?

I do blame myself a lot for the missed opportunity. I think if I’d been more experienced I personally could have done more, in that just being less reasonable I think. More pig headed and arm twisting, Its difficult because the party, my party … it was a contentious issue within the Green Party, and that made it more difficult, but what we should have done is just said “you will change the fucken law”, actually what we should of done is said “No inquiry, we don’t want a fucken inquiry, you will change the law this year otherwise we are pulling the plug.” That is what we should have done.

I hear some criticism from activists who blame the Greens for not doing enough. What is your response to that. Is it fair?

It’s a difficult question, and it depends from what position you are looking at it from. There is no doubt that the Greens have done more for drug law reform than any other party in parliament, sensible drug policy in general they are the only party in parliament, so I think it would be unfair to not acknowledge that. At the same time, because it was controversial within the party and key people were very hesitant about it, I think the Greens made a strategic error. Because some people were hesitant about it, I was kind of hobbled from pursing the issue as aggressively as it needed
to be done. The Green Party made a collective decision, the caucus made a collective decision against my view and the view of some others like Rod Donald and Keith Locke. There was a collective decision not to aggressively go out and promote cannabis law reform but to kind of defend ourselves when attacked. Now that was inadequate. What we needed to do was go aggressively and take the issue out there, ‘cos we had all the arguments, we had all the evidence, we would have won any argument that we entered in to and if we had been wholeheartedly about it as a party I think we could have gone a lot further.

So I guess what I am saying is yes and no. We did more that any other party, and I think the Green Party should get credit for that, but we made a strategic error collectively. But moving forward, the reality is what are your choices: the legalise cannabis campaign [ALCP] for all their commitment and passion are not going to be in parliament, so people can vote, I just think their chances of that happening are so remote as to be more or less irrelevant.

I think in terms of voting it’s still more useful to vote for the Green Party because you know that you are voting for people who support law reform. I think that the Green Party is not going to make  cannabis law reform an election issue, they are just not going to do that anymore, but I think that they will – if the opportunity arises – they will pick it up.

Like Metiria Turei, who’s our drug policy portfolio, she’s got a members bill on medical marijuana. She’s being strategic about it, she hasn’t introduced it into parliament, ‘cos she knows right now we’d lose the votes. She wants to get it through and she’s working to do that, not necessarily in major headlines. She is quietly working away on it. I think that, like with most political issues, I think that the movement has to take leadership again. That is the only way you are going to get it on the
agenda, and the only way it got on the agenda in the first place was that the movement put it on the agenda. It wasn’t the Green Party that made cannabis law reform a political issue, it was NORML. It was NORML who made it a political issue. The Green Party were just the ally, the Green Party didn’t make it a political issue. So, its going to be the same thing again. Political parties rarely make things political issues. Mostly it is the movement that makes the issue and the political party will champion it in parliament.

To be effective what we need to do as a movement is sit down and really look at what have we been doing, what have we got, who have we got, what are our resources and how can we use that  strategically? There are people in the movement who are really good at some stuff but are really unhelpful in other areas. You know we need to collectively go, let’s be strategic, who have we got, lets make sure that everyone has their place, stuff they like to do, lets get them doing that, so that we move forward together. There is still a lot of division in the movement which I think is going to hinder forward progress.

As an MP what was it about the movement you were impressed with, and from a parliamentarians point of view, what have we got going for us?

It’s hard for me to give a clear picture right now because I’ve been so in that world, its really focused. There is a lot of good things going on. There’s some really amazing people, committed people, there is a wealth of information, really good information. There is a magazine that goes out nationally which communicates to the network. There is still a massive latent support for law reform.

In a way the thing that really struck me during the cannabis enquiry, and that debate in Dunedin, is  ordinary people getting up and I think really honestly, and it just cuts through all that bullshit. That  is really powerful, just the honesty and integrity of that thing is really, really powerful, I think. There is still a lot there to work with, it’s just kind of bringing it all together and building a bit of momentum. I think the challenges are once again finding things for people to do that’s going to take us forward.

The thing that worries me is there is a backlash for drugs reform based around P, and it’s being used once again to target drug users. So you see the clown up north who wants to drug test all  school kids, all sorts. This stuff is building momentum because there is money to be made and  people are fearful of P – and probably fairly so – but there are a whole lot of people who are there to exploit those fears.

So there is that going on, but there is things like what is going on internationally, there is a review of international conventions, you’ve got these really evidencebased impartial organizations like the Drug Foundation, who I think are really helpful because they are not seen as a lobby group, they  are being this kind of authoritative voice, but when you look at the kind of stuff, the evidence they have got, the evidence is the evidence. Something that we have always been strong on is we look to the evidence as opposed to our opponents.

One of things I think is we have to find a way of breaking out of our locked in camps. It came up during the Dunedin debate again and I thought it was an interesting point. I looked at Jim Anderton who was just locked into his mindframe, and to our side – there were some people there on our side of the debate who were also just totally locked into their mindset. Now we have to find some way of crossing that bridge. I think that all these people are locked into the prohibition mindset ‘cos they are scared.

I think we can meet all their needs. I’m sure there is a way of communicating so that we breakdown some of this locked in opposition and free things up a bit. I’m sure there is a way of doing that, y’know, and I think that is one thing we have to focus on, because otherwise what happens is the opposition just builds so we end up with a balance on both sides, and if the opposing forces were balanced we would lose. We are trying to change things, not maintain the status quo, so we have to find some way of reducing that opposition by acknowledging those real fears that people feel. We’ve got to hear our opponents.

So what’s next for you? You’re chilling out in a house truck in the middle of the Waikato somewhere.

Yeah, finishing a house truck in the middle of the Waikato. We are living in it and it’s good, but there are still things that need to be finished. Growing veges, planting trees, raising chickens and family, so that’s all good. I’m looking at going back to do some tertiary study. I think in parliament you soak up information through your skin, it’s like you just get filled up with information, but there  is no time to reflect, so there’s no wisdom – its just ‘stuff’. That’s why there is so little wisdom in that place. Wisdom comes from reflection and there is no time for reflection, so going back to university would be a way for me to reflect a bit and do some deep thinking, and I’m looking forward to doing that.

But also needing to make a living so I’m trying to establish a business, ‘cos looking at the last nine years in parliament I’ve picked up an enormous amount of information about stuff and also about political processes and I want to make that information and expertise available to the community and to NGOs, not to corporates – fuck them – but to community organisations, people doing positive stuff. I want to help to deconstruct the system and help people become more politically effective.

Also a bit of media work, there is a real space for a deep green analysis and public debate, so I want to be part of pushing that. You get left and right commentators, you don’t get green commentators. Like the Herald has the ‘green pages’ but its all like take a shorter shower and change your light bulbs, which is cool but it’s also very shallow.

I’ve always loved to do education so doing workshopping around Treaty issues, sustainability issues, political stuff into adult education, and also maybe see if I can get into schools and do like civic education in schools and breakdown political stuff for kids. So I’m trying to kind of put a package of these things together to see if I can do work that accords with my heart and also earns me enough money to make a living. I don’t need to earn a lot, we live pretty simply in a bus, ha ha.


(NORML News Spring 2008)