BY CHRIS FOWLIE
Customs have succeeded in getting a second issue of Cannabis Culture magazine banned, throwing the local future of the publication into doubt.
Cannabis Culture magazine plays an important role in informing the debate on cannabis laws, as mainstream local media seldom report anything positive about marijuana, or the significant changes
occurring overseas. Despite this, Chief Censor Bill Hastings recently banned Cannabis Culture #69 January-February 2008. He admitted the ban “interferes with the freedom of expression” protected by the Bill of Rights Act, but said the decision was “reasonable, demonstrably justified, and consistent with preventing likely injury to the public good.”
This, he said, was because it contained an article about hash making. It is the second issue to be banned for this reason, but not the first to attract the attention of the Customs Service. However, because the magazine was not yet banned at the time it was seized, Customs had no lawful authority to take it. Under New Zealand law all publications are legal until they are made illegal. Although one previous issue had been banned, the ban applied only to that issue. That didn’t seem to deter Customs, who detained issue #69 back in February, but then waited until May to inform me they had seized a “prohibited import”.
At the time, the Customs and Excise Act allowed only two ways to appeal a decision made by customs officers – no matter how irrational or draconian. They are to either sue the department in court, at a cost of tens of thousands of dollars, or ask the Minister of Customs to overrule them. In an election year the chances of that happening were pretty remote, but I thought it was important to state it for the record. Rather predictably, Minister Nanaia Mahuta simply referred it back to Customs – the very people I was appealing against! It did spur Customs into action, who then sent it to the censors, apparently to belatedly approve the seizure.
In my submission to the Office of Film and Literature Classification (OFL C) opposing a ban, I argued that it is an essential characteristic of a free society that people are allowed to hold or read about views differing from the ruling elite. Although many people and organisations do not share the same views as Customs, the Police or certain politicians, does not mean that they are wrong, or that their views are inherently objectionable.
While encouraging crime could be grounds for a ban, previous rulings by the censors had confirmed that the advocation of a lifestyle and of cannabis law reform did not equate with advocation of a crime itself. A 1998 decision by the Film and Literature Review Board regarding a similar magazine, High Times, concluded:
“The dominant effect of High Times is the promotion of a point of view with respect to the law and culture surrounding marijuana use. High Times advocates the reform of marijuana laws and presents a favourable impression of the culture and lifestyle of those who use marijuana. Advocation of a lifestyle and the reform of laws does not promote criminal activity.”
The OFLC, in a ruling dated 23 March 2004, confirmed that “The same point can be made about Cannabis Culture.” This was repeated in later rulings on other issues of Cannabis Culture, including one that contained an article titled “How to make honey oil”. In his rulings for both the issues he banned, Hastings says they contained “how to make hash” articles and notes that hash is classified as class B under the Misuse of Drugs Act, which carries penalties that are more severe than for unprocessed cannabis.
Hastings ruled that because of the hash making article, the dominant effect of the more recent 120-page magazine was somehow “not advocacy of law reform but encouragement to break the law.” He did not explain why the issue with the honey oil article was allowed, While admitting the magazine has “social and political merit” Hastings said “readers are unlikely to interpret the magazine’s support for currently criminal behaviour as advocacy for law reform and may be attracted to experiment with criminal actions.” It is this, he said, that makes the issue “injurious to the public good.”
Shortly after the ruling, Customs Minister Nanaia Mahuta confirmed she would not overrule the censors as they are “experts in these matters”. She also advised that the laws have changed since this importation. Decisions by customs staff can now be appealed to an “independent” Customs Appeals Authority, and then if needed, to the High Court. Because of the costs involved, and the two year waiting list to get to court, an appeal is not likely. Instead, we are investigating the feasibility of reprinting part or all of Cannabis Culture here, possibly in conjunction with Norml News. Watch this space. Or just read it online.