Eighty percent of New Zealanders have tried weed by the age of 21, and between 250,000 and 400,000 of us are using it weekly. But because it’s illegal, many who grow and sell it live under a constant threat of violence. In his book Weed: A New Zealand Story, journalist James Borrowdale takes a comprehensive and insightful look at the history of cannabis in this country and where it sits in society today. In this excerpt, he talks to a grower and dealer about the violence, extortion and fear that goes on in the background of his business.

He told his customers to call him the Shaman in their phones.* He reached for the pair of nunchucks hanging by their chain from a hook on the back of the door. He prodded them into my chest to give me an idea of what it felt like to have a shotgun pressed against your heart. The memory of it still clearly shook him, even if it had happened years ago. “Fuck the gangs,” he said, leaning close to my dictaphone for emphasis, and directed his next statement straight to them: “I fucking hate you cunts.”

He had been asleep. It was three in the morning. He was awoken when an acquaintance called to score some weed.

His philosophy, he said, was to work around the clock: money was worth the same no matter what time he took it off you. “I get up. I hear the gate. Grab my weed.” The outside light had flicked on and his mate was illuminated in its glare. He also, fleetingly, saw a big shadowy body move stealthily to the left. His every instinct told him not to open the door. “But I open the door.”

The “big fucking unit” materialised instantly, with a shotgun pointed at his chest. At first, he thought he was being offered something and he raised his hands to receive it. Then, a flash of realisation and an icy dread. “I’m like, Oh fuck, it’s a double-barrelled shotgun. Sawn-off, right here.” In a nearby room, his young daughter was asleep. “I freak. I believe it takes a bit to scare me but I was close to pissing my pants, I shit you not.” The intruder, a member of the Head Hunters, backed him firmly down the hall. “Are you moving?” he asked. The Shaman said no, his lie betrayed by the weed he still held in his hand.

He was pushed further inside; they were now in the kitchen.

The intruder asked again if he was moving. He denied it, but it didn’t work. The next words to come out of the stranger’s mouth were: “‘Rent’s $450 a week . . . Are you gonna pay, or are you gonna stop?’ I said, ‘I’ll stop.’” He thought, in that moment, that he’d just fucked up, admitted to the lie, and that retribution would arrive instantly. Instead, the intruder simply informed him he was serious, and gave his name so his victim could ask around if there was any doubt. He demanded to know where his weed was stashed and took the ounce on the couch he was directed to. Then he disappeared into the same dark night he had emerged from minutes before.

In his wake he left a man vacillating between pure rage and hot tears. “I snapped. I went and got a kitchen knife. I’m in my bare feet and . . . I felt like I could sprint out there as fast as I could and fucking take the dude’s head off . . . I felt like I could’ve taken him out. The adrenalin gave me superpowers and I feel like I could’ve stealthed out there, jumped on him and just fucking cut his head off. Because my daughter was in the house, my emotions were just — it went from wanting to kill to wanting to cry. I was a mess.

“My biggest concern was: are they going to come back? Now they know I sell weed, now they know I’ve got weed, I was an easy target.”

He calmed himself and put the knife down. He had some distant connections with the Head Hunters and, through them, was able to come to an arrangement with the gang. He only moved his operation when, later, the foot traffic to that particular house got too heavy and he wanted to protect himself from the police attention he was at risk of courting. The new house, where we met, sat in territory controlled by a different gang. Now, he was just waiting for their inevitable visit. 

He had been told, a couple of days before, they had been visiting dealers in the area, demanding a $30,000 fee for selling on their turf. “And if you don’t got it, they give you a good fucking hiding.” He said that violence — and living under the threat of it — was an inevitable part of the job he had chosen, and of the life he was born into. “I’ve seen a lot of bad shit so I guess I’m desensitised to some of that shit, I don’t know. It comes with the territory, it always has.” Just as much as he expected the police to come knocking on his door at six o’clock one random morning, he said, he expected gang members to come in the dead of night.

But he had a weapon. His business partner, he said, was a very violent man. He hadn’t told him he was talking to me and warned, if he ever showed up while I was there, that I should pretend to be a customer. He didn’t know how he would react to a journalist with a notebook full of what, in the wrong hands, would be evidence that could incriminate the pair of them. 

He wasn’t a threatening-looking person — “he looks like you” — but that just meant people underestimated his capacity for violence. “He’ll say, ‘You don’t want to go there with me.’ And people test it — and that’s when they are trying to work out where their eye is. Because one of his favourite things is to stick his thumb in your  eyeball to grab hold of your skull. You can’t move, so he can pound your fucking head in.”

He paused, giving that image some mental space. “But I like that he’s that man. If I find myself in trouble, he’s going to get me out of it. His motto is: if they come knocking, I’m going to smash their fucking head in, whoever it is.

“Sometimes with violent people you need to use violence.”

The easy and expected exchange of brutality — a sawn-off shotgun to the chest, a thumb wiggling in an eye socket — is, in crude terms, the war for a slice of the illegal market persisting in the shadow of the war against it. 

James Borrowdale pic

Journalist James Borrowdale, pictured here, explores the history of cannabis and how it affects our country today in his new book ‘Weed: a New Zealand Story’.

I wanted to know much more about what forces had drawn the Shaman into the orbit of that war, and his relationship to the plant he sold. So we stayed in touch and I started to learn more about his life.

Weed had beckoned him before he even knew what it was capable of doing to his mind. He was intrigued by the joint sprouting leaves that graced the back cover of the copy of Bob Marley’s Kaya in his dad’s record collection; a NORML poster of a plant hanging in his childhood home captivated him for reasons he didn’t understand. He asked his mum what it was and she told him. “And I was like, ‘Why does it look so cool? Why am I attracted to this?’” He was just 11 when he first got high, after he and a friend chanced upon a plant in a local backyard. He plucked a leaf and held it to his lighter, inhaling the smoke as it curled off the withering leaf.

Later, supplied by tinny houses — “put the money through a little hole, get a tinny through the hole” — he began smoking daily. The mother of a high-school friend who had committed suicide sold tinnies, huge ones that you could roll six joints from. He soon began selling himself, buying ounces and dividing them into tinnies. He did that “for years and years”, flicking on one or two ounces a week, clearing about $200 profit on each ounce. More than anything, it helped him pay the bills. “I didn’t do well in school,” he said. “So any jobs I got wouldn’t really pay well, so that was a way of making extra money, I guess.” 

Brushes with the law — a possession-for-supply charge, later downgraded to mere possession — never really dissuaded him, just as it rarely deterred others. Ninety-five per cent of those apprehended by the police, the 2002 Christchurch Health and Development Study found, afterwards either increased their use or continued at the same rate.

There had been, at times, other drugs: mushrooms, LSD, an entire year spent in a meth-induced haze — “like really bad, messed me up dude”. Life had often been a struggle and selling weed helped him stay afloat: “I was forever just trying to get rent paid.” It was only later, when he began to grow his own, that he started to see any real money.

Three years ago, the friend he had warned me about stole some plants. He brought them over. It was a really nice sativa-dominant strain that gave the kind of energising high the Shaman loved the most. “I was like, ‘Let’s not kill these. Let’s keep growing them.’ So we got a tent and got some lights and set up in my garage. That’s where it all started. Started cloning off those plants to keep the strain going.” 

He showed me those four plants, the ever-giving source of his income, basking happily under fluorescent light at the back of the basement, near where the tight-packed dirt rose to meet the overhead floor of the house. He called them “the mums”. Bristling in front of them were dozens of clones — “the babies” — that would soon be transplanted to a house somewhere in the city, where a grower would nurture them until harvest time eight weeks later.

Growing his own meant that on a good night he could bring in $1600, and most of it profit. His above-board job had only paid about $600 a week. “And then I was like, ‘Why am I working?’” When his girlfriend wanted to return to a full-time job, he took the opportunity to quit his and focus on weed. “I’ve only ever done this to pay rent and to put food on the table. But my goal is to own a house, so my kids don’t have to do what I’m doing to try and get a fucking house.” 

But in the next sentence he upped his ambition. “I want to make millions, to be honest, I want to make millions off weed.” He hadn’t done much research, other than watch Paddy Gower’s ‘On Weed’ mini-series but, if the referendum passed, he had vague plans to move into the legal market. He had already broached the subject with his older kids, aware that he might need them on board, with his criminal record potentially precluding him from getting a licence.

He had up to four crops, each in a separate Auckland growhouse, under way at any one time. Each was overseen by a different grower, and profit from each was divided evenly between that grower and the original two partners. Those growers had no connection to each other; they only liaised with the two men in charge. He pulled up some figures on his phone to show me what recent harvests had brought in, once their proceeds had been on-sold at $20 per gram. The best was $17,600, the lowest $2300. Each new grower needed time to learn what they were doing and the numbers next to each initial showed a general increase. He hoped the current crop — days away from harvest — would hit $18,000.

Weed cover

When we next met, he was working at his basement desk, trimming buds from that harvest above the soft whirr of a dehumidifier. It had turned out better than expected; it looked like it would clear more like $20,000. Some of it hung from the walls, drying, a curtain of bud, and a chillybin-full sat under the desk, waiting to be processed for sale. On the wall above, there was an end-of-season photo of a rugby league team, fists bunched on thighs. 

An old neglected-looking air rifle hung next to a hunting knife. A week after he moved into this house, someone had tried to smash in the front door of the basement with a crowbar while he was doing the morning school run, and it was now barricaded up with the kinds of disused belongings native to any basement, old furniture and sporting equipment. A pair of spotting knives were heating on the gas hob next to him, and he soon paused in his work to roll a couple of dots.

He smoked every day, many times, almost always spots; he found that joints no longer got him as high as he liked to be. On that day, he had had three sessions since waking at 6 a.m.

“I have no clue why I smoke as much as I do,” he told me. “I feel like it helps me get by.” Life was hard, he said. “The weed always made everything better and made my shitty situation not seem so fucking shitty.” 

Now, however, nearing middle age, getting high was less a holiday from shittiness than it was the baseline existence. “For the last — I don’t know how long — it’s a bit different now. Now it’s kinda like I feel like I need it to function.” He woke up grumpy. “But as soon as I’ve had my smoke it’s like nothing can fuck with me now, you know what I mean? It puts me in this state where I’m like . . . my missus really antagonises the fuck out of me. But when [I’m stoned] it’s like I’ve got my force field up and nothing can hit me.” 

An upcoming overseas family holiday — still months away at the time — had him worried about how he’d supply his habit. “I’m thinking, ‘Ah fuck, can I get some weed over there somehow?’”

He preferred not to sell to teenagers, remembering his own early visits to West Auckland tinny houses — and, perhaps, reflecting on his own dependence on weed. But he had recently smoked with his 16-year-old daughter, hoping it might help ease her depression. It didn’t. And in moments of reflection, he entertained the idea that he might be harming his customers. “All this shit goes through my head, dude. You might not be helping people. You might be helping them in the meantime, but in the longrun...”

* For obvious reasons, he will remain anonymous, and the nickname has also been changed.

Weed: A New Zealand Story by James Borrowdale is published by Penguin. You can watch our interview with James here