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What you learn at NZ's cannabis museum-cafe 'will stay in your system for weeks'

Cannabis-related paraphernalia on display; the door behind it leads to a 420-friendly area. Photo/Vomle Springford.

Dunedin’s recently opened Whakamana Cannabis Museum and Cafe offers an intriguing way to learn about efforts to legalise marijuana in New Zealand.

At New Zealand’s first cannabis museum-cafe is an interesting crowd of SuperGold Card holders, student-looking types, and some passersby peering curiously through the window.

The passersby might think everyone inside is high but the only things going around here are coffee ($4.20), buddha bowls and a dense nug of cheesecake. All the food is cannabis-free – for now.

Shrewdly, the cafe offers a 50 percent discount to SuperGold Card holders, in the hope some of the museum’s messages about reforming cannabis laws will rub off. “It gives them another reason to come in, to make their judgement and see if it changes their mind or not,” says Abe Gray, museum curator, botanist and long-time campaigner for the legalisation of cannabis.

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The small but informative exhibition area has a variety of cannabis and hemp products, memorabilia, a microscope to examine the plant up close, a library, and consumption devices like pipes, spotting knives and the like. Exhibits change regularly; a large glass rotary vacuum evaporator, which splits whole plant extract into individual cannabinoids, is centre stage.

A Bitcoin ATM is currently being installed where you’ll be able to buy and sell the cryptocurrency “for whatever you use bitcoin for”. A dispensary, stocking vape pens and other legal smoking accessories, has also opened in the space.

The museum was spun out of a 15-year tradition of smoking cannabis as an act of protest on Otago University’s campus, organised weekly by pro-cannabis law reform student group NORML.

The police had previously tried to stop the protests but it backfired, giving the group more publicity for their cause and becoming a tourist attraction, says Gray.

“Tourists were googling it all the time so we had to build a small information centre to explain it. That was our very first museum exhibit – the history of the protests at the university.”

He continued to build up the museum’s collection at a Caversham site until its recent move to Princes St in central Dunedin, next to a Peaches and Cream adult store. With the addition of the cafe and dispensary, it echoes something you might see in Amsterdam.

Left: Museum display cabinets. Right: The Bitcoin ATM. Photos/Vomle Springford.

At the back of the museum, someone slips out of a door offering a glimpse into the member’s area (anyone can join for $4.20), where people can smoke in a lounge-like atmosphere complete with arcade games, table tennis, and board games amongst other things. 

“It’s not legal,” says Gray, “but the police know making a fuss about adults having their own small amounts of cannabis would just give us publicity that we actually want and wouldn’t really change anyone’s behaviour.”

Gray says, with a touch of weariness, he’d like to say laws will change soon but “the government needs to wake up”. All the evidence for the benefits of legalisation is there but it’s tied up in political posturing, he says.

Just last week, Canada legalised recreational use of the plant. In North America, recreational use is legal in nine states, proving to be a billion dollar industry.

New Zealanders are due to vote in a referendum by 2020 on legalising personal cannabis use, as part of the coalition deal between Labour and the Greens. But it’s not set in stone as PM Jacinda Ardern hasn’t committed to a law change if the public votes in favour.

Currently, the government is considering new regulations for medicinal use and some companies, like Hikurangi Enterprises and Helius Therapeutics, are already setting up to tap into a future cannabis market and have obtained licences for research.

At Whakamana, they’re fired up and ready to go.

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