A cool 7,114 miles south of San Francisco you’ll find Dunedin, a small city in a small country at the bottom of the world. It is there that you will discover the Whakamana Cannabis Museum: New Zealand’s first and only space solely dedicated to promoting pot.
Welcome to Cannabis City
As New Zealand’s main university town, Dunedin has been home to a rich cannabis culture for generations. For over a decade, students of the University of Otago in Dunedin a.k.a. “Dunsterdam” have come together twice a week to smoke weed in public under the Walnut Tree on the University’s Union Lawn as an act of protest against the prohibition laws of cannabis. (It’s worth noting that the local police have never stopped these organized 420 events.) So it comes as no surprise that Whakamana Cannabis Museum was established in the city. The museum also claims appellations of being both the fifth cannabis in the world to open and the most southern cannabis museum.
When the opportunity to visit Dunedin finally presented itself to me, I reached out to my friend Abe Gray, an American botanist and curator of the museum, to arrange a tour of the facility. A cannabis activist back in his native USA, Gray has immersed himself in the local and national cannabis scene and legalization movement since he moved to the country in 2002. His aim is to release New Zealanders from the pressure of illegal cannabis use. As we walked through the museum, Gray told me some history of the museum, their recent upgrade into a new building, and what he hopes the future of legal cannabis looks like in New Zealand.
Currently, New Zealand has neither medical or adult-use cannabis, but is working towards both forms of legalization. When Gray first immigrated, New Zealand looked set to become the first country in the world to federally legalize cannabis.
“Unfortunately that plan was sacrificed as part of political horse-trading in the election that year, the same week I arrived,” Gray said. “I came to study botany at the university and had hoped to put my skills to use researching cannabis. I was also a Teaching Fellow and Lab Instructor at the local university for botany and biology courses for over a decade.”
When legalization promises failed to materialize, Gray joined up with fellow activists in Dunedin. He founded the Whakamana Cannabis Museum as a sanctuary for the cannabis community and an information service to counteract false information and prohibitionist propaganda.
“Whakamana combines my passions for cannabis politics and science communication to create a public information center to demystify the increasingly topical cannabis issue,” Gray said. “It also serves as a sanctuary for the cannabis community and an information service to counteract false information and prohibitionist propaganda.”
Whakamana Cannabis Museum is Educational, Entertaining & Engaging
The word Whakamana is Māori, the native language of New Zealand, and means to build up or restore status and prestige. Suitably fitting for a facility that is “restoring the status and prestige of the cannabis plant in our society after a century of unfair denigration,” Gray said.
Whakamana recently moved from a small house in the suburbs to a new purpose-built facility in the middle of the city.
“Our move six weeks ago to the center of downtown Dunedin has been an amazing transition,” Gray said.
A historic Dunedin building is the new home to the dedicated cannabis museum complete that is with a café and VIP facilities. The Hightide Café offers a delicious menu and great coffee. The price? $4.20.
Whakamana Cannabis Museum is a center for cannabis education, information and law reform activism. It includes interactive displays on hemp as a product, medicinal cannabis and popular cannabis consumption devices. The exhibition space features permanent displays of cannabis paraphernalia, memorabilia from places with legal cannabis and hemp products.
“We are run off our feet with cannabis enthusiasm from the general public,” Gray said. “With our new purpose-built facility we are able to change the minds of prohibitionist doubters much more easily and rapidly.”
The museum’s library is home to hundreds of books about cannabis, sitting alongside books about politics, other drugs, ancient cultures and other topics to inspire and enlighten visitors.
The price of coffee isn’t the only nod to international cannabis culture. VIP membership to Whakamana is $4.20 a week and allows access to the member’s lounge that includes retro video games, ping pong tables and a smoking area to chill with fellow enthusiasts. The museum also houses a dispensary that, unfortunately, isn’t allowed to sell cannabis. Instead, they help raise funds for the museum by selling merchandise and legal smoking apparatuses.
Inquisitive members of the public aren’t the only people through the door. “The associate health minister who traditionally holds the role of ‘Drug Czar’ visited us and posed with a traditional cannabis consumption device,” Gray said. “We’ve had other visits from international entertainers and celebrities, but I’m not allowed to name them as they don’t want any visa or immigration issues.”
The Future of Whakamana
The New Zealand government plans to hold a referendum to legalize cannabis in either 2019 or 2020 which, at this point, looks to be non-binding, meaning the government doesn’t have to implement the outcome. However, due to the stigma that still surrounds cannabis, officials have concerns that holding the referendum in the 2020 general election could be a bad move politically.
When asked what he thinks would be a logical step forward for legalization and cultivation, Gray believes New Zealand should look to the recreationally legal states for ideas.
“I personally favor a Colorado-style tax and regulation that allows commercialization,” Gray said. “Although, just as with other large-scale commercial activities in New Zealand, I think we need to distinguish ourselves globally with a higher level of environmental and social responsibility and take a particular focus on ag-tech R&D and tourism.”
Gray is positive about the future of cannabis in New Zealand and believes that it has real potential to thrive and become a commercially viable enterprise. “I see a cannabis information/community center along the lines of the Whakamana Museum model in every main New Zealand city in less than five years,” Gray said. “Hopefully by five years time, we will be legally allowed to sell cannabis in them.”
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