The U.S. has thousands of them. Snoop Dogg, Woody Harrelson, Willy Nelson, Jennifer Aniston, Tommy Chong – pot smoking celebrities who are unashamed to fly the MJ flag. In New Zealand, you have a round number of them. Zero.
There has not been a single noteworthy iteration of a pro-pot Kiwi celebrity since comedian Billy T died.
Why should that be, in a country which consistently features in the world’s top five list for per capita use of cannabis? New Zealand is also the world’s No.1 arrester of its citizens per capita, so that has not deterred use in any way. But that culture of arrest, punishment, and the associated costs, the loss of standing in a close knit community where ‘everyone knows everyone else’ has definitely deterred the number of prominent people willing to be open about their pot use.
New Zealand is a small country, with a small population of just over 4 million. This small population foments conditions for an underlying self-defeatism that permeates the culture of the entire country. It is known as the ‘Tall Poppy Syndrome’.
Anyone who sticks his or her head up too high in New Zealand will get it chopped off. It is well known that Kiwis resent people who have striven for something that required an effort to achieve. They also tend to disapprove (on some level) of the people who succeeded by taking risks that they themselves are not brave enough to take, a strange kind of anti-individualism.
It doesn’t apply to sports. But it applies to just about everything else.
Despite New Zealanders’ lip service to rugged individualism, being a true individual is frowned on by the country’s quite rigidly conservative sense of morality and conformity.
The Tall Poppy phenomenon is never more of a danger than it is to discreet cannabis users who privately believe in legalisation, but also have their incomes tied to maintaining a ‘respectable’ presence in this small society.
Pot-using Kiwi media, business and sports figures are closely guarded about their use of pot, they aren’t letting the public know about it, nor are they speaking out on behalf of legalisation or harm reduction. Those that trade on their ‘fame’ need to guard their precarious places within New Zealand’s small media spotlight. It is easy to fall out of favour in such a small society, especially when it comes to the tiny, incestuous media circle that exists in New Zealand. Kiwi ‘celebrities’ don’t dare risk coming out of the grow closet or they will lose access to the exclusive parties and the media events necessary to boost their personal brands and their bank accounts.
Stinking yourself up under a cloud of ganja smoke is one of the biggest risks you could ever face in New Zealand. As an average person, you could find yourself losing your job, your kids, your home, your freedom. As a celebrity figure, you’d likely lose your access to the very private party that constitutes New Zealand’s media world. The he-came-out-as-a-pothead-and-that’s-how-he-ended-his-career moment.
Fitting with national statistics, 10-15% of high profile Kiwis must be cannabis users. No doubt a large number are heavy, daily enthusiasts. But not a single one is public about it. A few – like Crowded House singer Neil Finn – are open about their support of legalisation. Nevertheless, Neil is not a pot celebrity. He is just making a single statement endorsing a change in policy, he is not in any way professing a deep appreciation of the plant, the way Snoop or Morgan Freeman does. In such a small pond, no famous Kiwi can achieve ‘big fish’ status that is big enough to stop worrying about what the other fish think.
Even well-known Kiwi hip hop artists who rap about pot have subsequently denied me permission to release footage of video interviews I have done with them, interviews in which they expressed a Snoop-like level of appreciation for weed and a passionate support for legalisation. However, after reviewing what they had said in the interviews, they realised that what they were saying could cost them gigs and was also incriminating. Whereas saying exactly the same words in the form of a rap recording is not incriminating.
Rapping about weed won’t damage their images – in fact, these particular artists built their images on doing exactly that. But saying calmly “I smoke weed every day and I love it and it should be legal” on camera? That could definitely result in damage. That’s no longer a song lyric, that’s an admission of guilt.
For a start, it would reduce their access to the wine and cheese events they need to keep attending, vital to holding their positions in the tiny patch of New Zealand’s dim limelight. The rappers in question refused to release the footage. Because they remembered the Rule. To keep getting those sought-after invitations to the next big social event in New Zealand or the next media event or the next booking, the Rule is: “If you don’t want to be cut down, don’t be a tall poppy.”