Getting High on History at the Whakamana Cannabis Museum

Getting High on History at the Whakamana Cannabis Museum

It’s one of those things that shouldn’t exist but somehow still does, like my girlfriend. Yet somehow, in the middle of Dunedin’s central business district, beside the finest sex shop Princes Street has to offer, sits the only weed museum in the southern hemisphere (well, Uruguay says they did it first but as always, Uruguay can fuck off). 

Walking in, you’re not too sure where you are. It’s got a nice décor, and there is nice art on the walls. Add a few BA students smoking cigarettes while desperately justifying their degrees, and you could easily think that you’re in any George St café. 

The giant space age bong in the back might give it away, however.

The Whakamana Cannabis Museum and Café was founded by Abe Gray, local activist, former depty leader of the Aotearoa Legalise Cannabis Party, and possessor of both a Masters in Botany, and a beard that would make Gandalf look like a first year growing a mo for the first time. 

He leads a small group on the tour of the museum itself, which, while small, is packed full of exhibits. First, he shows off the display of medical cannabis around the world, including New Zealand’s sad contribution of four insanely expensive oils. There’s the history of cannabis in New Zealand, as well as a display of the various parts of the plant. For tourists, there’s a comprehensive display of “spotting” - the uniquely kiwi way of smoking weed using butter knives on a ringed element that makes us look like crackheads to the rest of the world. Oh, and that space age bong mentioned earlier? Its real name is “The Feniculator” which essentially is a three way bucky bong designed to “simultaneously deliver beer, marijuana and nitrous oxide,” originally developed by an unnamed Otago University Student in 2000, with the one currently on display being the “Mach 7”. Reports that the “Mach 1” is actually still in the offices of the Botany department are 100% true unreliable. 

Abe plans to regularly change the exhibits, as the museum boasts an entire room full of material, some of it dating back to the 1950s. There’s also tentative plans to have a DIY testing area, where people can test their own weed to see its potency (which will also put about half of Dunedin’s drug dealers out of business. Seriously Dave, my last 50 had more leaves than a Christmas tree).

Once through the tour, he tells the group that there is a ‘members only’ lounge where you can smoke and relax, for the low membership price of $4.20. While the museum is clean, tidy and well-organised, the members’ lounge feels more like that one friend’s basement that you’d rip bongs and play Xbox in after a hard day of high school (or primary school if you’re from Gore). There’re arcade games, a couple of TVs and even a giant papier-mâché bong, alongside a whole lot of real ones that are open for anyone to use, as long as you’ve got your own weed. It’s part of the reason why the Cannabis Museum has stuck around and been so successful. You get to learn some interesting stuff, and have some fun while you do. It’s like a tour of the Speight’s Factory, but without having to pretend to enjoy Speight’s.

That duality of professionalism and friendly home-made authenticity is also reflected in Abe. He’s simultaneously the friendly hippy you just know has got the best weed, and an incredibly smart activist and businessman. He’s been at the heart of cannabis politics in Dunedin for almost ten years, being involved in both the OUSA “cannabis legalisation club,” NORML (National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws) and the Legalise Cannabis Party. He’s been arrested on campus by undercover officers in 2008, ran for mayor in 2016 (promising not to smoke during work hours) and has been running the Cannabis Museum since 2013.

But what started all of this? Well, originally “I wanted to get better weed, I wondered why it was so expensive… just in the process of wanting to learn more about the plant and get better weed I ended up learning about the history of prohibition…”  

And after the dumb shit the uni pulledcontroversial actions of the University, Campus Watch and the police (such as allegedly having undercover officers going into classes and uni clubs in an attempt to gather information) actually stoked people’s interest in the marijuana culture in Dunedin, he felt there had to be a tourist information centre explaining to them how all this came to be as well as an office for “more professional activism and politics”. 

There was also the social aspect of showing that you can be a pot smoker and not be a drain on society. It’s even part of their name “Whakamana” which to him means “empowerment, building up mana. Being unashamed of your cannabis use and restoring the plant to its rightful place in our society”.  

Originally starting in Caversham as a museum/bed and breakfast, the museum then moved to Princes St., where they took part in that age-old Dunedin tradition of getting fucked over by a dodgy landlord. Although in this case the dodgy landlord didn’t even own the building – instead collecting rent from the Cannabis Museum and attempting to pocket it for himself. However, after changing the locks and finding the actual owner, it’s all smooth sailing.

Well … aside from the fact that there’s constant usage of an illegal substance, right? 

But that doesn’t seem to be a problem for the museum at all. “They know what we’re up to… but we don’t grow or sell, [so] why would the police come in and give 50 people warnings? The best they can do is ignore us.” That may be because they don’t want a repeat of protestors smoking up in the police station again, since we all know just how hard it is to get weed smoke smell out of carpet (unless my mum is reading this in which case I don’t know about that). Or it could be that we’re on the verge of getting laws changed in New Zealand properly, and everyone except the government has already realised it’s not worth the trouble any more. Either way, the Cannabis Museum is forging ahead with all things cannabis related, despite those pesky laws. 

Which leaves the Cannabis Museum in a very interesting place if laws are going to change soon. There is a referendum coming up, even if it’s so vague we don’t even know what the questions will be yet. If growing, selling and possession are all legalised, the Museum already has an established following, as well as one hell of market. They also are currently planning to open a Christchurch location next year, and plan to be ‘in every New Zealand city in 5 years”.  

So if you ever fancy educating yourself on the history of marijuana, and even taking part in some mild activism to push for the legalisation of it, or even if you just really wanna see a three way beer, marijuana and notorious oxide bong, swing on down to the Whakamana Museum. Just be prepared to come out extremely hungry, and possibly ready to march down and smoke out the police station. 

This article first appeared in Issue 23, 2018.
Posted 2:59pm Friday 14th September 2018 by Callum Doyle.