It’s nearly 30 years since Tuari Potiki made his big decision. Before that, he’d been a full-on drug user and a boozer for many years, ever since his early teens. It wasn’t a pretty life. Not for him. Not for the people he hurt, either. Whānau as well as strangers. But eventually he chose change. Not only fighting his own darkness with light, but then helping others to win some of their desperate personal battles, too. Here he is, chatting with Dale about his change of direction.
Can you tell us about the Potiki clan, and about your names? Let’s start there — Tuari Potiki — is there a middle name as well?
The middle name is Lyall. That’s from my Pākehā mother, Jean. She was Scottish, and that was her whānau name. The Potiki clan hail from Ōtakōu on the Otago Peninsula, Ōtakōu marae. We grew up with a different last name of King. That changed when I was about 10.
My older brother, Brian, was an activist quite early on. He directed a play called Te Raukura, by Harry Dansey, about Parihaka, and became very active politically. He found out that King was a whāngai name. Henare Potiki, my great-great-grandfather, had been born out of wedlock, and his mother, Hira, married a fulla called Kingi. Henare took his name.
Brian was the first one of the whānau, of my brothers and sisters, to take the Potiki name back. Having said that, the name was also on my tāua’s birth certificate. So it wasn’t a secret. It was just probably a safer thing to do in those days, to have a Pākehā name.
We grew up in a state house in Wellington. Didn’t really know what that meant back then, it was just a house. My father, Jim, worked three jobs, manual hard labour. My mother used to clean houses for rich people in Seatoun. I thought it was a good upbringing. Mum used to take me to some of the houses that she used to clean and they had these big swimming pools and amazing things. And they obviously had someone to come in and clean for them. So I sort of knew then that there were these people that had lots of stuff and others that didn’t.
When I was about 13, I shifted down to Bluff with my old man for a few years. I left school, went to work, lied about my age and got a job working in a wool store. Dad was born in Bluff and mum was born in Woodlands, just out of Invercargill.
I don’t mind admitting that I love Bluff. My old man was a seafarer. I’m just drawn to the gritty nature of the community, the buildings, but also reminded that there’s a really rich Māori history that’s not celebrated in the name Bluff. But half the population down there are Māori, aren’t they, Tuari?
Yep, just over half.
Do you still love it?
To be honest, I have mixed feelings. I love the place, I love the history. I love that it’s such a big Māori community. My old man always used to say: “I’m rough, I’m tough, and I come from the Bluff.” It was paradise to my dad. Being from Bluff, for him there was nothing greater than that in the world. But living there for a few years, I saw another side of the place.
Did you go off the rails when you were a young fulla down there?
I think I’d been barely on the rails. But that was definitely where it went bad. Like I said, I lied about my age. I was just about to turn 14 when I started work in a wool store. They thought I was 15 or 16.
One of the things about Bluff was the heavy-drinking culture. Back in those days, everyone used to go the pub. But I was too young to get in. So I started smoking pot instead.
It was a dark time for other reasons, too. I was living with the old man, and he was a bit crazy. It wasn’t until later he was diagnosed with schizophrenia. The rest of the family were still up in Wellington. Bluff was where the drugs and drinking started to derail me.
It’s been an area you’ve worked in for a long time, looking to help others. We shouldn’t be surprised that you and those who work in the alcohol and drug field have had contact with the negative sides of substance abuse. We’ll talk about whether it’s a criminal or health issue when we get down the track a little bit. How long did you stay in Bluff, and what happened next?
In a weird way, I got a reprieve by nearly dying. I went into hospital to have my appendix out, and they didn’t realise it had already burst. I ended up in intensive care for a few weeks with peritonitis. When I got out of hospital, my mother, who was still up in Wellington, said that was enough. She sort of demanded that I go back. That was cool with me, because she wanted to nurse me back to health. So, I went back to Wellington and never went back to Bluff.
So, that got me out of that scene. Otherwise, I really don’t know what would’ve happened. Another thing is that I’ve always been overweight. When I was growing up, I was really big.
My mother’s GP gave me diet pills when I was 15. And because they kept me awake, he gave me Valium to help me sleep at night. I started buzzing in on those, not realising at the time what they were doing. When you add diet pills and Valium to the drinking and the dope smoking, it starts to get pretty full-on. Most days I was on one thing or another. My mates were all pretty much doing the same thing.
Then my mother died when I was 19. She was the anchor in our whānau. She was the rock. When she went, that’s when my drug use went full on. That was back in the day, in 1979. It was just a different world.
I’ll give you an example. I’d rung the GP the night before Mum died and said: “Mum’s not feeling well.” He said: “If it’s any worse, call me in the morning.” In the morning, she was dead. I found her. So I rung him up and abused him on the phone. He turned up and he gave me pills. While I was standing there, he went to Mum’s booze cabinet and poured out a big, big glass of vodka and gave that to me. Back in the day, that’s how you dealt with that shit.
The using and the drinking definitely spiralled then, big time. In a couple of years, I was using the needle. Once you get on the needle, it goes down really quickly. It’s a sharp drop. And it eventually gets everyone. That’s what I saw. That’s what I experienced.
You start off just playing around with it and thinking you’re in control. But eventually, it turns into an all-encompassing beast. It’s hard to explain to people who haven’t been there. People always think they’ve got an element of self-control and will. But once that thing gets hold of you, it comes before everything.
One of the things it does — and this is why I used to use — is that it takes away feeling. I’d use whatever and I wouldn’t feel anything, and that’s what I wanted. You don’t feel anything — either good or bad. I didn’t feel remorse. I didn’t feel guilt. I didn’t feel any of the things that would’ve stopped me hurting people close to me or robbing people. I didn’t feel it.
I know you more as a guy who works with people who are having problems, and I’m not surprised that the willingness to help comes from experience. What was the catalyst for change?
That’s a really good question. I’d been to a couple of treatment places, sentenced by the court. I’d been on methadone. I was just a big mess, really. Part of me thought that all I had to do was give up physically using drugs and then my life would suddenly get better. I genuinely believed that all I had to do was stop sticking needles in my arm every day, and then I wouldn’t go out and do crime to get the money to do the drugs.
Another part of me thought: “Oh, well. Eventually I’ll overdose.” A lot of people I knew had died through overdose or suicide. I kind of thought: “Here for a good time, not a long time.” It’s crazy, looking back. You pick up on things that support your warped frame of mind.
One time I went into a treatment centre, and we had to make these belts. On my belt, I wrote a line from a Blondie song: “Die young, stay pretty.” As clichéd and as dumb as that sounds now, that was in my head.
The change began with a judge in Levin. Everyone had told me that this judge hated drug users and would send me to jail. But when he came to sentencing me, he said: “This morning when I got here, I had every intention of imprisoning you for two years. But I’ve changed my mind. I think your problem is drugs and alcohol. It would be of more help to get help for that. So, I’m sentencing you to community service on the condition that you do alcohol and drug treatment at Queen Mary Hospital in Hanmer Springs.”
At the time I thought: “Sucker.” I thought I’d won and I swaggered around. I ended up getting on a plane, flying down to Christchurch with my best mate, who was also a user. We both got booked in at the same time.
So, we used on the plane on the way down. Got to Hanmer. And, at that time, it was only to stay out of jail. I had a young son, and I had these other things happening in my life, but like I said, because the drugs cut you off from feeling anything, even my son wasn’t enough to stop me.
Got to Hanmer, got to Queen Mary Hospital. Didn’t want to be there. But this is where my oppositional nature comes in. If you tell me to turn left, I’ll turn right. Doesn’t matter where it is, what it is. I just hate being told what to do. I didn’t want to stay there until they said I couldn’t stay there.
When I got to Hanmer, I was stoned. I was a pain in the arse. I’d been into self-harm as well. Had big scars all over my arms, dripping blood. They said to me: “Sorry, you can’t stay here because you haven’t shown the willingness. You haven’t put in the hard yards to deserve to be here.”
My reaction was: “You’re not going to tell me what to do. You’re not going to kick me out.” I just went hard out trying to convince them to keep me there. In the end, one of them took pity on me, and they did keep me. And then it was like: “Bugger. Now I’ve got to do it.” I stuck there. I stayed there for 10 weeks.
After the first few weeks I started to feel like I’d never felt before, that I could remember, in my life. It was blowing me away, and I kept asking people what was going on. They realised that it was the first time that I was totally without drugs or alcohol since I was 13. What I was experiencing and really loving was just being straight. I couldn’t believe you could feel so good and not have drugs in your system.
When the programme finished, they wanted me to do a further two-year programme. They reckoned I needed some extra help, but I didn’t want to do that. I ended up in Christchurch. I only lasted a month and I started using again, because I thought I knew everything. I thought: “I’m sober now. I’m clean now. I’ll be all right, I’ll just use a little bit.” So I ended up having to go back to the treatment centre for another four-week spell.
I got out in July 1989, and again, within a couple of months, I started using again. It was coming up to Christmas time. I’d re-established contact with my boy and his mother up in Levin, and arranged to go and pick him up and have him for Christmas, take him up to my brother’s place.
I was sitting in my little sleepout in Christchurch and I had a syringe loaded up with morphine ready to put in my arm. I looked up. There was nothing in that room, just a bed and a dresser. But on that dresser was a photo of my son. I looked up and looked straight into his eyes. That was the moment. I realised that that was the choice I was making. I’d never clicked like that before.
The choice I was making was between my son and what was going to go in my arm. So I opened the door and I squirted that stuff in the grass. I snapped it. I threw it away. I went into the house and gave all my drugs to a guy who lived there. That was the last time I used. On the 1st of December this year, it will be 30 years.
So my boy was the catalyst. It was the one thing that was stronger than the addiction I had.
I really respect you sharing that kōrero with us. There’ll be some who read this and it will resonate with them, as it has me. When we look at the wider picture, what would you say about why our people are so impacted by drink, drugs, or both?
If you meet indigenous people from Australia, Hawai’i, Alaska, Canada, you find very similar patterns and statistics. I’ve met people from those places, and they have similar rates of imprisonment, alcohol and drug problems, suicide, family violence, and all of those things that go with alcohol and drug use.
That’s not a coincidence. When you think about the commonality across all of those countries, you realise it’s colonisation. In all of those countries, there’ve been indigenous communities that have been damaged by the coloniser, the settler, in different ways.
Obviously, what happened here is different from what happened in Canada or Hawai’i. But the effect was the same. The effect was loss of land, loss of culture or disconnection from land and culture and those things that used to keep us centred in who we were. And what we became instead was second-class citizens in our own land, in our own whenua.
We all know the history of how we were supposed to die out as a race. We’ve got Featherston Street, Featherston the town, and monuments to that guy Featherston who said that the duty of colonists was ”to smooth the pillow of the dying Māori race.”
The result was that we became impoverished in our own country. The justice system — all of the systems — they’re not ours and they don’t work for us. We become a problem. We become an exception. The education system was never geared for us. The only way we were ever going to succeed in it was to lose our Māoriness and become like they were. Like they are.
The way that we use drugs and alcohol in this country, as Māori, is very similar to the way native Hawai’ians and the native Alaskans use them. It’s in response to the experiences that we’ve been through and continue to live through.
It’s not as if it all happened in the past. It’s continuing today in the way that the criminal justice system treats Māori on every single level. We’re more likely to be picked up in the first place by police, more likely to be arrested, more likely to get charged, more likely to go to prison, less likely to be given diversion.
And, in the education system, only a tiny percentage of Māori boys make it through to Year 13. It’s across every single thing. That’s not a coincidence. That’s a result of how systems and institutions are structured, and it continues today.
Drug and alcohol use is partly a response to these things that have happened. If you haven’t got the money to take a holiday overseas, like going over to the Gold Coast once a year, then you take a holiday in your head. It’s not about choices. It’s not about desire. It’s not that people ever decide as a career that they want to be an alcoholic or a drug addict, or that they want to be on the benefit. That’s not a choice. That’s what happens as a result of systems.
You’ve worked with people with serious addictions, but I sense you’ve got empathy for where they find themselves. So, is it possible for our people to tread the middle ground? And cut out binge drinking for example?
I think it absolutely is. I know heaps of people who do. That’s the thing. The majority of people who drink, including Māori, don’t have a problem on most occasions. But some do. And maybe we’ve been through a period in our own lives when we have, too.
There’s a myth that we’re in the grip of this beast that we can’t control. Drugs, too. There’s a whole lot of Māori who quietly smoke a bit of pot. It causes them no problems at all — other than, because of the law, being prosecuted. That causes more problems for them than the actual drugs.
The more I see, the more I think that, yes, we can treat alcohol and drug problems, and we do that really well for people who want help. But we need to work on the things that create these environments of poverty, education dropout rates, poor access to health care — all of those things that produce communities where there are the haves and the have-nots, the marginalised. That’s what drives alcohol and drug use, particularly in our whānau.
We’re on the cusp of a decision regarding marijuana. I sense there’s enough conservatism for there to be a hesitance to decriminalise or legalise. People are nervous that we’ll all be wandering around as stoned zombies. What are your thoughts on the cannabis debate and upcoming referendum?
I’m really in favour of reform. I think it is time to regulate and legalise cannabis. I want this reform for a few reasons. One is that the system we now have, the whole “war on drugs,” comes from a very race-based place.
If you look at where it started, it was to stop African Americans and Mexicans using drugs in the 1930s in the States. That’s who were targeted in their war on drugs. The prison population there amounts to over two million people, most of them in there for drugs — and the majority are African American or Latino.
That happens here as well. Māori make up 51 percent of the prison population. Māori don’t use drugs any differently from others. Pākehā use drugs in exactly the same amounts and quantities. In fact, with some drugs, they use more than we do. But they aren’t filling up the prisons, because of the way the law is, or isn’t, applied.
So, for years, there’s been a de facto decriminalisation or legalisation for non-Māori people in this country.
I get the anxiety about decriminalisation, absolutely, and I understand the fear of unleashing a zombie apocalypse. But I think we’ve bought into this belief that that’s what’s going to happen — that somehow it’s all going to change — when we’ve already got some of the highest rates of marijuana use in the world.
So the vote won’t only be yes or no to legalisation. Voting no, for the status quo, is voting for a system that targets Māori disproportionately. That means that people who want to access cannabis — and they can get it really easily through the black market — are at risk. Eighty percent of adults self-identify as having used cannabis at some time in their life. So, at one point in their life, 80 percent of the adult population were at risk of being arrested and prosecuted. At what point do you say this law hasn’t worked?
What I want to see is a transfer of resources. I want to see the sort of regulation around cannabis that we have around alcohol and tobacco where there is a regulated market. There’s an age limit. There’s some quality control over what’s being produced and sold — because at the moment, you don’t know what’s been mixed in with whatever’s being sold, and who by.
And we should take it out of the shadows so that we can wrap some really good education, prevention, and treatment around the people who experience problems with cannabis. At the moment, because it’s illegal, no one has to do anything. So no one does anything. The response is: “Well, it’s illegal, so you just shouldn’t do it.”
This year, there’ll be another 4,000 convictions just for cannabis offences. Forty percent of those will be Māori. So I see decriminalisation and regulation as a way of reducing harm, particularly to Māori.
In countries where they have legalised and regulated — and there’s a growing number (Canada last year, 11 states in the US, Portugal, Uruguay) — there’s been a significant reduction in drug use across the board, but particularly meth use. And, interestingly, in alcohol-related harm.
I think the important thing to understand is that a vote for no is actually a vote to maintain this racist system that we’ve currently got, that has created the problems that we have now. If we don’t do something differently, all that’s going to happen is what we’ve got now is going to stay the same and get worse.
This has been a rich conversation, Tuari. Is there anything else you’d like to share?
When I gave up using drugs and all that stuff, I ended up being a Māori alcohol and drug worker. I worked in the prisons. I was kind of evangelical. I was thumping the table, because what really bugged me was that no one had ever told me. I didn’t know the reasons I did the things I did and thought the way I thought. I just thought that was my lot. I thought some people are born to be lawyers, some are born to be doctors, I was born to be a druggie.
I know this may sound Pollyanna-ish, but there is hope. There is another way. You can do it. That’s the thing that drives me now: change. For a whole lot of reasons, people get trapped into thinking that what they’ve got, is it. And it’s going to be like that forever. But it doesn’t have to be.
The thing that got me through was connecting to who I was as a Kāi Tahu, as Māori, and to my friends and whānau. At that time, I didn’t have a lot of friends and whānau. I wasn’t a nice person. But that comes. That’s the ultimate thing, I guess, for me. There’s always hope.
I don’t take credit for the change in my life. I’ve been looked after by tūpuna, by a whole lot of other things that we can’t see in this world. But, also, by other people around me.
The war on drugs, and all of that stuff, is often fed by fear. They play to our weakest and most horrible instincts. I think the answer is the opposite. It’s all about aroha, it’s all about love, it’s all about connecting.
Sorry if that sounds “joy to the world, peace on earth,” but I really feel that. You fight the darkness with the light. That’s how I see it.
Tuari Potiki (Kāi Tahu, Kati Māmoe, Waitaha) is the chair of the NZ Drug Foundation, and director of Māori Development at Otago University. Before then, he was general manager of strategic operations with the Alcohol Advisory Council of New Zealand (ALAC), and deputy chief executive at the Ngāi Tahu Development Corporation.
He lives in Dunedin with his wife Tracey and their daughter Meremoana and son Taoka. Their son Aperira lives in Christchurch with his wife Nikki and their three children, Aotea, Savanna and Tahumata. Tuari’s eldest child Cainan died in a fire with his mother, in 1993.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.
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