Cannabis Referendum: Sister of late Blenheim man imprisoned for possession wants it legalised, partner doesn't

Warning: This article discusses suicide.

Leighton Waite was 21-years-old when he took his own life.

His school reports and certificates are a few mementos his whanau have left of their carefree and bubbly kid to remember his childhood growing up in Blenheim.

His little sister Michaela Waite-Harvey adored her big brother.

"He was always really protective and fun and he always had time for younger kids, he was always the one entertaining the little kids," she says.

But in his teens, Leighton started getting into trouble.

"I remember Leighton being taken to the station because he wasn't wearing a helmet while he was riding a bike. Little things like that introduced him to police and being known to police for little things that happen over time can be damaging," Waite-Harvey says 

And it wasn't just minor run-ins - Leighton was dabbling in cannabis as well, and to pay for his drug habit he started to commit more serious crimes like burglaries.  

Then, at just 16-years-old, Leighton was sentenced to a year in a youth facility.

"He actually had a good experience whilst he was in the youth centre because they looked to make sure they would come out of that centre and not come back. I remember he particularly really enjoyed the tikanga courses that they did," Waite-Harvey adds.

But soon after he left the youth facility, he was arrested for possessing 11 grams of cannabis, and this time he would go to an adult prison.

"That was when everything went really, really wrong. That was when he had to go on to medication because he was depressed. 

"He was exposed to a lot of violence in that area, and exposed to a lot older people who had been in prison multiple times, people who were in gangs," adds Waite-Harvey.

Leighton's life was about to change on a personal level as well. His girlfriend Alicia Wilson had some life-changing news.

"I found out that I was pregnant after he had already gone back to prison. He was absolutely overjoyed. 

"He told me he always wanted to be a dad, which is something I didn't know," she says.

While he was in jail Leighton was diagnosed with depression, but after he was released his mental health got even worse.

"It was horrible for him, he felt guilty and he had not only missed the birth, but he had missed the first four months," Wilson says.

"I watched him fall into a cycle of depression, of battling suicidal thoughts, self-doubt, extreme, extreme paranoia," she says.

"He was clinically depressed when he was in there and he was put on medication and he was getting treatment there but after he left he was sort of chucked out and not really referred on or given any more support coming out," Waite-Harvey adds.

Even though he was clearly struggling, he did his best - desperate to make up for the lost time he'd missed out on with his young whanau.

"He was an amazing dad. He was hands on with nappies, baths, bottles. 

"Anything and everything, he would do it," Wilson says.

The couple had their daughter, Aniyah soon after - and this time Leighton wanted to give it his best shot at a fresh start. 

"In his heart he really wanted to change, he wanted a different life.  He wanted an honest life and he really wanted to work," says Wilson.

Leighton did get a job, working in a mussel farm, but he was still using cannabis, something Wilson did not want in her life.

"I had come from a highly dysfunctional background and I don't want to raise my kids in the same cycle I was raised in, and I put it to Leighton that he either joined me in breaking the cycle or unfortunately I couldn't continue on in the relationship with him, and he chose to jump on board. He wanted to support me and he wanted to do that too, so he decided to get clean," says Wilson.

Leighton kept his promise to stay off drugs, but things were far from OK.

"The effects of that meant because he had never ever dealt with his feelings or learnt to feel he always used cannabis as a way to mask whatever he was going through. He found it really, really hard to get clean and he couldn't handle his emotions going through the process," Wilson adds.

Leighton told Wilson he was having suicidal thoughts. 

Leighton Waite.
Leighton Waite. Photo credit: The Hui

"I stayed up with him all night and talked him out of committing suicide because that's what he said he wanted to do, so that was about three of four days before. I thought I'd helped him.  I thought our conversation had helped, I thought I'd built him up enough," Wilson says.

But she hadn't got through to him - in 2014 Leighton sent one final text to Alicia, saying - 'tell my babies I love them and Dad is sorry'.

"He thought that because of what he had put me and the kids through that we would be better off without him," Wilson says.

"The one thing that I'll never forget was my mum's scream, because we got a call when it happened and I just remember her scream and her crying, and she didn't even tell us what happened but in my heart I knew," adds Waite-Harvey.

Although we have some of the highest rates of smoking it, cannabis has been a prohibited substance for almost a century in Aotearoa.

Voting 'for' or 'against' legalisation is a hotly debated topic. Professor Tracey McIntosh worked on an expert panel tasked with providing the public evidence-based facts on the likely outcomes of what a 'no' or 'yes' vote would mean.

"Do we honestly say hand on heart that this system we've got at the moment does the best for the communities, the best for the nation?  At the moment we have the drugs that can do harm and we have a system that can do harm and how do we mitigate both of those things? "How do we move forward so we have a far, healthier, more flourishing, more engaged response?" Prof McIntosh says.

Waite's imprisonment for cannabis when he was just 18-years-old she says is an example of how the system failed him and his whanau. 

"The fact that Leighton did go into a prison environment means that his associations were going to change - being cut off from your education, the ability to get employment and other places again starts to limit your opportunities. We had a punitive response for Leighton. "Where was our health response for Leighton? Where was our understanding of Leighton?" Prof McIntosh says.

Those questions haunt Leighton's little sister six years on.

"It is something that I don't think my family will ever recover from or come to terms with," says Waite-Harvey.

Leighton's death has driven her to study law - she's now in her fourth year at Otago University.

"I feel a big, sort of burden in a way to make change where my brother couldn't to sort of not only give meaning to his life, but also his death and I think it just helps me cope with what happened to him, because it makes me feel like it's not going to happen to someone else in the future," she adds.

She's a staunch advocate for legalising the drug, arguing that it will have better outcomes for Māori.

While cannabis use between Māori and non-Māori are pretty similar, Māori are four times more likely to be arrested and convicted of cannabis offences than others.

Waite-Harvey says her brother is a prime example of how Māori are treated differently when they do have run-ins with the law.  

Leighton was never offered diversion and went straight into the prison system.

"With my background in law we've looked at diversions a lot and it's just fact that kids who are Pākeha from upper-middle class backgrounds are more likely to get diversion because they can fit that narrative of they've got their whole life to lead, whereas the criminal justice system and they see a Māori boy from a broken family who dropped out of school. They just have this perspective that you don't have any life to live for your life is already ruined. 

"Why is ii that double standard?" Waite-Harvey asks.

Illustrating just how contentious this debate is, Waite-Harvey's views are in direct opposition to Wilson.

"His use, what would be classed as recreational use, took him away from us.  It took him away from parenting.  

"He couldn't even be present with me and the kids even if he was physically present, he wasn't there," says Wilson.

Because of this, Wilson is voting no in the upcoming referendum which would legalise cannabis for those over the age of 20.

"I would never want my children to be able to have access to be able to legally smoke cannabis. I believe that it's a gateway drug because that's what I've been exposed to, that's my personal experience and that's why I believe that.  

"I've personally experienced what it's like to be around somebody who recreationally uses, and the side effects of that were tremendous in my life," Wilson says.

Despite their opposing views and planning to vote differently in the upcoming referendum, Wilson and Waite-Harvey are bound by the love they have for Leighton and his tamariki. 

"These are big issues.  These are issues that communities should really be involved in, that whanau are feeling the ramifications of at the moment and there should be far more discussion, far more engagement around these issues," Prof McIntosh says.

The Hui  

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