Hard News by Russell Brown


From Zero: The Business of Drugs

In 1920, the American federal government amended its constitution to prohibit the production, importation, transportation and sale of alcoholic beverages. What happened subsequently, over the 13 years till repeal, became a case study in the economics of illicit drug markets.

That's the context in which I've looked at the business of drugs in New Zealand in 2016 for Episode 5 of From Zero: a supplier-driven trade which is seeing methamphetamine displace cannabis as the social drug of choice in some communities.

Or, as Northland lawyer Kelly Ellis puts it in the episode:

"Whangarei – the town where you can't buy a tinny but you can get an ounce of meth on tick."

I've also interviewed Detective Superintendent Virginia Le Bas, who heads the police's organised crime division, Detective Senior Sergeant Stan Brown of the Waitemata police, writer and researcher Matt Black, Weediquette host Krishna Andavolu, an Auckland pot dealer we'll call "Gavin" and the New Zealand Herald's Jared Savage, who has reported more on Auckland's organised drug crime in recent years than anyone else.

I hope what comes through in the episode is the the nature of the market and its economic drivers – and the fact that everything is how it is because of decisions we've made as society. And that includes the unnerving spectacle of methamphetamine supplanting weed.

You can listen to From Zero: The Business of Drugs on the RNZ website or subscribe to it in the iTunes Store.


Friday Music! Be Square.

Here's some nice news: Auckland Live Summer in the Square is back and every day from now the end of March, there will be stuff happening and places to sit in Aotea Square. The music programme has again been put together by Matthew Crawley.

The December music lineup includes SoccerPractise and Peach Milk on Saturday the 10th and Carnivorous Plant Society the next day. Echo Ohs play on Friday the 16th and LarzRanda makes a welcome appearance on the 17th. The January lineup includes Polester, the Ruby Suns, Lake South and the nutty Aussies Borneo – and the post-Upper Hutt Posse crew Tū Crucial Sound System. Dubhead, Lucky Lance and Matthew himself are among the DJs this month and Murray Cammick and Cian are on the decks in January. March lineup is tbc.


Four Audioculture writers have collaborated on an amazing profile in memory of Ray Columbus, who left us this week. Don't forget to check the "Stories" tab. And there are plenty of images like this one.


Last Friday, Alex Behan bought some beers and he and I sat down and had a chat about music, history and the world while we played the eight tunes I'd chosen for RNZ's The Mixtape. The track listing is here on the episode page and you can play it all with this here embedded player:


No one should move into Auckland's Franklin Road without appreciating the solemn responsibility living there entails. Which is: you are expected to do your bit when it comes to the road's traditional Christmas lights. (If you don't, Hamish Keith might glare sternly at your abode on his perambulation past, and Hamish can be pretty stern.) The lights went on last night with the usual December 1 ceremony – and there was something a little different in the lineup.

Angela Bevan explained to me how the Leonard Cohen quote came to be.

We moved in six months ago and since then we've been trying to think of something interesting to do rather than the usual lights. We started to think (as the year went on in the way it did) that maybe it would be appropriate to share a message. I asked for suggestions on FB of something that holds hope and lots of people suggested or 'liked' this one which I already loved.

Our friend Mallory Allen is an artist so she helped put it together. And my partner spent about a hundred hours at Bunnings figuring out the width of fairy lights and weights of wood. And our best friend Jem used her two precious days off being a mental health nurse at an acute ward to help.

As we were putting it up, Dave Dobbyn walked past and stopped and said how great it was. I shit you not. Cool, huh.

PS: Here's a picture of how Mallory mapped out the light image with a projector. They used some science on this.


Good news for local independent artists: the NZ Music chart will now count Bandcamp sales, both digital and physical.


And just one tune this week: a nice sound system vibe Gil Scott Heron dub:


ORCON IRL: How was your year?


That's the question we'll put at the final Orcon IRL at Golden Dawn for 2016.

RUSSELL BROWN and CHARLOTTE RYAN will quiz a bunch of people who did stuff about how it all went and the state of the world as we draw to the close of the millennium's strangest year yet.


SIMON WILSON on life in Auckland, and out of Metro.

WORD Christchurch creative director RACHAEL KING on the year Christchurch came back.

Webseries wonders JUSTIN HARWOOD (High Road) and ROSEANNE LIANG (Friday Night Bites) on making TV on the internet.

The peerless STINKY JIM will provide the DJ sounds

And VOOM will play a Christmas show, with special guests.

Stay tuned for more announcements!

(This event will be streamed live by 95bFM, so wear your nice top.)

C'mon down and have a party at the end of the world!*


When: Wednesday December 7, 6.30-9pm

Where: The Golden Dawn, Ponsonby

RSVP here on Facebook (or click the email icon under this post and let us know)


From Zero: The Meth Episode

The episode of the From Zero podcast published today looks at the state of things with methamphetamine. It finds a widespread belief that the official statistics – which have meth use at just over 1% of the population, half what it was at peak – are missing something. That there's a problem placing severe strain on treatment resources and driving a change of approach from the police.

Since we finished the episode, the latest Annual Arrestee Drug Use Monitoring Report  has been published, and shows increases in both use and availability of meth:

... the proportion of detainees who had used methamphetamine in the previous year increased from 28 percent in 2012 to 36 percent in 2015.
The proportion of detainees who felt dependent on methamphetamine increased from 22 percent in 2011 to 35 percent in 2015.

The police press release described an accompanying reduction in the use and availability of cannabis as a "positive trend". I really don't think so. 

It's widely agreed that this time around, meth is manifesting in different places: in the regions and in poorer communities. And I was told more than once that in some places, meth is overtaking marijuana as the social drug of choice. That is not a "positive trend".

In episode five of From Zero, published next week, we look at the economic reasons why that might be happening. But this week is a story about consequences. At the newly-expanded Higher Ground rehab facility in Te Atatu, nearly three quarters of new clients are meth-dependent, although the picture is complicated by multiple other drugs, primarily alcohol. There's a permanent waiting list for treatment.

Things are worse in Porirua, where longtime Mongrel Mob leader Dennis Makalio and his wife Liz are essentially improvising the kind of support and services that are not being provided by the system. They print out and laminate signs that people can put up to let friends and whanau know they're detoxing, and not to bring drugs to the house. They've also set up a Facebook group to share information.

When I visited the Makalios, they also gave me a song they'd recorded and I've uploaded it to YouTube for them:

Part of this week's episode has been spun off into a news story this morning, based on my interview with Detective Senior Sergeant Stan Brown, who headed Operation Rosella, which brought down a meth supply ring in WestAuckland this year. In the course of that operation, Waitemata police harvested 140 mobile phone numbers, all belonging to meth customers. Instead of seeing how many of those people they could prosecute, the police did something visionary: they offered them help with their drug use.

In an interview with me, Detective Senior Sergeant Brown said that his officers now do not always prosecute meth supply, if they determine that it's small-time dealing to support a habit. They will try and get people into treatment. I think this is a prudent use of police resources.

Police will tell you – as Superintendent Virginia Le Bas, National Manager Organised Crime, told me – that they have always pursued this kind of "demand reduction", which is true. But it's also true, as Stan Brown told me, that things have changed since he served in the Drug Squad in the 1980s. And that change is fascinating.

Not all state agencies are working in the same direction, though. At the core of drug rehabilitation is the belief – backed by evidence – that the key to beating drug dependence is stability and security. Higher Ground sometimes has to teach people how to cook for themselves. The Alcohol and Other Drugs Court seeks to get those who come before it not only sober but engaged in their communities. I've interviewed Judge Emma Aitken of the AODC for this episode.

And yet, we have Housing New Zealand doing the opposite of that and terminating tenancies and tearing families apart on the basic of deeply questionable tests for "meth contamination".

It's not helping. It's really not helping.

Episode 4 of From Zero, The Meth Episode, is available here on the RNZ website and in the iTunes podcast store.


Do e-bikes ease traffic congestion? With a little help ...

I wrote a little while ago about how riding an e-bike changed my experience of cycling. I got places more quickly and with less effort than I initially realised, thanks to the electric boost. And that, in turn, influences my decisions about whether I'll ride or drive.

If I'm short on time or low on energy, I'll be more likely to ride if I'm getting some of that sweet electric assistance. And that'll take a car off the road with the attendant benefits of that. I think it's brilliant that we're already seeing more e-bikes on the road thanks to Mercury's e-bike promotion. I know it's been good for participating retailers and my sense is that it's getting more women onto bikes.

I plan to join the revolution too. But I'm perhaps not a typical case. I don't have a commute, unless you count lurching from the bedroom to my home office, which is a very short distance.

There are others like me. A survey conducted for the Portland State Transportation Research and Education Centre asked questions of 553 regular e-bike riders. Seventy three per cent of them said they rode an e-bike to different destinations (that would be me), 65% wanted to replace some car journeys and 60% liked an e-bike because they lived in a hilly area (also me). And more than 70% were, like me, older than 45. Nearly all had ridden a standard bike at some point in their adult lives, but people rode markedly more often after getting an e-bike. Nearly a third continued to ride a standard bike daily or weekly alongside their e-bikes (which will very likely be me). So there's a picture there.

But what about people who might be motivated to take up an e-bike but don't want to ride like a twentysomething cycle courier? What do they need? They need bike lanes. Infrastructure is, I think, crucial to even broader e-bike uptake. Happily, that's starting to happen, in Auckland anyway. Auckland Transport's Urban Cycleways Programme has already begun to spawn both commuter routes, which will be fully-protect cycleways where possible – but also local paths for local journeys, often during the day.

I've debated with some advocates who regard the latter as a soft option, because the local paths often pass through parks and other open spaces, rather than staking a claim on road space. And I disagree. Local journeys matter and riding through parks is nice.

But if we're looking to impact traffic congestion, we are talking about cycle commuting infrastructure – and there's a very clear correlation to be seen in the Big Kahuna of Auckland cycleways, the Northwestern. As the route is improved, more people use it. Between May 2015 and 2016, cycle journeys on the Northwestern increased 47%. I would expect we'll see a further increase when the Northwestern terminates in the K Road precinct and when the protected cycle lanes go in on Great North Road. It'll be easier and safer to ride to the city.

My friend, a woman my age, lives in Mt Albert and runs a business in Newton. It's a little bit far for her to ride a conventional bike, but she bought one of the SmartMotion e-bikes and cruises in on the Northwestern. It works.

Is it a given that people switch from cars to bikes if you do all this? No. There's some evidence that London's huge cycleway programme has brought out more cyclists, but no fewer cars. But London, as a mega-city with a very concentrated centre, is something of a special case. Elsewhere, there's evidence that better provision for cyclists means not only fewer motorists, but happier motorists.

So, in summary: my experience is that an e-bike inclines me to make more and longer cycle journeys, which replace car journeys. An e-bike also influences my riding behaviour – I'm less likely to want to duck and dive, more likely to want my own lane. I think it's pretty clear that e-bikes  do encourage people to commute by bicycle, and I actually know people for whom that is the case. So bring it on.

This post is sponsored by Mercury. Details on Mercury's e-bike promotion can be found here.