Hard News by Russell Brown


Medical cannabis: a polling experiment

Yet another opinion poll has reflected a public mood for change in our laws around cannabis – and this one has an interesting wrinkle.

The new poll was conducted by UMR for the reform group Start the Conversation between July 29 and August 17 – and although the sample size was 1000, half the respondents were asked one question about medical cannabis and half another. It washed up like this:

The key to the first question is "when prescribed by a licensed doctor" ("registered doctor" would have been more accurate, but the meaning is clear). It's not quite at one end of a spectrum – the most conservative framing would have been to ask only about cannabis products or even pharmaceutical-grade or approved products – but it offers a clear enough contrast to the second, which implies a significantly more liberal approach. It suggests that cannabis and cannabis products would fall under the endlessly-gestating Therapeutic products regulatory regime if used therapeutically. You'd theoretically be able to buy them in a supermarket.

I confess, I'd have been given pause if asked about the issue in terms of "herbal remedies", but the surprising thing is how little support was shed on the second question.

Even National voters went, by majority, for the "herbal remedies" concept. I'm not suggesting that concept is a likely reform option, but it's an interesting illustration of the extent of public support for some action on medical cannabis.

But there's something else there. Look at the demographics. Younger respondents (18-29) were by far the most conservative on both questions and over-60s showed the highest support for the more liberal option. When you're facing age-related pain and infirmity, perhaps things look different. You're not seeing a recreational drug, but a solution.

In general, the responses demonstrate, again, that the public takes a substantially more favourable view of medical, rather than, recreational cannabis, for a range of definitions of "medical". If things do change in the next few years, it's reasonable to suppose that Grey Power will have more to do with it than Generation Zero.


Reimagining Journalism

Five o'clock on a Sunday is not generally thinking time for me, but yesterday was different. That was the kick-off for Reimagining Journalism, a WORD Christchurch panel discussion I chaired with Cate Brett, Paula Penfold, Duncan Greive, Morgan Godfery and Simon Wilson.

As I have noted previously, we're talking a lot about journalism at the moment – because journalism faces unprecedented challenges. The challenge of sitting in a newsroom not knowing who's going to be raptured up next. The challenge of working out what we're here for and how we can do it. The challenge of paying for it all when it appears that the two principal philosophies of funding newspapers online – paywalls and the "Daily Mail" model – are both in trouble, and public-good funding for broadcast journalism has been frozen here for the past eight years.

It's not all gloomy. As Simon Wilson noted in the discussion, good journalism not only continues to be done, it seems there are more than ever good, often young, journalists doing it. But whether or not you want to call it an existential crisis, it is clear that things cannot go on as they are.

Hence, the book behind the talk. All the panelists have written a chapter for Don't Dream It's Over: Reimagining Journalism in Aotearoa New Zealand – with the exception of Duncan, whose achievements with The Spinoff are considered in two chapters, mine and a fascinating essay by Naomi Arnold titled Brand news: Testing our appetite for sponsored journalism.

It's a feature, not a bug, of the book that its various authors do not always agree on their diagnoses or their prescriptions, but there is a a hell of a lot of thinking in it. That's a testament to the publisher, Project Freerange and to the editors, Emma Johnson, Giovanni Tiso, Sarah Illingworth and Barnaby Bennett.

My chapter traces the two trends – technological and corporate – that were in train already on the day I started work in a newsroom, 35 years ago: each inexorable in its way and profound in its impact. The upbeat mood of the final paragraph isn't out of place or an accident:

The journalistic penchant for bleak humour is getting plenty of exercise in 2016. We joke about our poor career choices. But journalism itself is far more acute than it was when I started. Back then it was a low-threat environment. It was comfortable and confident of its place. It didn’t have to think too much. Now, it has to think constantly about what it is, how it relates and what it contains. And there’s something exciting about that.

The panel discussion was recorded by Radio New Zealand and will be edit and broadcast at some point. But right now, today, you can buy the book.

PS: The discussions with Guyon Espiner, Kirsty Johnston, Alex Casey, Mark Jennings and Tim Murphy from last week's Orcon IRL have been all nicely clipped out and tidied up by Hugh and the team at 95bFM. You can watch them here.


Friday Music: The Gaffer Departs

My friend Simon Grigg this week announced something I've known for a while – that he's stepping down from his role as creative director at Audioculture. It is, literally, to spend more time with his family: Simon and his wife Brigid live in Bangkok, he had to be here a fair bit of the time, she travels extensively for work and they were apart sometimes for months at a stretch.

Simon leaves a unique cultural project in good health. There's been the odd bit of turbulence over the more than three years that Audioculuture has existed, but the site is more than 1000 pages deep and travelling brilliantly. It has been a crucial part of a mood to capture and treasure our musical heritage – and, vitally, to present the culture around the music as part of the nation's culture. There really is nothing else like it in the heritage sector.

I'm on the board of the Digital Media Trust, which oversees NZ On Screen and picked up responsibility for the development and launch of Audioculture, so I've been involved from the start. But the vision has always been Simon's. There is literally no one else with the passion, the knowledge, the connections and the outright mana to get something like this to happen. (Not to mention, I'm sure he won't mind me saying, the occasional bloody pig-headedness.)

Simon's job will now be filled by journalist, author and musical historian Chris Bourke, with enhanced roles for the site's tireless web-editor Steven Shaw and comms person Nicky Harrop. And Janine Faulknor, the project director for both NZ On Screen and Audioculture, will, I hope, stay on in her role for a long time to come.

Simon will remain involved in a kind of editor-at-large role. He is also, you may recall, now the owner of the Rip It Up archive, where so much of the story lies and his lifelong contribution to our musical culture will doubtless continue in various ways.

But that's probably enough talk for now: just take some time this weekend to browse through Audioculture and see what riches are there.


Case in point: Murray Cammick's 2013 Audioculture article on Collision, the ace funk band from Tokoroa, who became the backing band for Dalvanius and played on his 'Voodoo Lady' single.

Nick Bollinger included Collision's sole album in his book 100 Essential New Zealand Albums, but it's stupidly rare, having been released in Australia just as the band broke up and only nominally distributed here. So there was quite a bit of excitement this week when Tito Tafa at Rebel Soul Records bought (and swiftly sold) a copy:

If you happen to see a copy of Collision, do please let me know first :-)

In the meantime, here's a taste of the funk:


Having prided myself on never surrendering to the radio-format world where people stop listening to new music and retrench to what they know as they age, I confess to lately struggling with the hip hop or R&B release du jour. Y'know, Beyonce's music rarely sounds more than the sum of its parts to me, and Kanye's Life of Pablo just seems like a lazy, unfocused mess. (My judgement has possibly been clouded by the fact that for 'Famous', he clumsily sampled two of my favourite songs of all time, by Nina Simone and Sister Nancy, and subjected them to a shitty rap and a video that verged on revenge-porn.)

But you know what? I do like Frank Ocean's Blond, released this week in the now-customary ambush mode. There's a depth and a tonal quality to it that I think will keep me returning to it. Hussein Moses offers a more informed consideration over on The Wireless.


I'm really looking forward to having a play on and around K Road at next week's The Others Way festival. The timetable is coming soon and the other information and tickets can be found here.


New Sola Rosa, is funky:

Also, Tape Wolves playng in the street at the Newtown Festival back in March. I'm including it now because it's fun, but also because it's an example of YouTube's spatial audio feature. To make the most of it, you need to drop an and Adroid phone into some Google Cardboard VR glasses and open it in the YouTube app:



Another free-download heritage edit from DiCE. This time, one of the great New Zealand pop tunes. It doesn't sound all that different from the original ...

Sharon Jones' 'How Long' reworked for summer skanking (free download):


The Hard News Friday Music Post is kindly sponsored by:

The Audio Consultant


Orcon IRL on Journalism: The Video

We're talking a lot about journalism lately – and we're doing it because journalism is facing something approaching an existential crisis. But that's also the upside of the threat. We're talking about what journalism is  for in a way we tended not to when the skies were blue.

James Littlewood has written up what was by all accounts a very good panel on journalism at the Open Source Open Society conference in Wellington yesterday. On Sunday, I'm helping launch the new Freerange Press book Don’t Dream It’s Over: Reimagining Journalism in Aotearoa New Zealand with a panel at WORD Christchurch (still tickets available!).

And last night we brought together some outstanding individuals to talk about media and journalism at Orcon IRL at the Golden Dawn. Thanks to Orcon for making the budget available to do these things, Matthew and everyone at Golden Dawn for the hospitality, Hugh and his team at 95bFM for the technical excellence of their video work, to our guests and to the crowd on the night for getting into the spirit of it all. And a special word for Leonie Hayden for her debut as co-host. She's the editor of Mana and she's got mana, in spades.

Anyway Hugh's done us a quick edit, without the hour of idle-time at the beginning. It runs to two hours and there are a couple of 10-minute breaks during which which you can enjoy the top selections of our journalistic DJ duo Alan Perrott and Liam Dann.

First up is me interviewing Guyon Espiner about his job, then it's Leonie's brilliant korero with Kirsty and Alex, then an update from Tim Murphy and Mark Jennings about where they're at (which is: getting closer to that new news venture they promised) and then an all-in panel at the end where we talk about what it's all for and answer some audience questions. There are many good thoughts and a few proper laughs along the way.

So ... enjoy!


Cannabis reform is not a mission to Mars

If the Drug Foundation's investment in polling on the matter of cannabis law reform was intended to start a conversation, then it has certainly achieved its aim. If not all the talk has been of high quality, well, that's not unexpected.

Three daily newspapers have run broadly sympathetic editorials since the poll results were published. The Press suggested that we might not find reform – or, at least decriminalisation – quite as big a deal as we thought:

The police have other demands on their time. There is clearly a groundswell for change. We need to recognise that and push ahead with the debate, but make sure we get it right.

The Dominion Post declared that the time for a serious debate has arrived:

Nevertheless, the current system is clearly failing too. It still sees thousands of people arrested annually – and unevenly (evidence suggests that Maori, in particular, are heavily targeted). It still funnels millions of dollars to gangs. It still penalises a practice that nearly half of New Zealanders admit to trying. 

There are, then, real reasons to consider reform. That doesn't need to mean "a tinny house on every corner", as Key put it.

It might mean modest fines for possession of small quantities of cannabis. It might mean allowing tightly regulated sale, with substantial taxes, strict age limits and location restrictions, and quality and strength controls. (Among the losers from the latter approach would certainly be New Zealand's gangs).

There is no case for carte blanche legalisation when the drug has real harms – and when so much work goes into reducing harms caused by legal drugs.

But that doesn't mean full prohibition works either. It doesn't. There's room for something in between, with plenty of time to debate the details. Now is a good time to have that debate.

While the Herald fretted over how difficult it might all be:

It is easy to agree, as 64 per cent of those polled did, that possession for personal use should not be a crime. It is almost as easy to agree with the 52 per cent who would decriminalise its cultivation for personal use. But if the purpose is to save police time, it would probably do the reverse. How would police know a person found in possession of cannabis, or cultivating it, had no more than an amount permitted for personal use? And if cannabis was merely decriminalised, remaining illegal, what are police supposed to do about it? Their job is easier when crime is clearly defined.

These are questions with answers. How would police know what was an amount permitted for personal use? Because that amount would be stated in law. Police and courts have for decades applied a benchmark of 28 grams for the presumption of supply.

What do police do under decriminalisation? The answer depends on what flavour of decriminalisation you have in mind. It could be that there is no offence in possessing a small quantity, in which case the holder gets on with his or her day and the police go about policing things that are defined as crimes. It might be that the law stipulates an escalating system of warnings, in which case names are taken and an administrative process takes its course. It might be that possession attracts a civil fine, like a traffic ticket.

It's important to bear in mind that we are not stepping into the void here.

It's nearly 30 years since South Australia decriminalised cannabis possession, making personal possession (up to 100g, or a plant or used bong) subject to a small fine. ACT and the Northern Territory introduced simiar reforms more than 20 years ago. The other states have not formally decriminalised, but operate cannabis-specific cautioning systems, which range from single (but compulsory) diversion in Queensland, two in New South Wales and Victoria and three within 10 years in Tasmania. The variety of penalties and benchmarks makes for a bit of a mess at the national level, but all the states operate regimes that are less conservative than New Zealand's – and have done for a long time.

They're not alone. Many countries – from Italy to Iran – have either forrmally decriminalised or effectively tolerate personal use and possession.

While any separation of cannabis use from criminalisation is welcome, these regimes often don't really do more than that to improve public health outcomes and they don't offer any useful control of production and distribution.

In the US, Colorado and Washington state have sought to address the latter issue via regulated commerce and although the market model doesn't seem unduly problematic so far, there's an increasing quantity of investment capital looking for a return, which may – as is the case in the alcohol market – rely on a smaller number of heavy users. Washington DC has, almost by accident, settled on a growing and gifting model that lets people grow their own but bans commerce.

Uruguay has taken a different approach – a state monopoly on sales – which has its own issues. The official state price has been set very low ($1 a gram) in an attempt to undercut the black market, which mostly deals in low-quality weed smuggled from Latin America's largest cannabis producer, Paraguay. The fact that the illicit product can't really compete on quality should in theory make government weed more attractive, but the government has been having trouble getting pharmacies to sign up to sell cannabis.

Dr Chris Wilkins of Massey University spoke to Wallace Chapman on Sunday about a model that may fit New Zealand better: cannabis clubs. These operate according to codes of conduct in Spain, Belgium, the Netherlands and Slovenia, some are members of a pan-European umbrella body – and the research on them is fairly promising. One interesting point to note is that many users join clubs in search of choice, including the choice of less potent marijuana.

So yes, we need to have the debate and it is good that we seem to have started doing that, but in doing so let's remember that we have options and examples at our disposal. It's not a mission to Mars.


There are those, of course, who believe they already have all the answers and, unsurprisingly, the most voluble of them come from that domain of the unchallenged reckon, commercial talk radio. In a Mike's Minute last week, Hosking was very sure of his ground.

We already have a problem with drugs – I don't think that's a statement anyone can run from. So decriminalisation makes that problem worse. Dope is a health hazard. Why would you want to promote a health hazard?

There's actually no good evidence that decriminalisation "makes the problem worse" (especially given that prohibition has procured New Zealand one of the highest per-capita use rates in the world) – and some to suggest the reverse. And there is a difference between "promoting" a product that carries public health risks and not criminalising people who may be at risk of health problems that only an oaf would need explained.

Another radio mouth, Mike Yardley, offers a similar string of logical fallacies.

And Karl du Fresne continues his long battle with his own generation.

What marks them all out is their absolute certainty in their own beliefs, in an area where it's sensible to to look at the data, listen to experts and question what you know. Or, as Hosking put it:

And as much as we bag the politicians, they are the buffer between generally sensible thinking and the nutters running the place based on polling.