Hard News by Russell Brown


Synthetic cannabis: it just keeps coming

Synthetic cannabinoids are being prepared and sold on the New Zealand black market, more than a year after they were banned from public sale by an amendment to the Psychoactive Substances Act. And a report provided to me by ESR shows they are not leftovers from the old regime, but largely new chemicals.

Since July last year, two months after synthetic cannabinoids were withdrawn from sale, ESR has analysed 15 samples – one from Customs, one from a "private client" and the others from police – as containing synthetic cannabinoids.

Two samples, one from a 158g seizure by Customs, were presented as powders. One was blotter card "tabs" that also contained 25C-NBOMe, 25H-NBOMe and 25I-NBOMe (in keeping with the rule that forcing one drug out of the market generally makes space for a more dangerous one, most blotters presented as LSD in New Zealand now actually contain the much more risky NBOMe drugs). The remainder were "plant material" prepared for smoking.

In addition, two further samples were tablets that could only provisionally be identified as containing synthetic cannabinoids – ESR had no data to aid a conclusive analysis. Those two tablets also contained MDPV (aka "bath salts") and one contained the other "bath salts" chemical, Alpha-PVP, which has been turning up in Wellington recently. They, or their constituents, are likely to have come from China.

The reports from ESR fly in the face of a recent assurance from Association Health Minister Peter Dunne that police had told him there was only a "comparatively small" underground market, trading in products stockpiled from the old legal regime.

ESR's results say different.

"There are significantly more," ESR forensic analyst Hannah Partington told me. "And it's not consistent, they change."

"It's new ones," confirmed senior forensic scientist Jenny Sibley. "We had a very new one last week. It was in our data library, so we could identify that way. But we could not find any published data in scientific published papers. It takes ages for them to catch up."

Both agreed that the large Customs seizure of JWH 018, one of the original "legal highs", banned by the minister in November 2012, was an exception. Recent samples almost all contained cannabinomimetics never listed by the ministry.

In his interview with TV3's The Nation last month, Dunne cited the near-absence of an underground market in synthetic cannabinoids as a vindication of New Zealand's "different approach" to regulation, which he insisted was not a ban.

The predominance of "plant matter" presentations suggests that criminal enterprises have the skills to prepare smokeable material – which would typically mean dissolving a constituent chemical (or chemicals – about half the samples contained mixtures) in acetone and spraying it on leaf.

NORML has suggested that the New Zealand "weed drought" in the early part of the year could be a consequence of criminal operations moving from natural cannabis production to the faster, cheaper and less risky business of synthetics – much in the way that the supply of distilled spirits rocketed and beer consumption slumped during America's liquor prohibition years.

Hamilton mayor Julie Hardaker, who, like me, appeared on the same programme as Dunne, said to me she has been told by Waikato police that the process is widespread. In March, Christchurch police found synthetic cannabis prepared for sale alongside methamphetamine in a house they said was home to several gang members.

The flow of new cannabinomimetics presents problems for ESR, whose scientists have been struggling to identify the chemicals.

"We have to have a standard of each particular substance to confirm it for the report," said Sibley. "There's a company called Cayman in the US who make analytical reference standards of synthetic cannabinoids. And they try and keep up as much as they can with the way the market's evolving but you you're always playing catch-up, always. And it can be up to a year before a new substance will have a reference standard you can buy to confirm what you think it is. It makes it very difficult and it's very frustrating for the authorities."

I think there is no doubt that networks that have formerly dealt in natural cannabis are now selling synthetic cannabis in some quantity. This is not a leftover from the "legal highs" era: it is a new market, it involves little-known and poorly-understood chemicals – and it's probably growing.

Update: A letter from associate Health minister Peter Dunne about this post, and my response.


Friday Music: The merry month of May

It's several years since New Zealand Music Month shifted from running a centralised, industry-focused event series to acting as an umbrella for anything anyone in the community might care to organise and associate with the concept. It works.

Notably this year, the libraries are getting right into it. Christchurch City Library has a 7pm Music Month launch this evening featuring a solo set from Martin Phillipps, Minisnap (Kaye Woodward and her fellow Bats playing her songs) and The Swan Sisters. It's all ages and there's a great-looking interactve hour for kids outside beforehand, at 6pm.

 Auckland Libraries has stuff on via individual community libraries  all over the city this month, from performances to hands-on sessions with ukuleles and samplers.

Wellington has Wellington artists playing others Wellington artists songs at Under the Covers tonight and a four show Music Month season begins in Dunedin tonight at the Robbie Burns.

Auckland's big Music Month-aligned show this weekend is Weird Night Out at the St James tomorrow night. Set times will be posted today. And do notethat although some media are describing the St James as "restored", the correct word is "reopened". Actual restoration is a battle yet to be won.

There's a lot on in general. Tonight alone sees the hometown debut for Kody Neilson's new outfit Silicon and a benefit show for Auckland Action Against Poverty at Whammy featuring Tourettes, PCP Eagles and more, Goodshirt and Ha The Unclear, Randa and friends and Wellington's Terror of the Deep. Tomorrow night there's Heavy's all-ages album release show.

I suggest y'all consult the Under the Radar gig guide for your city and the New Zealand Music Month website, which has a really-hard-to-read event listing.


From the @SunRaUniverse Twitter account, which brightens every day. The original poster for the Space is the Place movie:

And from the Instagram account of weed_eagle, the original cassette of The Chills' The Lost EP. Fancy.

And this pretty, primitive poster from the past, found in Richard Langston's new Audioculture history of Dunedin's Empire Tavern.


Ooh! New She's So Rad (warm, deep bath of guitar version). 'Kick Out of Life' is from their forthcoming album Tango, out later this month via From the Crate in New Zealand and Muzai Records in Europe:

Ooh! New She's So Rad (disco console version). From the 12-track Breakout remix EP up now on Bandcamp, featuring versions from a bunch of people. It really sounds like they had fun on this record.

Onehunga's Spycc, whose last outing was with High Hoops, teams up this time with David Dallas. Free download:

Ahead of tomorrow's big hooley at the St James, Weird Together have posted a track from their recent live sets, sampling the great Jamaican poet Mutabaruka. Free download:

On TheAudience, this impressive new track from Wellington-based Felix III, aka Felix Mpunga. It's a free download if you click through. There's a Martyn Pepperell profile to go with it:

And the "sexual hypno drone" of Instant Fantasy, profiled here by Hannah McGowan:

And, finally, Bill Brewster's freaky funk-rock rarities for The Quietus. Top-notch YouTube crate-digging.


The Hard News Music Post is sponsored by:



Behind Baltimore

Away here at the bottom of the world, we have been experiencing this week's tumult in Baltimore, Maryland, in the modern way: through the real-time thrill, outrage and fuzzy context of live tweeting, brutal images and shaky Periscope streams.

It is worth taking a step back from the spectacle and thinking about how and why Freddie Gray was arrested then bundled into a police van where his spine was broken. If the actual means of his death was unusual, his death in police custody was less so – and his arrest for essentially no reason was just the daily reality of America's drug war.

David Simon, the former Baltimore Sun reporter who went on to create The Wire, explained it this week in an interview with The Marshall Project:

The part that seems systemic and connected is that the drug war — which Baltimore waged as aggressively as any American city — was transforming in terms of police/community relations, in terms of trust, particularly between the black community and the police department. Probable cause was destroyed by the drug war. It happened in stages, but even in the time that I was a police reporter, which would have been the early 80s to the early 90s, the need for police officers to address the basic rights of the people they were policing in Baltimore was minimized. It was done almost as a plan by the local government, by police commissioners and mayors, and it not only made everybody in these poor communities vulnerable to the most arbitrary behavior on the part of the police officers, it taught police officers how not to distinguish in ways that they once did.

Simon is even more lucid on his thesis as to how the War on Drugs destroyed "real policing" – in favour of a system where forces juke their statistics by simply visiting neighbourhoods where the fruit hangs low and making arbitrary arrests – in the award-winning documentary The House I Live In:

This film might be the best indictment of the drug war and its abject failure I've ever seen. It  also makes a vivid and explicit connection between drug law and race.

New Zealand's first drug laws – directed at Chinese opium smokers – were an act of racial persecution and they continue to fall most heavily on Maori. In the US, those laws have expanded into a broad assault on African-American communities. Virtually everything that could be wrong about them, is wrong.

The damage is such that a reversal today – and that would be a fond hope – might take two or three generations to work through. And yet, smaller steps help. In the year after Colorado legalised marijuana, black Americans were as dispropotionately represented as ever in arrest statistics:

The total number of charges for pot possession, distribution and cultivation plummeted almost 95%, from about 39,000 in 2010 to just over 2,000 last year.

Even after legalization, blacks were more than twice as likely as whites to be charged with public use of marijuana. Blacks were also much more likely to be charged with illegal cultivation of pot or possession of more than an ounce ...

In 2014, the year Colorado’s recreational marijuana stores opened, blacks were 3.9% of the population but accounted for 9.2% of pot possession arrests.

For illegal marijuana cultivation, the disparities didn’t just persist. They got much worse.

In 2010, whites in Colorado were slightly more likely than blacks to be arrested for growing pot. After legalization, the arrest rate for whites dropped dramatically but ticked up for blacks. In 2014, the arrest rate for blacks was roughly 2.5 times higher.

But it's a proportion of a far lower total. That's the mercy.

You may have watched The House I Live In on Maori Television on Tuesday night, before Media Take. If you didn't, it's there to watch in full on the Maori Television website. I cannot commend it to you highly enough.


Will the grown-ups ever arrive home?

You can see an extended cut of last night's Media Take discussion with Ali Mau, Gavin Ellis and Andy Pickering here. It covers both the topic we originally conceived – the nature and purpose of the gossip press – and the fiasco that followed last week, when a young woman called out the Prime Minister.

The two are not entirely a perfect fit, but they are linked by the presence of two people at the centre of the horrorshow: Rachel Glucina and her editorial patron Shayne Currie.

In Jane Phare's sympathetic profile of Glucina, written in 2012, when the latter moved on from her post as keeper of the Herald on Sunday's Spy section to write The Diary in the daily paper, Currie is quoted:

"A gossip column does have to push the boundaries and unfortunately sometimes we did cross the line. I kick myself over some of the things I didn't edit in or out of her column. It was my responsibility in terms of the tone, not Rachel's."

Spy's tone became "slightly too aggressive" as time went on. "Possibly in some cases it could have been brought back a notch or two."

Currie says it was the most heavily legalled part of the paper. "It got to the point where the contents were run past lawyers as a matter of course, just to be careful."

You don't say. Over the six and a half years that Glucina's mangled syntax was the voice of Spy, lines were crossed any number of times. She was spiteful, vindictive and childish. She was feared not because she was good, but because it appeared that she didn't have any adult moral boundaries. It was not coincidental that she became enmeshed in a bizarre social feud with Cameron Slater, whose whole style has been to drag his professed enemies down into the longdrop pit with him.

But, as Phare points out, she worked hard: she trudged along to those desperate PR "events" on rainy Tuesday nights. She presumably wanted to be better than she was. But no one was there to show her how. She needed an adult.

Instead, her mother, Drew Glucina, dived into the longdrop with her; taking out a nasty defamation action against her rival at the Star Times, Bridget Saunders. Saunders had received an anonymous letter containing an abusive photomontage of her. She told some friends she thought the author was Drew Glucina. It got back to Drew Glucina. An adult with an ounce of emotional intelligence might have contacted Saunders, sympathised, and disavowed the letter. Glucina Senior took Saunders to court.

At some point, you'd think that Currie might have realised this almost-literal-shitshow was not something his paper should be dragged into. But, wrote Phare:

But the payoff came on Sunday morning when, out and about in cafes, Currie saw brunchers from young women to middle-aged men, pick up the paper and turn first to the Spy pages.

"She was a huge asset for us, definitely responsible for lots of sales and good stories, many that didn't come under her byline but were provided by her."

Hey, I quite like a good gossip section (I also like Shayne Currie, although I expect he might not think so after reading this). When Andy Pickering inherited Spy along with Ricardo Simich after a kind of Gossip Idol run-off, the pair of them did a good job. They were witty, they turned up stories, they sometimes afflicted the powerful. On last night's show, Andy said that Currie's successor as HoS editor, Bryce Johns, had made it clear that "the days of Spy being particularly personal or too nasty were over".

Since Andy left, to be replaced by Pebbles Hooper, Spy has been has not been as good. The tidbits are dull, the writing is often clunky and the photopages seem to revolve largely around the Auckland National Party scene that is perhaps the key to all this. Dirty Politics revealed that Glucina's Diary was frequently just a channel for her political patrons, a mucky window on an establishment full of clambering aspirants.

So perhaps when the news swung around last week to the emotional-infant-in-chief, the Prime Minister, it was an accident waiting to happen. The circumstances in which Glucina was permitted to get her Amanda Bailey story are all about the relationships that preceded it.

You'd think that, given the subsequent uproar in his own newsroom, Currie might have trod carefully this week. Instead, the paper accepted an opinion column from Bob Jones. All you need to know is that Jones' column on "ponytailgate"  began with a rape joke. Jones takes no payment for his columns; he writes solely for vanity. His writing is hackneyed and he is living proof that even age may not bring self-awareness. That column didn't need to happen, but it happened.

Which leaves us with another aspirant: Mike Hosking. Again, an adult in the building might have forestalled Hosking's vile, victim-blaming attack on Bailey on Seven Sharp last week; might have saved him, and his poor colleagues, from himself and his own screaming lack of self-awareness.

But Hosking is a presenter at TVNZ, which makes him akin to a god. No one will tell him he's a monster, so it is left to a former colleague to bluntly do so.

Perhaps there are no more adults left left in Auckland's executive class. Perhaps it's simply now about the desire for status in this prevailing establishment. But you would hope that somewhere, some time, a grown-up will arrive home.


Hey, the rest of Media Take – featuring Hone Harawira, Stephen Winternet and Gerard Smyth, was pretty cool too. You can watch the whole thing here.


Anzac Day II

I spent a couple of hours at our local RSA on Saturday. It was well past the traditional solemnity of the morning, well into the drinking. The old fellows drank like soldiers and the soldiers, there in their uniforms, with their mates and families, bought each other rounds. The singing and dancing stopped at 6pm for The Ode, then started again. There was no trouble.

It was genuinely a traditional Anzac Day, in that it was a community commemoration. In the years that followed the first war, small towns saved up and built their own memorials and raised their own halls. It wasn't the stuff of Prime Ministers.

My friends got talking to an RSA office-holder down there last week, and that wasn't the stuff of Prime Ministers either. It was about the struggle to get support for former soldiers, the government's belated acknowledgement of the reality of PTSD and the need for the state to act on that acknowledgement.

The presence of servicemen, in their cups as they were, brought that home. I know a couple of career military officers, one a cousin, and they have a seriousness and a bearing that sets them apart. Whatever we think of war, for so long as we have soldiers, we have a duty to recognise what we ask them to be.

I came home and watched Sam Neill's documentary Anzac: Tides of Blood, on Maori Television. I'm not sure who else did – it's not showing up on the channel's on-demand most-watched – but if you have the time today, I would urge you to watch it here.

Neill's documentary is personal, nuanced and honest. It explains how we created the "Anzac myth" – why we had to create it – and how our understanding of it evolved over a hundred years, through the rancour of the 1970s to the reinvention of the 1980s, when Anzac services became a mass event and the talisman of modern politicians.

I watched nothing of the mainstream channels, but, not for the first time, I'm grateful to Maori Television. Earlier in the day, Ngā Rā o Hune - The Days of June told another story: that of the Waikato Maori who refused to fight for the empire that had robbed them of ther land and their mana.

During the day, too, there were things said on Twitter that defied the popular conception of that platform as a place of trivia. Luke Tipoki posted these:

Gina Rangi posted this:

My friend Danielle posted this:

I went out for a long ride, and barely got around the corner before I encountered the local parade.

There was even a tank at the intersection. The kids liked it, it seemed okay.

By yesterday, there was the news that an Australian sports reporter had been sacked for insulting the memory of the men who supposedly fought in the first war for his freedom to speak. I will defer to the historian Geoff Lemon for a perspective on that. Over here, the clowns who run the Herald on Sunday's Spy section claimed their "tip line lit up" in response to the off-message Anzac thoughts of Lizzie Marvelly, who responded with a thoughtfulness and intelligence her witless accusers didn't really deserve.

And then, at the end of the Hurricanes' rugby match against the Reds in Brisbane, someone thought it appropriate to mark this time of loss with round of after round of machine-gun fire from an armoured vehicle. It seemed impossibly insensitive.

Far rather, for me, the solemnity then the singing and dancing at the RSA. Kia kaha.