Hard News by Russell Brown

23

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.

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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.

15

Friday Music: Sweet Inspiration

The phenomenon of dancefloor-friendly edits that beef up and emphasise the rhythmic qualities of classic older tunes has rarely, if ever, touched on  New Zealand's own musical heritage. And that's a shame. But – hey! – maybe it's changing.

Last weekend I noticed this funky retake on Grey Lynn's own Yandall Sisters:

It's the work of Auckland DJ duo DiCE, who are Dave Ti and Christiaan Ercolano, formerly of House of Downtown. They also recently sprinkled some nu-disco fairy dust on Jon Stevens' cheesy chart hit 'Jezebel':

And they're both free downloads! DiCE have their own jams available on their Soundcloud, but I for one, hope they also keep up the heritage edits. By consensus among local history-pop pickers, Mark Williams' 'House for Sale' needs the treatment next, but I could see a magnificent 12" vinyl package of three or four of the best being a great thing. If you want DiCE to play your party, they're here.

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Meanwhile, Lewis Tennant covers The Rise of the Sound Systsems in Aotearoa for Audioculture and it's a very good read.

Fresh Auckland electronic producer Peach Milk takes The Wireless though her debut EP, track-by-track.

And on the RNZ website, A Strange Celestial Road, the comprehensive multi-part Sun Ra documentary from Concert FM is a deep treasure.

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Tunes!

Fatigue got very much the better of me last night and I missed Shayne Carter's show at the Tuning Fork. I'm consoling myself with this awesome 2012 live recording of 'Seed' that Shayne posted recently:

Auckland-born London-based deep house purveyors Chaos in the CBD have created this lovely long mix and made it a free download:

And finally, gotta run because I'm expected in Hamilton ... modern dancefloor bangers aren't generally known for for their irony or sense of humour, but this one (free download) breaks that rule rather magnificently.

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The Hard News Friday Music Post is kindly sponsored by:

The Audio Consultant

59

Stop acting like the law is someone else's responsibility

On Morning Report today, Prime Minister John Key was interviewed about a new poll indicating that nearly two thirds of New Zealanders want the law reformed to legalise or decriminalise use and possession of small quantities of cannabis.

Mr Key declared himself "not a massive fan" of these things.

"One of the things that Parliament does is send a message to people about activity we want to see or not want to see and um in the4 case of drugs I think if we were as parliament to decriminlaise then one of the messages we'd be sending is that increased drug use is okay.

"And I know that people would say, we, you know, that seems a bit silly given that there's widespread recreational use and we know that. But I don't think the police really for the most part do prosecute in this case."

Actually, the police are still arresting about 15,000 people a year for personal use and possession of cannabis. Not all those arrests lead to prosecutions, of course, and I do think it's true that – as Cam Price argued last year –  that in recent years New Zealand police have, whatever the law says, been applying a form of de facto decriminalisation.

Graeme Edgeler put it to me on Twitter this morning that Key was applauded for emphasising that the police would apply their discretion when the Section 59 "reasonable force" defence for child discipline was removed – so why scorn him for saying the same about drug law? And why is one "message" law, passed on the understanding that it would not lead to prosecution in every case, a good thing, when another is not? He wasn't just trolling: it's a reasonable philosphical question.

The presence of a victim in one case and not the other provides a fairly obvious point of difference. But there's also the  matter of the sheer number of cases,  the consequences of of a conviction – and the fact that police discretion is not appplied without bias: one study found that Māori experience police arrest for cannabis use at three times the rate of non-Māori.

Also, the removal of Section 59 – and thus the special status of hitting children as opposed to anyone else – brought the law in line with overall government policy. The continued refusal to countenance any reform of of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1975, on the other and, has created a growing gulf between the law and the government's own National Drug Drug Policy, which is all about "proportional" responses founded in public health health principles and not criminal law. I honestly can't think of a law so obviously antithetical to the government's stated policy goals.

The Law Commission took a similar view in its review of drug regulation in 2010, and suggested various reforms, including ways in which police discretion could be guided. As Sir Geoffrey Palmer put it when the commission's review was published: 

There may be a case for taking more flexible approaches to offences involving possession of small quantities of drugs for personal use.

The review was not only summarily rejected by the government at the time, it had the paradoxical effect of John Key's government establishing and campaigning on the position that it would never change drug law.

The new poll is even more emphatic on medical cannabis. Sixty six per cent of respondents believed that "growing or using cannabis for pain relief if you have a terminal illness" should be legalised and a further 16% thought it should be decriminalised. Only 15% believed it should remain illegal. There was only slightly less support when the question was refined to the simple use of cannabis for pain relief.

No problem, says the Prime Minister.

"The truth is that the police don't prosecute people in that [indistict]."

Well, firstly, he doesn't know that. Secondly, it's not true – a number of people convicted as a result of last summer's expensive but newsworthy cannabis recovery operation identified themselves as medical cannabis users.

And thirdly, a leader who has just hailed the role of Parliament shouldn't be in the next breath handing over the content of the law to police. Key suggested more than once in the interview that police don't often prosecute for cannabis use and possession, that "in a lot of cases the police turn a blind eye to this".

So should, Guyon Espiner asked him, possession of a small amount of cannabis in general result in a criminal conviction?

"People break the law all the time. I mean technically, when people go 15km/h in a 50km/h speed zone, you're breaking the law. So there are always tolerances and margins. It's for the police to determine that."

It really isn't. The police have, it is true, taken a number of influential steps in the past decade – from the pre-charge warning system to Prime Ministerially-endorsed "turning a blind eye" – but it's probably past the point of of it being ultra vires. If such a level of discretion is in fact desirable, then it should be in the law.

The New Zealand Law Commission took a similar view in 2010, proposing a formal system of warnings. Its review also has a thoughtful section on medical cannabis, which acknowledges the widespread view of health sector submitters that for cannabis to be formally approved as a medicine it should have to pass the same tests other other medicines and be standardised and subject to trials.

But it also acknowledges the strong belief of other submitters that the use of raw cannabis manages their pain or other symptoms effectively and with fewer side effects than the standardised medicines that have been approved for their use, and therefore:

... we think that the proper moral position is to promote clinical trials as soon as practicable. We recommend this approach to the Government. 

And in the meantime:

... while trials are being conducted, we think that it would be appropriate for the police to adopt a policy of non-prosecution in cases where they are satisfied that cannabis use is directed towards pain relief or managing the symptoms of chronic or debilitating illness.

That sentence has since widely been interpreted as a call for a "moratorium" on medical cannabis prosecutions at least until there are standardised cannabis-based medicines available. That's actually a sensible and ethical thing to do. But it is not something the police should be expected to do independently of government. It's not even desirable. Lawmakers need to stop acting as if the law is someone else's responsibility.

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The interesting thing about the poll is that it was commissioned by the Drug Foundation from Curia Research – David Farrar's company, the firm whose monitoring of the public mood has helped deliver the National Party successve election victories. That's not surprising: Curia's rate for having a question or questions added to its regular polling is quite reasonable.

But I've remarked in the past that law reform would appear on the horizon when a Curia poll showed that the people National relies on for votes favoured it. Well, guess what? That actually happened.

When responses are divided by "Probed Party Vote", National voters are still markedly more prohibitionist than supporters of any other party: 42% wanted possession of even a small amount of cannabis to remain a criminal offence,  versus 29% of Labour voters, 33% of Maori Party voters, 0% of Act voters, 35% of New Zealand First voters and 15% of apparently confused Green Party voters.

But a majority of National voters support law reform in the poll: 28% are in favour of legalisation and 27% decriminalisation.

I suppose it's possible that in taking any action National could risk losing voters, but it's hard to see where they'd go. The political risks of cannabis law reform look to have sharply decreased – and if Key's government hadn't spent the years since 2010 campaigning on never, ever changing the law we'd probably be seeing that happening now. But positions that aren't based on evidential or philosophical foundations are easier to abandon than considered positions. So yes, that might be something peeking over the horizon ...

27

Friday Music: Reduction Agents Redux (and The Get Down)

Auckland's Lil Chief Records has released a notable body of curious pop over the years – think the Brunettes, Voom, Princess Chelsea, Sheep, Dog & Wolf and and Jonathan Bree – but it seems to go through quite long quiet spells, punctuated by bursts of activity.

They're on a burst at the moment, with the news that a reissue of The Reduction Agents' The Dance Reduction Agents has been organised – the first time the album's been available on vinyl. The Reduction Agents are, of course, the group led by James Milne before he became Lawrence Arabia. I picked up my copy at the recent Lawrence Arabia show, it's on white vinyl, I'm listening to it now and it sounds really gorgeous. You can pre-order the vinyl here.

But wait, there's more! Lil Chief recruited various of Milne's peers to record all the tracks as a tribute album. The preview track is the Ruby Suns' remake of 'Our Jukebox Run is Over'. It, too, is lovely:

It all comes together in an album release show at Golden Dawn on the 18th, featuring the tribute band The Dance Reduction Agents (nb: may contain traces of the Reduction Agents – is it even a thing to be in your own tribute band?).

UPDATE: The vinyl is out today and the tribute album is on Bandcamp and also there to listen to on Soundcloud:

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Another Lil Chief band is Shaft. I mentioned their brilliant new song 'Meteor in Your Mind' a couple of weeks ago.

Well, they're having a release show for it tomorrow night at the Thirsty Dog, along with the Naenae Express (who don't sound like what you might imagine from their name, they're more sort of warm, reverby jangle), The Situations and Will Saunders, all for only five bucks.

In case you've forgotten (and I frankly don't see how you could forget that chorus), 'Meteor in Your Mind' goes like this:

Nice poster too:

Turns out there's a lot of it on this weekend. Those merry pranksters Gold Medal Famous are playing at UFO in New Lynn tomorrow night (and bringing their theremin competition and chees-medal prizes with them). And the Axemen return to Golden Dawn tonight.

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Flying Out have done the second lineup announcement for the 2016 The Others Way festival, which takes place in venues on and around Karangahape Road on Friday September 2, adding Nadia Reid, Sleepers Union, King Loser and others to what is now a vast bill including David Kilgour and The Phoenix Foundation. Info and ticket sales here.

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On Audioculture, Murray Cammick has a marvellous illustrated memoir of how an art-school kid with a passion for soul music came to cover Auckland's emerging punk rock scene. Most of the pics are local, but they include this fabulous picture of Debbie Harry at the Intercontinental in 1977:

Meanwhile, The Saints have had their revenge on Brisbane. The Queensland State Library is plainly very pleased to have obtained a copy of the original, self-released version of the  band's unthinkably great 1976 debut single '(I'm) Stranded.

Which sounds to me like an excellent excuse to again present The Saints playing '(I'm) Stranded' on black and white TV in 1976:

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Tunes!

This blog has been a bit short on kitchen-dancing material lately, but I aim to remedy that this week.

First up, I found this through The Golden Pony's Soundcloud. It's a bloody great disco banger. And it's a blessedly simple free download – just click the "Buy" button:

Another free download (mildly annoying Artists Union palaver, or just pay a donation) is this strung-out take on Steve Wonder's 'As':

Baynk, the New Zealander who came out of nowhere to play Laneway this year, continues to attract attention internationally. This is his new one on the French label Air de Paris. Free download for a bit of Soundcloud liking and following fiddliness:

This is odd, but I like it. Auckland's Frano, now with A Label Called Success, takes apart Bon Iver's 'Perth' and reassembles it in epic fashion:

Thanks to my buddy Keegan for the heads-up on this: Loleatta Holloway singing the blazes out of Otis Redding's 'I've Been Loving You Too Long' at The Paradise Garage in 1979. The recording's a bit scratchy but the atmosphere is incredible. You can hear the crowd shouting back at her. Wow.

And, staying with the back-in-the-day New York vibe ... I read Bill Brewster's Last Night a DJ Saved My Life this year, and the book conjures very well the excitement of of the street jams that gave birth to hip hop. But how did they actually sound? Turns out, there are recordings.

Via this old blog post, I found this 47-minute capture of a 1977 party. It's really great – and a chance to hear all those grooves and breaks before they got edited and sampled and recontextualised over the next 40 years:

A comment from a DJ Red Eye has the track-listing at this (note the back-to-back play on the second tune – that's how DJs did extended mixes before they could make edits on their computers):

1.Lamont Dozier- Back To My Roots 2.Peter Brown- Do you Wanna Get Funky With Me (2 copies back and forth) 3. Loleatta Holloway- Hit N Run 4.Rose Royce- Do Your Dance 5. Leroy Hutson- Feel The Spirit 6.New York Community Choir- Express Yourself 7. Vicki Sue Robinson- Hold Tight 8.Munich Machine-Funk Train

There's more of the same here on this Soundcloud account.

All of which provides an ideal introduction to The Get Down, Baz Luhrmann's spectacular-looking story of the birth of hip hop culture (and the last days of disco) in the Bronx, which is available on Netflix from 7pm today. Indiewire calls it "the best $120m Netflix ever spent" at the top of this intriguing interview with Luhrmann and Grandmaster Flash, who is both an advisor to and a character in the show:

“I wanted to answer the question, ‘Where did this brand new idea come from?'” Luhrmann said. “And it came from active imaginations on a landscape that was devastated. From those who had so little, so much imagination sprang forth.”

There's also this featurette with Flash:

Regular readers will know that I am mildly obsessed with this era in this city. So yeah, you know I'm watching this tonight. I wonder if there'll be any punk rockers?

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The Hard News Friday Music Post is kindly sponsored by:

The Audio Consultant

13

Orcon IRL 5: Media and Journalism

It is the best of times, it is the worst of times … it sometimes looks like the end of times.

ORCON IRL AT THE GOLDEN DAWN is back on Tuesday, August 23 to ask the hard questions about MEDIA AND JOURNALISM. And what a lineup we have!

RUSSELL BROWN asks Morning Report's GUYON ESPINER about getting up early and setting the news agenda every damn day, even when you just don't feel like talking to Winston Peters.

Ace Mana magazine editor LEONIE HAYDEN comes in as co-host and quizzes the New Zealand Herald's KIRSTY JOHNSTON and The Spinoff's ALEX CASEY about where it's at right now.

And former MediaWorks news chief MARK JENNINGS and former Herald editor TIM MURPHY discuss the changing media landscape and explain their new venture and how they're going to save everyone.

It all happens from 6.30pm on TUESDAY, AUGUST 23 at The Golden Dawn Tavern of Power, corner Richmond and Ponsonby Roads. And if you can't make it to the venue, the team from 95bFM will be streaming it all live on the internet.

UPDATE: We are pleased to announce that we have secured the services of top journalistic DJ team ALAN PERROTT and LIAM DANN to provide the musical interludes.

Entry is free and this is going to be a RAM DANCEHALL, so don't delay and RSVP here on the Facebook event page. (If you don't do Facebook, just click the email button at the bottom of this post and let me know you'd like to come.)