Hard News by Russell Brown


This is Your TV on Drugs

The latest issue of the NZ Drug Foundation magazine Matters of Substance was published recently -- and, as ever, the folks at the foundation were happy -- nay, keen -- for my column in the magazine to be published here for discussion. That's it below.

You can read the rest of the magazine and find out more about becoming a member of the Drug Foundation, or simply subscribe to its information services, here.


When it was revealed this year that British comedian Keith Allen was to take ecstasy on live TV, in the interests of science, the Home Office was unimpressed.

"Televising the use of illegal drugs risks trivialising a serious issue," read a stern statement provided to The Observer. "Our licensing regime allows legitimate research to take place in a secure environment so that harmful drugs can't get into the hands of criminals. There is no evidence to suggest that the current listing of MDMA as a Schedule 1 substance is a barrier to attracting funding for legitimate purposes."

To be fair, Channel 4's record of television-as-raw-spectacle -- and Allen's record of enthusiastic partying -- did not promise an increase in the sum of human understanding.

But Drugs Live: The Ecstasy Trial did actually turn out to embody a genuine, controlled trial exploring MDMA's effect on the brain, funded from the programme's production budget. The experiment, designed by researchers Val Curran and David Nutt, was designed to test MDMA's potential in therapy for post-traumatic stress disorder. The 26 subjects were given 83mg of MDMA, or a placebo, placed in an MRI scanner for 90 minutes, then subjected to cognitive and perceptual tests. Eight among them, including Allen and the novelist Lionel Shriver, were also interviewed for TV.

No one actually took an E on live TV, and the entire experiment could have been conducted without being televised at all. So was there a point to the programme? Well, yes. When did you last see a popular television show that showed and explained what a double-blind trial actually was?

In the event, the twin-night live TV event that commentators feared would trivialise science probably erred too far on the side of sobriety. The most common complaint from reviewers was that Drugs Live was boring. But the two million-odd viewers (tens of thousands of whom tweeted along as they watched) did get to see real scientists debate the science around the drug. Curran and Nutt were enthusiastic about their results, but Swansea university psychology professor Andy Parrott declared MDMA still not worth the risk as a therapeutic option.

Viewers also got visible proof of an important fact: psychoactive drugs affect different people differently. One subject, Hayley, an ordained priest, had what appeared to be a remarkable and fulfilling experience, but former SAS officer Phil Campion was plainly distressed under the influence.

In the course of fitfully successful efforts to provide information about the drug, the programme revealed that a third of the "Ecstasy" pills seized at Glastonbury Festival contained no MDMA, but instead potentially dangerous substances such as BZP and TFMPP, "which can cause vomiting, fits and irregular heart rhythms". (Yes, those are the potentially dangerous substances that were for sale in New Zealand dairies while MDMA was a Class A drug).

It might have tried the patience of some reviewers, but Drugs Live: The Ecstasy Trial demonstrated that it is possible to have a sane, sensible media discussion about psychoactive drugs.

Meanwhile, a rather different kind of programme -- National Geographic channel's series American Weed: Mile-High Showdown -- has demonstrated that reality TV has its uses too. Technically, it's an "obs-doc" -- an observational documentary -- and it balances the personal narratives of its core cast members with a compelling look at how complex cannabis law reform can be.

It's set in Colorado, where medical marijuana laws have made things tricky for cops, criminals and everyone else. The police in Colorado appear to raid illicit marijuana operations with some gusto – but they have to be careful to only take a little leaf for testing, in case it’s claimed that the crop is being legally grown for medical use. Illicit marijuana growers face the irksome competition of new-agey types and whiny twentysomethings selling the product perfectly legally from their clean, pleasant "health centre" premises. The health centres in turn catch heat from citizens who organise community referenda in pursuit of bylaws that make their businesses difficult, or even impossible, to run. Things get tense.

American Weed is compulsory viewing for anyone interested in drug reform. It demonstrates that, done the way it has been in Colorado and other states, medical cannabis is highly likely to (as its critics point out) weaken prohibition overall. More than 100,000 state residents are licensed to buy medical pot, but the programme makes clear that many of them do so with recreational intent too.

The difference is now moot. On the first Tuesday of November, Amendment 64 to the state constitution passed by referendum: legalising, taxing and regulating the possession and cultivation of cannabis by adults. That’s the next series sorted, then.

We could have programmes as provocative as these. Instead, we have TV3's Drug Bust, which is American Weed without the civics, Drugs Live without the science. It's wholly to do the spectacle of the bust. In theory, this sort of show should humanise its subjects, but even its protagonists, the police officers, do little more than disgorge clichés and unchallenged assertions. We never really find out where anyone else comes from or where they end up.

If the other two shows are example of popular television that might take us somewhere in terms of policy, New Zealand's Drug Bust is simply about policing. And we're not going to learn much from that at all.

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