Hard News by Russell Brown

Big Day

What a day! The Mother of the Nation announces her departure, three Cabinet ministers step down in advance of a major Cabinet reshuffle … but never mind all that. Check out the first tranche of the Big Day Out lineup announced this morning. Iggy and the Stooges! The White Stripes! The Magic Numbers! Kings of Leon! The Mars Volta!

There are two more announcement dates scheduled this year, at which I would expect the dance music lineup to be filled out. The only act in that category so far is 2ManyDJs, who I am very much looking forward to hearing. Top of my wish list would be the return of the Flaming Lips, although I have no idea as to whether that is a realistic wish.

Wellington coroner Garry Evans is not reticent about advising the government. This month alone, he has called for urgent action on highway median barriers, home detention and, most recently, drug education. This is his right. Unfortunately, on the drug question at least, his logic isn't at all good.

In his finding on the deaths of six young people (actually: ages 15, 15, 17, 21, 22 and 27) as a result of solvent abuse, Evans called for a tougher policy that aims to stop drug use entirely. The only problem with such a strategy is that such a strategy hasn't worked anywhere in the world, ever.

As America's ruinous War on Drugs grinds on through its third decade, the use of drugs ranging from marijuana to heroin among young people remains higher than that in countries with more nuanced policies (the Netherlands, for example). It cycles up and down with demographic factors (the rate is lower than it was in the 70s, when the baby boomers were young, but drug use by high school seniors has increased through the past decade) but it does not go away. At any time, half a million Americans are in jail for drug offences, some of them in circumstances that are frankly indefensible.

Worse, just-say-no programmes seem to make things worse. A series of studies has found that children exposed the most prominent programme, D.A.R.E., are more likely to go on and use drugs. This seems to be an issue with schemes that bring in outsiders to deliver set-piece anti-drug warnings, rather than drug education being incorporated into the health curriculum in schools.

This story on a California study of D.A.R.E. outcomes explains part of the problem:

Research shows that kids who are taught that pot is as bad as heroin are more likely to experiment with heroin if they tried marijuana and experienced few consequences. Those kids suspect that if they were lied to about pot, then they were probably lied to about hard drugs as well.

As a result, many teens rebel against the programs that are intended to help them. The core of the problem is that D.A.R.E. and other "just say no" boasters refuse to recognize that teen-agers experiment with drugs.

What made Evans' pronouncement so odd was that he was discussing deaths resulting from the abuse of legally available substances. Let's be clear here: no one should inhale solvents, ever. It's damaging and deadly. But you are not going to stop kids inhaling solvents with a "drugs are bad, m'kay?" message.

If you present all recreational drugs as equally unsafe, you fundamentally undermine your message about solvents. If you say that solvents are more dangerous, you per se say that cannabis and other substances are less dangerous. You end up with exactly the same harm-minimisation approach that the coroner rails against. That's life.

There's some merit in the view of Capital and Coast District Health Board alcohol and drug consultant Geoffrey Robinson (on whose report Evans drew) that it is odd that we have public health campaigns telling people not to smoke tobacco, but no matching campaign to warn everyone off recreational drugs. But one doesn't map precisely onto the other. As Ross Bell of the New Zealand Drug Foundation points out, the research indicates that drawing the attention of young people to the abuse potential of solvents can have the perverse effect of increasing abuse by drawing attention to that potential. As usual, I'm inclined to trust the judgement of the people who have actually surveyed the evidence.

Bill English's Treatyology speech on Monday night appears to have been more intelligent than all that Don Brash has ever had to say on the matter. I couldn't say whether I agreed with it without reading the speech in its entirety (it doesn't appear to be online yet), but it appears to offer an intellectual imagination and a sense of historical context that has sorely gone missing from the National Party these past two years. Now Brash has contacted the Herald to praise the speech and declare that he was misunderstood during the election campaign. It's a bit late now, pal.

THIS JUST IN: The rumour that Peter Jackson would be directing the Halo movie isn't true. But wait: he is going to be the executive producer. And Weta will be handling the effects. Geekdom is presumably in a frenzy right now. (Thanks to Leo Rae Brown for the tip!)

PS: I have both an outgoing MP (Nandor Tanczos, 12.30pm) and an incoming MP (Tim Groser, 1pm) on my 95bFM show today. You can listen here or wait for the podcast.