Hard News by Russell Brown

Worlds collide

By Jove, I've found it! The common ground between Normal and the United Future party, that is. And it's … smoking! Chris Fowlie of Norml has been in touch to explain the pro-marijuana law reform group's position on coffeeshops and the law.

I thought I had to point out that the Greens do not support our coffeeshop model. Their policy only goes so far as to legalise use, possession and cultivation of up to 5 [cannabis] plants.

Norml believes such a policy will do little to reduce the size and influence of the black market. It won't separate cannabis buyers from dealers who sell drugs such as P. Only a properly regulated legal market such as Dutch-style coffeeshops could do that, but this would be impossible if the outright ban on indoor smoking is introduced.

We believe a "clean air" standard such as what the Smokefree amendment first proposed would satisfy the concerns of both sides - smokers would be able to smoke in designated areas in bars and cafes, but only if the air ventilation systems were good enough to keep non-smokers happy.

We've found ourselves in the curious position of for the first time ever agreeing with what Peter Dunne has been saying! Our website has an article further explaining this.

The electorate secretary of UF's internal affairs spokesman Marc Alexander has been in touch to clarify his party's stance on the Gambling Bill, and why it variously supported and proposed such significant amendments after the select committee stage. Unfortunately, the RTF documents I was forwarded don't open in any way known to me. (Although they did trigger one of the best error messages I've ever seen: "Word cannot edit the Unknown".)

But I did hear Alexander talk to Damian Christie on The Wire yesterday, and he had the decency to acknowledge that his ebullient memo last week about the amendments was inappropriate. He basically made a fairly cogent harm-minimisation argument: gambling is here to stay, you're not going to stop people doing it, so you might as well manage it.

I didn't find his rationale for thus backing Internet gambling (it ought to be noted that the Lotteries Commission's proposal is much more like Kachingo than an online casino) and allowing pokies to accept $20 notes particularly convincing. But more to the point, why only gambling?

Marijuana has been in common use in New Zealand a lot longer than the pokies, and more widely so. Its health effects remain a matter of debate, but they extend at least to a similar risk of lung damage similar to that from tobacco smoking. It is not addictive in the clinical sense, but some young people do become dependent on it, as they do with alcohol. A majority of New Zealanders use it at some time, but almost all cease or cut down of their own accord. Pokies don't damage your health per se, but they are intimately associated with activities - alcohol and nicotine dependence - that do.

On the other side of the ledger, marijuana offers conviviality to those who like it. It has played some part in the creative process of everyone from the Beatles to Bob Marley. It has inspired literature and film, and, of course, it provides symptomatic relief to some seriously ill people.

Pokies and some other forms of gambling do contribute to community welfare through levies and subsequent grants - and that starts to look like a community addiction in itself - but that's about it. Pokies are - and I am not being snobby about this - a particularly insidious form of gambling. They are clinically addictive because - like methamphetamine, cocaine and nicotine - they trigger dopamine releases in the brain. They are no more than a socially ordained means of relieving the vulnerable of their money. Go and watch some glassy-eyed punter pump money into a machine at a bar if you don't believe me.

There seems no rational basis for legislating exclusively to protect the vulnerable in the case of marijuana, and not doing so in the case of gambling. The Gambling Bill was meant to be a harm-minimisation law (it will, for example, prevent any more casinos opening, and limit the number of pokies that can be installed in a bar), but neither the government or United Future seems to have fully explained why amendments to the opposite effect were added so late in the piece.

But the National Party's current sermonising on the bill is, to anyone with a memory, absurd. That would be the same National Party, would it not, that introduced casinos in the first place, and constituted the Casino Control Authority so it was almost incapable of rejecting an application, even if it was overwhelmingly opposed by the local community? It would.

Staying with harm minimisation, it will be interesting to see whether our government is minded - or obliged - to follow some Australian state law and ban the various highly popular BZP-based dance pills, which are now even available at my local Liquorland. These are being explicitly marketed as a legal, and safer, alternative to methamphetamine, and with some justification.

I'm only aware of one BZP-related death, and that was a "dry-drowning" associated with Ecstasy. Just as important, the piperazines don't appear to reward excess dosage: one capsule of Rapture will probably procure a better result than three, and certainly less of a hangover. This is a handy social attribute. Are dance pills good for you? No, but they're a lot less bad than the alternatives. I'm told by someone familiar with the dance scene - which was almost killed off by P - that people are starting to come out again, and they're on the dance pills. Interesting.

Anyway, if you haven't read Jolisa's September 11 meditation yet, you should do so. Meanwhile, Latin American media in particular have focused heavily on "the other September 11" - the US-backed coup that overthrew the elected Allende government in Chile in 1973. Freshly-declassified documents have shed light on the extent of US government involvement in the coup - which included a CIA proposal for a terrorism campaign to destabilise the country.

The rather irritating Professor Jane Kelsey is in Cancun for the World Trade Organisation Round, and filing reports. One, Indigenous And Peasant Farmers Mobilise In Cancun, accompanies the familiar calls for the abolition of everything with the demand for "taking agriculture out of the WTO”.

It's hard to imagine any action that would do more to secure the interests of rich, developed countries and damage the economic prospects of less powerful nations - including New Zealand - than taking agriculture out of the WTO. Do Kelsey and friends really want a world in which Europe and America can continue to pay their farmers to dump agrichemicals on their lands?

The Herald's Fran O'Sullivan had a more interesting - and much more relevant - story, on the stern line laid out by The Group of 20, a new grouping of developing nations led by Brazil, China and India, which has called the rich nations to account on agricultural protectionism, amplifying the message of New Zealand's club, the Cairns Group. She quoted our agriculture minister Jim Sutton: "What we're doing is we're coming together because we face a common enemy and the enemy is dumped surplus of subsidised exports from the rich industrialised nations." Amen.

So the Auckland NPC team is now running onto Eden Park to the strains of 'R U Ready?' by Dub Asylum (aka occasional Public Address contributor Peter McLennan) - does this mean we have finally departed the era of risible radio jingle-rock as a rugby accompaniment? If so, allow me to propose next year's Canterbury Crusaders' theme tune: 'Not Many' by Scribe.

Yes, he's a rapper, but he's from Christchurch, his forthcoming album is called The Crusader, and the tune in question ends with lusty shouts-out to all points of the Canterbury region - which is presumably a first for the entire hip-hop genre.

More to the point, Scribe truly flows, and P Money's ominous, prowling bassline is a cert for the mood of expectation you want to create before a game. They'll probably want the original version on the 'Stand Up' CD single, rather than the album version, but I'm sure Scribe and Pete would be happy to knock out a special mix. Enquiries should be directed to Mr Ashbridge at Festival Mushroom Records. Seriously.