Hard News by Russell Brown


Miles on the Clock

It took no great insight to suppose that the main casualties of the report by the Office of the Prime Minister's Chief Science Advisor debunking the "meth contamination" hysteria would be the companies who for years made a profitable business out of testing buildings for "contamination". Well, it seems one of them is fighting back.

Miles Stratford is the founder of MethSolutions and, via his assiduous cultivation of unwary journalists, effectively the the face of the industry. This month, via the fyi.org.nz website, Miles made five Official Information Act requests related to to the report. Two of the five name me.

There's this one, headed Expert opinion on methamphetamine and addressed to the Minister of Employment, Willie Jackson:

Dear Willie Jackson,

Copies of written correspondence, meeting Minutes and participant notes relating to methamphetamine that have been held/exchanged with Russell Brown

Yours faithfully,

Miles Stratford

And this one, headed Communications regarding methamphetamine and addressed to the office of the Science Advisor:

Dear Office of the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor,

Please supply the following information under the Official Information act:

Copies of written correspondence, meeting Minutes and participant notes between Anne Bardsley and the PMs Chief Scientific Advisor relating to methamphetamine.

Copies of written correspondence, meeting Minutes and participant notes between Anne Bardsley and/or the PMs Chief Scientific Advisor that have taken place with Phil Twyford relating to methamphetamine.

Copies of written correspondence, meeting Minutes and participant notes between Anne Bardsley and/or the PMs Chief Scientific Advisor that have taken place with the NZ Drug Foundation and/or Ross Bell CEO of the NZ Drug Foundation relating to methamphetamine

Copies of written correspondence, meeting Minutes and participant notes between Anne Bardsley and/or the PMs Chief Scientific Advisor that have taken place with Russell Brown, author of this article https://publicaddress.net/hardnews/we-ar...

Copies of written correspondence, meeting Minutes and participant notes between Anne Bardsley and/or the PMs Chief Scientific Advisor that have taken place with Dr. Nick Kim relating to methamphetamine

Yours faithfully,

Miles Stratford

Let me say here and now that I heartily support Miles' use of the OIA. And I welcome his inquiry as to my meetings, correspondence and other communications with both Willie Jackson and the OPMCSA and the report's co-author Anne Bardsley. Not least because there aren't any. (Although I would be flattered to think they read my reporting and commentary on the topic.)

The other three requests are this one to the OPMCSA, fishing for something in the report authors' communications with "overseas jurisdictions", another one to the same office which is a list of mostly silly questions, and this one to the Prime Minister, seeking communications between her office and Ross Bell, the executive director of the New Zealand Drug Foundation. (I have no idea whether there have been any such communications, but if there are I rather doubt that Ross has said anything that he hasn't said loudly and probably more rudely in public.)

Nonetheless, I wish Miles well with his use of this important democratic tool. And I wish him no luck whatsoever in seeking to operate his business in the objectionable and exploitative manner he has done in recent years.

PS: Thanks very much to Elise Alexandra for her tip about the requests.


Music: What the Flying Nun donation means, and why everyone should be looking at it

Flying Nun Records' donation of hundreds of original master tapes to the Alexander Turnbull Library, announced on Friday, is significant in any number of ways. Firstly, it's a big step in addressing the problem of deteriorating masters, which has been developing for some years now, and not just for Flying Nun. Those tapes are cultural documents and they need preserving.

It's also highly significant that the Turnbull has chosen this project to launch its "centenary period" – marking 100 years since the original Turnbull bequest. What that says is that popular music, the popular music many of us grew up with, is culture and is part of our national culture

And it's a huge endorsement of the library's contemporary, realistic policy on music accessions. Over three years, the contents of the tapes will be digitised – and the artists, who retain all their rights in their work, will be able to use those digital files commercially.

Talking to Wallace Chapman yesterday morning, Flying Nun founder Roger Shepherd predicted "lots of reissues on vinyl" – including, you can be sure, the many things on those tapes that the public has never heard. Alternative versions and mixes, whole songs that never made it to the original releases. That will be subject, of course, to the artists' wishes, and some won't want their doodles published. But most will want to revisit and work through what's there.

What many people may not know is that Flying Nun isn't the first here. The Turnbull's New Zealand Music Archive already has significant collections of masters, mostly acquired in the past three years, from the sprawling Viking Sevenseas catalogue and from Ode Records. Within those, you see a different history; one full of Māori and Pasifika names.

The owners of both Viking and Ode are still with us, but they don't necessarily have the energy, the market connections or the fresh perspective that a reenergised Flying Nun can bring to its archive. It would be great to see some projects develop around  the works they own. I thought Bruce Russell's Time To Go – The Southern Psychedelic Moment: 1981-86, a compilation that recontextualised what we thought the label was even about, was a real turning point for FN. It could happen again.

A similar sense of enterprise might also benefit the many New Zealand recordings controlled by overseas-owned major record labels. The majors haven't entirely been sitting on their hands: the RMNZ-driven Tied to the Tracks project has seen the digitisation of hundreds of albums, in some cases only after mouldy and deteriorating master tapes had been rescued. But they've gone largely into the streaming morass, which is where the majors are focused these days. Why not compilations and re-releases on vinyl or as high-quality lossless files on Bandcamp?

The demonstration, via the three important independent catalogues I've noted, that our national library can both care for the original tapes and preserve all the ownership rights in their contents might also help the majors get over their own squeamishness about donating masters for safekeeping.

All this, of course, is not to underrate the important fact that the Turnbull is a research library. Friday's announcement noted that not only the tapes will be digitised, but the housings they come in, "which are a rich source of information" for researchers now and in future. Information about us, for us to explore.


Friday was also a big day for the little heritage organisation of which I'm a member, the Flying Nun Foundation. We weren't directly involved in the donation (although Roger Shepherd and Ben Howe, who were, are on our board), but we've been quietly working on a project to help the preservation of not only the label's recordings, but the culture around it. We have good relationships with the relevant archive organisations, including the Hocken, and we can advise on looking after your stuff if you want to keep it yourself. Have a look!


A couple more things before I get off the history tip.

Audioculture has published my upgrades to its articles on Bird Nest Roys and Diatribe, which contain new interview material and a much better chronology of both bands. The Bird Nest Roys one is particularly close to my heart. There's also a new profile on the way of Diatribe's Ross France, whose musical path has wound through our political and cultural history since the 1970s.

And there's also part two of Lee Borrie's epic Radio With Pictures oral history, which I think is even better (and more frank on the part of those involved) than the first. And Murray Cammick's appreciation of our late, much-missed friend Duncan Campbell. And the Beastwars story!


I've lauded the work of Blair Parkes before and I'm as pleased as ever to see a new album from him. Always Running is more rockin' and less dreamy than the last one, Saturations, but there's still an essential goodness of heart to this music. I like the way it throws together shoegaze guitars, pop melodies and the odd unruly synthesiser. And I continue to be amazed at the big, fat, fuzzy, buzzy sounds Blair can conjure from is little shed in New Brighton. He's a proper treasure.

NB: The same shed has also recently given birth to Schofield Spires' Belafonte, a nimble, finely-etched little album that reminds me at times of Anthonie Tonnon.


I really enjoyed Yadana Saw's Music 101 feature on Wellington's Club 121 and "the rebirth of dance music". One of the nice things about dance culture is that it does get reborn for successive generations. It also made me wish even more that I'd been out at Avalon for 121's big rave on Saturday night.

Also, an interview with Eddie Johnston, aka Lontalius, who has been based in LA for two and half years and has released his first new music in that time. Including this:

And a rollicking interview from RNZ Sunday Morning, full of rock 'n' roll stories, with Maryanne Bilham and Robert Knight, the photographer couple behind Anthology Lounge, the excellent new "upscale rock venue" on K Road.

It's in the basement of the old Rising Sun building (the one you probably didn't know was there) and it's really well-conceived – design, sound system and stage. More than anything I suspect it's going to be the great jazz venue Auckland has never had. Robert wants to assemble a house band and there are plans to make a Hollie Smith live album there in September. I can see myself partaking of the wine list late at night.

I went along to one of the preview nights and caught the Leonard Charles trio grooving out:

And had a nice chat to Robert himself:

And finally – and sticking with K Road – The Others Way is back, on August 31. Looking forward to the lineup reveals there ...



New High Hoops, and it's busy:

The daddiest dad mash-up you could wish for: Jungle Brothers meet Primal Scream's 'Loaded'. It's good! (And a free download)


About that Lancet study

Last week, The Lancet Public Health journal published the conclusions of a significant four-year cohort study into the use of cannabis by people suffering chronic pain. The results were, on the whole, highly unfavourable: participants who used cannabis tended to suffer more severe pain and to have pain interfere with their daily lives. They were more likely to suffer from anxiety disorders and using cannabis didn't diminish their use of opioid painkillers.

The findings were widely reported under headlines like Cannabis shows no benefit for chronic pain, major study shows. And in the context of the study, that was true. But ...

You'd need to actually read the Lancet article to discover some significant caveats about its findings. The participants were originally recruited for an observational study called Pain and Opioids IN Treatment, which followed a group of Australians with chronic non-cancer pain who have been prescribed opioids by their doctors.

So the researchers knew a lot about what opioids their subjects were using and in what dosage. By contrast, they didn't know what cannabis products their subjects were using, where they got them, how they were using them or in what dosage. The most fine-grained the study gets is "daily or near-daily" use of (necessarily) illicit cannabis. That's it.

The researchers, who were specialists in addiction studies rather than in pain medicine, never met their subjects – they gathered their responses from self-completed questionaires and phone interviews. The non-cannabis users were not met face-to-face either, but presumably had personal contact with their prescribing doctors.

What can be said of the results is that unmanaged use of unknown quantities of unqualified street weed did not seem very effective in managing pain, and was possibly even counterproductive. But it's also worth noting that this was an unhappy, troubled cohort with comorbidities. Half had screened positive for current moderate-to-severe depression and one in five had attempted suicide. It's a group which should be very cautious about using high-THC street weed, with its known anxiogenic effects.

But there weren't actually many cannabis users in the context of the wider group: by the time of the final four-year follow-up only 16 per cent of the overall cohort of 1200 participants had used cannabis in the past year and only six per cent were in the "daily or near-daily" group. It's not really possible to assess the value of a controlled medicinal cannabis treatment programme in such a context.

There's a further wrinkle: while the cannabis users didn't outperform non-users on pain and life impairment scores, they tended to report a perception that their cannabis use was helping. And the proportion of those who felt cannabis was helping increased over time, even if their scores said otherwise. The authors speculate it might simply be to do with getting a good night's sleep. There might also be something else going on.

It's important to note that the authors have not misrepresented their results, and have acknowledged most of what I've said above (although there's no real acknowledgement of the probable difference in composition of street and prescribed cannabis products, which is significant).

It's no surprise that the study has been controversial. It contradicts other recent studies like this one – which did not use a control group, but did actually study the effects of cannabis administered in a formal treatment context, and found very different results to the Australian study. So the most useful thing this new study may show is that an unregulated black market is not an effective model for the medicinal use of cannabis.


The Lancet study came up in this RNZ Sunday Morning interview with Tanya Black, a reporter for for the disability programme Attitude, who has made a two-part film called In Pot Pursuit, which follows her attempts to be prescribed an approved medicinal cannabis product. She suffered a spinal fracture 10 years ago and lives life pretty well with a wheelchair – except for persistent and painful spasms in her legs, for which she currently takes some pretty heavy drugs, including fentanyl. One pharmaceutical cannabis product, Sativex, is specifically approved for spasticity in MS patients, so it's not unreasonable to want to try it, or the functionally equivalent Tilray.

The interview also featured Rick Acland, a Christchurch-based pain specialist who appears in the film. He was actually more cautious in the interview than he is in the film, but it's no small matter for a pain specialist to break ranks with the current orthodoxy. One anaesthetist, Graham Sharp, sent a blazing message in to the programme during the interview slating medicinal cannabis as "a scientitifc fraud" with "a basis in naturopathy" supported only by "pressure groups". (This isn't actually true, but it's an indication of the extreme strength of feeling among many doctors.)

Anyway, despite its slightly cringey title, In Pot Pursuit is well-made and worth watching. You can see the first part on Attitude at 11am on TVNZ 1.

(Disclosure: I've just started doing a few casual days as a producer at RNZ and this story happened to fall to me to put together last week.)


One more thing. This Transform article on cannabis social clubs in Spain popped up in my Twitter today and it's worth reading, because CSCs could be New Zealand's response to a positive vote in the forthcoming cannabis referendum – especially if restraining runaway commerce is deemed a priority.

CSCs not only make cannabis available without commercialisation (CSCs are forbidden to make a profit), but allow for the production and sale of specific strains,  with particular attributes and cannabinoid ratios. There is an underground in New Zealand producing such strains, including for medicinal use, but the people in it are in constant danger of arrest and prosecution.


Let Canada do our cannabis homework

The news that Canada's Cannabis Act, which legalises and regulates the sale of cannabis, and its use and possession by adults, had passed its final legislative hurdle, was somewhat overwhelmed by the day-to-day madness of global news in 2018. But you will hear a lot more about it as New Zealand edges towards its promised cannabis referendum.

It was evident as soon as the Trudeau government won election with legalisation on its manifesto that the experience there might prove to be a vital case study for other liberal democracies. And that it is even more true now. Canada has done a lot of the thinking for the rest of us.

I have an impending Matters of Substance feature on the cannabis referendum promised in Labour's support agreement with the Green Party. It wasn't something any of the governing parties campaigned on, but because New Zealand First has long (ostensibly anyway) favoured a referendum on the issue, it happened to be the point where all three could agree.

So the government is coming to this historic vote from a standing start. But this much we know: the referendum will be held in either 2019 (possibly in conjunction with local body elections and/or a voluntary euthanasia referendum) or 2020 (at the same time as the general election). The minister responsible is Andrew Little. Andrew Little told me that it was unlikely that there would be a fully worked-up law for the people to vote on, and that his sense is that the referendum will not be binding.

The first part there is problematic: "legalising cannabis" is an almost meaningless proposition. It might involve anything from removing penalties for use and possession (yes, I know, that's decriminalisation) to weed supermarkets on the high street. People need to know what they're voting for. That's why the full text of California's successful Proposition 64 in 2016 ran to more than 100,000 words of legal and technical definitions. Almost no voters actually read it, but they wanted it to be there. New Zealand voters will feel the same.

So how much of our homework has Canada done for us? Parts of its law do not apply to us: principally, the decision to devolve some of the regulation to its provinces. But even that offers us options to look at. In Alberta, about 200 regulated private retailers will be allowed to sell cannabis – while Ontario will only allow 40 state-run weed stores. (I'm told by an Ontario friend that the provincial government's decision is not popular with voters, and the rules there might loosen with the next election.)

This Guardian explainer usefully rattles through other key issues: product labelling, public possession limits, a new, stricter drug-driving law (it's still an incredibly fraught area and will be until there's an efficient, reliable impairment test), limits for home-growing (four plants up to a metre high, except in Quebec or Manitoba, where it will remain illegal), edibles (can't be sold until the government works out some specific regulation some time next year) and the rights of landlords and employers to restrict consumption.

The provisions come come from A Framework for the Legalisation and Regulation of Cannabis in Canada, which is the final report of the taskforce appointed by the goverment to travel around the country and consult. There are many other recommendations in the report, including strong restrictions on advertising and higher taxes on higher-THC products.

It also proposed an age for legal adult use: 18.

The choice of 18 as a threshold has been controversial in Canada. We know that while heavy use is less risky at age 18 than it is at age 15, risk is lower still at 25, when brain development has stabilised and neuroplasticity is much less of an issue. In choosing the lower age, the task force concluded that:

... persons under the age of 25 represent the segment of the population most likely to consume cannabis and to be charged with a cannabis possession offence, and in view of the Government's intention to move away from a system that criminalizes the use of cannabis, it is important in setting a minimum age that we do not disadvantage this population.

Anne McLellan, the former Canadian deputy Prime Minister who led the task force defended the choice of 18 in similar terms when she visited New Zealand last year: yes, you could minimise risk by opting for 25, but that would marginalise the very group of users you’re trying to engage and educate. She made the point that Canada was reforming precisely because the rate of youth use had remained worryingly and persistently high under prohibition.

It's worth noting that New Zealand doesn't currently have a minimum age for cannabis use. It also doesn't have any official guidelines for lowering the risk of cannabis use. Canada does, having adopted this 2017 expert literature literature review. It offers 10 key points:

For most recommendations, there was at least “substantial” (i.e., good-quality) evidence. We developed 10 major recommendations for lower-risk use: (1) the most effective way to avoid cannabis use–related health risks is abstinence, (2) avoid early age initiation of cannabis use (i.e., definitively before the age of 16 years), (3) choose low-potency tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) or balanced THC-to-cannabidiol (CBD)–ratio cannabis products, (4) abstain from using synthetic cannabinoids, (5) avoid combusted cannabis inhalation and give preference to nonsmoking use methods, (6) avoid deep or other risky inhalation practices, (7) avoid high-frequency (e.g., daily or near-daily) cannabis use, (8) abstain from cannabis-impaired driving, (9) populations at higher risk for cannabis use–related health problems should avoid use altogether, and (10) avoid combining previously mentioned risk behaviors (e.g., early initiation and high-frequency use).

Some of these are difficult or impossible to apply in a prohibitive environment.

Canada has taken another important step: making clear that a past cannabis conviction will not be a barrier to joining the new, legal and regulated cannabis industry. I think this will be important to Māori communities who have suffered grossly disproportionate criminalisation for decades.

Canada has yet to decide whether it will follow California in expunging historic convictions for offences which no longer apply. Andrew Little was a little startled when I put it to him that it could be part of the package here, but our prosecution of cannabis laws has been as racially inequitable as California's has. This is a chance to redress enduring historic wrongs. It is also wholly in line with Little's own ideas about criminal justice reform.

So anyway, there is much to discuss and not much time to discuss it in – a public engagement programme can't even roll out until it receives funding in next year's Budget. And give that time is tight, we should be watching our Commonwealth cousins closely – and let Canada do our cannabis homework.


They want to blow it all up

In recent weeks, it has been more difficult than ever to assess and comprehend all the stupid, awful deeds and words of President Donald Trump. The tantrum and chaos of the G7 meeting bleeds into his preposterous accounts of the North Korean summit bleeds into the 14 different stories his administration has offered on the immigrant child-snatching policy. He's tweeting more and, it appears, publicly lying at an even greater rate. Last week always seems a long, long time ago.

So perhaps it's worth pausing for breath and focusing on one story that's somewhat lost in the noise: the Trump administration's steady suffocation of the Appellate Body at the World Trade Organisation. The US government has blanket-banned approval of new appointments to what is essentially world trade's appeals court, and the point is approaching when that court will not be able to operate.

As this Reuters commentary observes:

... the Trump administration’s obstructionist approach to appointments is extremely dangerous. If the appeals court cannot function, all WTO member governments suffer, including the United States. When governments, including the United States, bring WTO complaints, they want them heard and resolved quickly. With the appeals process slowed by a lack of judges, the system will experience long delays (it was already taking much longer than expected, so anything more could be devastating), or even stop working altogether.

It's important to note that – as with the current immigration crackdown – there is a precedent in the Obama administration. Obama's government did ramp up deportations, mostly of undocumented immigrants with criminal records, and it did sometimes prosecute people who arrived at the border, which sometimes did mean removing children. (In 90% of those cases, the defendant had an existing criminal record. Under the Trump zero-tolerance policy, the ratio has turned around so that 90% of the asylum-seekers prosecuted do not have any criminal record.)

Similarly, it was Obama who started playing hardball with Appellate Body appointments, first in 2011 when his administration declined to reappoint its own judge and, more agressively, in 2016 when it vetoed the reappointment of a South Korean judge it didn't like.

But that's not the same thing as what happening now. And while it would be nice to think that Trump and his officials are acting to a strategy for reform of the rules, I don't think that's the case. When have these people ever had a day-after plan? 

Moreover, I don't think they want a rules-based world. You don't insult and provoke your economic allies, you don't start trade wars, if that's what you want. I think the bastards just want to blow the whole thing up.

I sometimes think back to secondary school History, and being taught the elements of the post-war consensus: Bretton Woods, GATT and what followed. One teacher also presented us with the United States system of government, with its three branches keeping each other in check, as the democratic ideal. That ideal was always flawed in reality. But seeing that system becoming completely dysfunctional and attempting to spread that chaos and dysfunction to the international community feels visceral. It feels very dangerous.