Hard News by Russell Brown


Synthetics: We need to stop calling it cannabis

There's a problem with "synthetic cannabis", and not just the one you think. It's the name.

We're in the midst of a wave of news stories that link synthetic drugs to serious harm, through deadly road accidents and accidental overdoses (which have killed more than 80 people in two years). It's a public health crisis and it's ruining lives.

It's also not cannabis. Yet the news stories almost invariably refer to "synthetic cannabis" and often, simply "cannabis" further into the text. There was a time when this kind of confusion might have seemed harmless enough. After all, when these drugs first arrived in New Zealand in 2006, they were usually sold – and bought – as a substitute for natural cannabis. The fact that, unlike cannabis, they couldn't be detected in urine tests helped make them popular.

But they are not cannabis. They're not even one drug, but an expanding array of poorly-understood chemicals, in at least seven different groups, that have just one thing in common: they act on the same two receptors in the brain and central nervous system as THC, the psychoactive cannabinoid in natural cannabis. While a few of them, chemically speaking, look a little like a cannabinoid, most – including the ones that are killing people – are nothing like THC.

For a while, it was easy enough to use "synthetic cannabis" as a handy shorthand. I did it myself, or opted for "synthetic cannabinoids" or even "cannabinmimetics", meaning substances which mimic cannabis. But none of those terms are really accurate. Not only are these drugs nothing like cannabis on a structural level, their effects on humans are very different too. They are far, far stronger – and while it's functionally impossible to fatally overdose on natural cannabis, we've seen waves of deaths when someone, somewhere in a garage sprays synthetics on leaves and gets the dose even slightly wrong.

So why is this a particular problem now? For one thing, because we're embarking on a debate ahead of a referendum on whether to legalise and regulate the use and supply of cannabis. Continuing to call a whole group of dangerous drugs "cannabis" when they assuredly are not introduces an unhelpful element of confusion.

On a more acute level – but one very much tied to the referendum debate – we have been confronted this year with news stories about several horrifying road accidents linked to synthetics use. Commentators and victims' families have called for the introduction of roadside saliva testing to prevent further such tragedies.

But here's the thing: there is currently no available saliva test that will detect synthetics. Even the fledgling systems being tried in other countries only pick up a handful of synthetic drugs from a constantly-expanding group of them. The very real risk is that over-reliance on saliva testing will nudge some cannabis users towards synthetics, much as workplace drug testing did 13 years ago. But all that context gets lost when you're using the word "cannabis" for drugs that are not cannabis.

There is a whole other conversation about whether betting everything on saliva testing is the right approach – as opposed to the existing field sobriety test, which actually measures impairment – but, again, we're not going to have that in any sensible way until we use clearer language. Because language matters and guides choices – we saw that in action when the most recent attempt at a New Zealand Drug Harm Index farcically grouped natural cannabis and synthetics together under the single heading "cannabinoids", despite acknowledging that they were actually different things. 

So, please, let's stop talking about "synthetic cannabis". Even "synthetic drugs" is technically a bit meaningless, but it helps make the distinction. Or perhaps we can simply say "synthetics" or even "synnies". They're not technical terms either – but they are New Zealand terms for a very New Zealand problem. And at least then we'll actually know what we're talking about.

This post is based on a column that was first published in the New Zealand Herald.


Who are the medicinal cannabis users?

At almost every level, the problem with medicinal cannabis is a lack of good information. In the US, FDA regulations make it hard to research. Most doctors aren't familiar with what research there is and most patients don't know either. And on a policy level, no one really knows much about who in New Zealand is already using cannabis for medicinally or exactly why or how. The same scant data points get recycled over and over.

Given that we're midway through the drafting of regulations to be attached to the Medicinal Cannabis Amendment Act, that's a problem. And it's a problem Medical Cannabis Awareness New Zealand set out to address at the beginning of May when it launched this country's first dedicated survey of medicinal cannabis use.

The anonymous survey, designed and presented in partnership with Dr Geoff Noller of the University of Otago, is intended to inform policy-makers and regulators, and has approval from the national Health and Disabilities Ethics Committee. It is open until July 31, but Dr Noller and MCANZ have kindly let me see some progress results. And they're very interesting.

The first notable result is that the population professing to use cannabis medicinally does not look much at all like what we know about adult users in general.

"Unlike typical illicit drug-using populations which are dominated by males, almost 54% of those answering the questionnaire to date are female, with participants’ average age being 36, and with almost half the sample earning more than the median wage," Dr Noller told me.

The proportion of Māori participants, 18% (only slightly higher than the proportion identifying Māori in the general population) further suggests that this is a different group to general cannabis users.

This is a self-selecting survey, so we should be cautious about those results. But it does look like it's a fairly well-informed group. Fully 98% of respeondents know what CBD (cannabidiol) is, and nearly 70% have sought out either balanced strains (that is, with a roughly equal ratio of CBD to THC) or high-CBD strains.

CBD is not itself psychoactive, but does appear to mitigate some of the effects of THC (and last year, the World Health Organisation reported that CBD poses no public health risk and has demonstrated benefits in treating epilepsy and possibly a range of other conditions, from Alzheimer's to Parkinson's disease and some cancers). In standard black-market weed, the ratio of CBD to THC is tiny verging on insignificant, bred out over decades of prohibition.

The interaction between THC and CBD may be complicated – and this fascinating 2018 Nature article by Israeli researchers both validates the idea that there is an "entourage effect" involving the many dozens of different cannabnoids in whole flower, while making it look even more complicated – but the short version here is that these not just people looking to get high.

So what are they doing with their cannabis? Only 2.5% of participants so far have been issued with a certificate confirming they are in palliative care, and thus immune to prosecution for the possession or use of cannabis. From there, a wide range of conditions are cited, from chronic back pain (which nearly 40% of participants had sought to treat with cannabis), to inflammatory bowel disease, persistent nausea and forms of arthritis. But by far the most common condition, perhaps surprisingly, is depression and anxiety, which nearly two thirds of participants had sought to address with cannabis.

Notably, many said they had reduced or eliminated the use of prescribed medications in favour of cannabis. This isn't necessarily a good thing – people don't always do what's good for them – but the most common class of drugs that had been reduced or eliminated was pain medications. If people are coping with pain to the extent that they don't need conventional pain relief, especially opioids, that might be a very good thing.

The survey participants are very largely not dispensing with medical advice. Eighty seven per cent have a regular doctor and nearly half see a medical specialist at least twice a year. Around half don't tell their doctors about their cannabis use, but 26% reported that their medical professionals were either "supportive" or "very supportive" of what they were doing. Only 5% reported seeing medical professionals who were "completely against" medicinal cannabis use. GPs were the most supportive, but only 9% of respondents reported being helped to get a medicinal cannabis prescription. (Which perhaps isn't surprising, given how scarce and expensive approved cannabis products currently are, and the process involved in being prescribed one of the two products containing THC.)

The survey also suggests people aren't necessarily using cannabis by the healthiest means. Two thirds said their usual means of administration was smoking, about a quarter each either through a bong or rolled joints and another 15% through a dry pipe. Only 10% usually used a vapouriser, although around half had tried one. But decent vapourisers cost $300 and upwards, and 90% said they would use one if "given a high-quality vapouriser for medicinal use through your GP or pharmacy". 

But that can't happen while vapourisers are illegal. (Yes, you can buy them in shops, but officially only for use with other herbs.) Happily, it appears the survey's authors have already had a win there. Dr Noller and MCANZ coordinator Shane Le Brun recently met with Ministry of Health officials to discuss progress results and were told that the ministry has already drafted a gazette notice allowing the use of vapourisers with cannabis, and it only needs ministerial sign-off.

They've had further good news in the form of discussions with the authors of the equivalent survey in Australia about working together to combine and compare results.

The MCANZ survey has, proportionally, achieved a very good response rate  compared to the Australians. They're looking for 2000 valid responses and I gather they've already exceeded the 2000 mark in raw terms, but probably need another 500 once invalid and incomplete responses are stripped out.

If any of the above is relevant to you, now is the time to complete this survey. There is no risk in doing so and the results will matter.

>>>>>The survey is here<<<<<


This possibly won't be the only cannabis post from me this week. The draft regulations under the new Act are to be released for comment any day now – the regulations governing production have been signalled to prospective producers and seem pretty sound, but this will be the first time anyone gets a good idea of the likely rules around prescribing.

Further, it appears that there will be a significant appointment announced soon by the Ministry of Justice, which is responsible for next year's cannabis referendum.


Rip It Up: A history of us, a history of me

I love the National's Library's Papers Past archive. I've used it many times for work and sometimes just for fun. The one thing I never thought I'd be able to do is vanity-search on it. And yet, here it is: the text and pages of Rip It Up, from 1977 to 1985, on Papers Past.

Those dates are significant in a couple of ways. It's by far the most recent commercial publication in the archive – you have to go back to to a handful of newspapers that ceased publishing in 1950 for the next one.

The other significance is personal to me: I arrived at the Rip It Up office in January 1983 as an up-for-it 20 year-old delighted to be free of my long year at the Timaru branch office of the Christchurch Star and, really, free of working in a straight newsroom. I would go on, as deputy editor, to write a fair portion of every issue of the mag, every month until May 1986.

So to that extent, this rescued Rip It Up is not only a history of us, but a history of me. I've known the project was in the works for a long time, but this fact didn't really hit me until I set down at the weekend to use my preview login, did my vanity search, and got a bit weepy.

It's all there, including my the very first thing I wrote for Rip It Up, in May 1982:

The Clean, Dance Exponents

Lincoln College, May 1.

Whatever else they may be, the Clean are not entertainers.

The Clean do not court favour. They are not sluts.

The Clean play pop music without smiling. The Clean don't like you. Why should they? They don't even know you.

They add-libbed ferociously, people danced and it was a hell of a lot of fun. Great boys, great. Whatever else they may be, the Clean are honest.

From Hamish Kilgour's nightmares come Mushroom Records' latest signing, the Dance Exponents.

The Dance Exponents are entertainers. They arrived, set up and the speeding began. The pace of the show was breathtaking

Jordan Luck is a face. So are all the others. In fact, we're all faces. Yippee!

Rock and roll cliches – Jordan's "cockney" accent, sits under them like platform heels. They could step down from them and still be the Dance Exponents.

The songs? I'm told they're quite good. Whatever else they may be, the Dance Exponents are gonna be stars.

The Agriculture students drank a lot of beer.

Russell Brown

It's a little ambitious style-wise – and there's quite a bit of that later in the archive. I was experimenting in the terms I'd learned from avidly reading NME for the preceding five years. Some of it makes me cringe a a bit now (or at least think that kid could have used a good sub), but I was stretching out and learning my boundaries and I'll always be grateful to Murray Cammick for giving me the room to do that.

After that review, Murray wrote back and observed that this wasn't the usual style for live reviews in Rip It Up, but I should feel free to keep contributing. The course of my life essentially changed from that point. By November I had applied for the new role of deputy editor (thanks to Debbie Harwood, then managing the Dance Exponents – I bumped into her one night at the Hillsborough and she told me Murray was hoping I'd apply, so I did). And in the new year I arrived in Auckland to a new life, working bang in the middle of the culture I identified with.

By then I'd written my first Rip It Up feature – an interview with Hunters and Collectors in Christchurch (exploring new styles again, but it pretty much works). In the February issue, there's the Siouxsie and the Banshees story, which includes a chat with their guitarist, a Mr Robert Smith, who explains that 'Let's Go to Bed' was meant to be a solo release and the record company put it out as a Cure single without his permission. Before the year was out, I'd duelled with John Cale and gone up to the Big I, where Malcolm McLaren was staying, and persuaded him (he didn't take much persuading) to give me an amazing interview.

Compared to the cadet reporter's life I'd left behind, it was wild and fulfilling. Rip It Up – 30,000 copies nationwide every month – was read by everyone, the centre of the scene. And I was part of it.

The following year I'm covering the show Split Enz put on for Te Awamutu's centenary and reviewing 'Pink Frost' on release (I had forgotten quite how many reviews I wrote), then going on tour with Motorhead. There are also interviews with Martin Phillipps and the Doublehappys (page one and page two).

There's plenty that I'd forgotten writing: like this recent-history look at post-punk Christchurch from 1985, which is full of things I'd forgotten doing and even things which may have escaped later histories.

And then there are the letters. In those pre-internet days, the Rip It Up letters column was a roiling, often creative place. The readers told us what they thought, as Hoss from St Heliers does here:

Your publication of the Doublehappys’ inane insults in reply to what was probably a genuine musical criticism I reckon is a form of editorial name-dropping. I think there are too many poseurs about wanting to become "personalities" with their names or faces in RIU without the music to back it up. I mean, what' do these people have to offer the man in the street (or pub, for that matter)? I don't want to read about the last party Russell Brown saw a few ex-Blams at or Jordan Luck’s fringe or Andrew Fagan's biceps. These things are irrelevant and boring. More live reviews, band files, letters, please.

They also told us when they liked us, as Charmaine Stewart of Wellington did here:

Your magazine seems to better itself with each new edition. I find nothing better than a hot bath, stretched out with a corned beef and hot English mustard sandwich in one hand a copy of RIU in the other. You should try it: it's a very satisfying experience.

I'd also forgotten the merry letters we used to get from Eric Android and Baine Huggett, in prison. If you wrote a letter to Rip It Up up till 1985, you can search for your own name and it'll be there. Unless, of course, you've forgotten the clever pseudonym you used at the time ...

One letter that's not there – in my memory, Murray published it, but evidently not – is one I wrote, in late 1981. I was one of those haughty correspondents telling Rip It Up what was what and that it was nothing more than "a paid advertisement for the music industry". When I sent in my first review six months later, Murray recognised my formatting and the imprint of my typewriter. He still ran my review and wrote to me inviting more.

Bless that man.


You may be wondering how this wonderful project came to be. How did Rip It Up's increasingly lacklustre later life under different owners produce this? Thank Simon Grigg. Simon bought the Rip It Up archive a couple of years ago and started talking to the National Library not long after. He did it, he tells me, for Murray – but we all get to benefit from it.

A lot of people have put in a lot of work since to make this happen; not least Audioculture editor (and former Rip It Up editor) Chris Bourke. This is an Audioculture partnership and I'm very proud of that too.

It should be noted that Rip It Up has provided some challenges for the National Library team. You'll notice that the original page images aren't in crisp black and white, but greyscale – a trade-off to preserve the photographs.

Rip It Up's layout also defeated the library's OCR system at times. Text is jumbled in some of the clippings – my coverage of the Queen Street riot, from December 1984, is all over the place – but you can always just go to the whole page view.

If you want to get to the page from a clip you've searched for, go to the "Research info" box at the top of the item and get the permalink – paste that in and you'll see the same clip, but with a "Back to page" link you can click to go directly to the whole page.

Anyway, here it is. Go wild. Do feel free to share the stuff you find (use those permalinks rather than the search URL) in the comments below.


Music: Some deep belief

There's a strange thing about having songwriters as longtime friends. On the one hand there are years when you're mates getting in the same scrapes; they're smoking your weed and you're drinking their riders; you're all  fitfully growing up, not yet getting old.

On the other, if they're good, they're creating art that reaches you emotionally, pieces of music that create a meter for your own life. There's actually nothing commensurate you can give back.

I've been thinking about that in a week that has provided two powerful sets of stories: the local premiere of The Chills: The Triumph and Tragedy of Martin Phillipps and Shayne Carter's memoir Dead People I Have Known. I was there or thereabouts for events described in both and I've known some of these stories a long time. I also wasn't there for some dark times.

I went with friends to the special Hollywood Avondale screening of the Chills film this weekend. There was a sense of event as befits a such a remarkable film – and after it had played, a genuine warmth expressed by the crowd towards Martin Phillipps himself. Almost the first thing we see in the film is the passing of a death sentence, so it's natural that we'd be pleased to see Martin walking and talking. But it's more than that.

The film is an accounting with the past and a settling of debts and relationships, most notably for Martin himself. By the time it concludes, it feels like the accounting has been done and the debts have largely been settled – with the notable and literal exception of the $US400,000-odd that Slash Records will grimly recoup from the Chills' ledger until 70 years after his now-considerably-postponed death.

Because of the kind of film it is, it can't dwell too long on the songs themselves for clues as to why band members might have stuck around and committed when they felt sometimes like spare parts. As Shayne observed in a fencing match of an interview with Kim Hill on Saturday, the film could have told more of the joyousness of what Martin has made.

Martin turns up in Shayne's book on page 112, at a Sunday afternoon show in 1980, as "a stoned boy genius, out of it on comics, garage rock 'n' roll, moons over water," who "sounded like he'd been driven all around Otago Peninsula while recovering from dental drugs, and now he was overwhelmed by this experience and bursting to express it."

More than most songwriters, Martin produces songs that are not only sometimes profoundly original, but seem to have a life, or a potential, of their own. It's as if there's an imperative to seeing them through to that potential. I think Martin has always felt the weight of that imperative more heavily than anyone.

My favourite Chills song, 'Oncoming Day', which plays over the film's credits, is an example. They had five tries at recording it and it eventually wound up on Submarine Bells, feeling out of place and and a little thin. I was thinking about that song a little while ago and realised that my affection for it is wholly based on the feeling, the exultant experience, of hearing it played live.

The closest thing I can find to that is this 1988 performance at The Gluepot. "We've been talking about putting this out as a single for years, but it's like ... I think we've given up really," Martin sighs before they kick in.

If 'Oncoming Day' is one long, defiant exhalation, many other great Chills songs seem to breathe. The most obvious one is the yogic in and out of 'Night of Chill Blue' – which I think actually was recorded to its potential on Brave Words, the major Chills album you can't, for some reason, hear on Spotify or Apple Music. Like 'Oncoming Day', it's a song that makes reference to writing songs. There's quite a bit of that in Martin's work, to this day.

I spent a lot of time around the band in London in the late 80s, tagged along on two European tours and had a couple of the best, wildest days of my life on a holiday in North Wales with Martin, Kate Tattersfield and Simon Alexander. I can confirm that the other members were frustrated by the experience of being penniless and mostly homeless, especially with Martin refusing to share the publishing on his songs.

But there was also a sense of excitement. It's common enough now for New Zealand artists to play in Europe – Aldous Harding and Nadia Reid played in Europe more often than they played Auckland early on – but it was huge in the 1980s. As I related in a somewhat wayward 1987 tour diary for Rip It Up, it wasn't only The Chills hitting London in search of glory, but Flying Nun Records itself. Craig Taylor eased away from his music publishing job to manage The Chills and run the label.

I recall a number of times when it seemed the big break was imminent. Like when 'Heavenly Pop Hit' was Record of the Week on BBC Radio One's breakfast show and almost, but not quite, made Top of the Pops. I seem to recall the offer of an Andy Weatherall remix being declined by Martin and I sometimes wonder how that might have changed things.

That's a really difficult narrative for songwriters to carry forward while the rest of us are getting jobs and mortgages and ticking off socially-sanctioned  steps to adulthood. And it's something Shayne deals with in Dead People I Have Known, largely by being his own most attentive critic. He can't afford to assess his life on the basis that things didn't work out when his band was trying to crack the US market on the same label as Kenny G.

Quite often, he measures himself against his heroes. It's part of the way he works: before writing his memoir, he prepared by reading all the best rock biographies to find out how they worked. He assesses 'Seed' like this:

'Seed' is a classic. Everyone likes 'Seed' ... 'Seed' has a train-like rhythm. Miles Davis liked train rhythms. He used them on his album Tribute to Jack Johnson, about the black American boxer. Miles Davis thought the movement of a boxer was a like train. One, two, three – pop; one, two three – pop. Boxing is another elemental rhythm, like breathing, walking or fucking.

I confess: for a long time I thought 'Seed' was about fucking.

"I Believe You Are a Star is my best record," he writes, in the course of describing the three challenging (and sometimes literally painful) years it took him to make the album.

I remember that. We'd started to joke about how perfectionist Shayne perhaps shouldn't have been let near ProTools and the endless scope for reworking and polishing that the software offered. He'd never leave the room, it seemed. But Shayne's account of what happened offers a map to it: one that began with him and Gary Sullivan setting themselves down some place away from years of rock band noise:

We swung all the way to the opposite end of the spectrum, and we'd play so quietly in our practuce room somerrimes that we could also hear each other breathing. It was a completely new dynamic for us ... We learned the true beauty of space, of silence, We learned there there can be an eloquence to shutting up. It was educational, refreshing, and against the code we were known for.

They also had a lot of fun with a fart they'd recorded.

As I was writing this, the sad news came through that Malcolm Black finally succumbed to his cancer this week. He was a thoroughly decent man and Shayne makes it amply clear that that Malcolm, in his A&R role at Sony Music, was a key reason that transformative record got made.

Malcolm became my main man, my ally, all through the making of Star. He was warming, encouraging and patient, which was just as well because if he hadn't been I would've thought he was just another record company wanker ... He never questioned my direction, which was important to me, because Arista and Mushroom always had.

Songwriters need people who believe in them. Because even at their most methodical, they're still trying to pluck something out of the ether, and they're often not quite sure what it is until it arrives. It's a strange gig, and not always in a good way.

Both the film and the book are unflinching about their respective subjects' dark times. Alcohol has not been Shayne's friend, a fact he had to confirm to himself several times over. Some of the best writing in his book – and this is a very well-written book – sees him exploring that fact via his parents' complicated stories.

The book is also often very funny. I wondered before picking it up whether he'd venture to tell that story about the b-Net awards. He does, on the first page. I won't spoil it for you, but it involves Helen Clark and it is tragically funny.

Both works end with their own forms of redemption and resolution. In the film, Martin's life is saved just in time by the modern miracle of direct-acting antiviral drugs for hepatitis C, and he can enjoy the fact that people all over the world still value his music, still want to hear it, still want to see him. He, too, has people who believe in him. Co-director Julia Parnell acknowledged in the Q&A after Saturday's screening that they'd been obliged to plan for the contingency of their subject dying before they finished. That's how close that was.

Shayne finds his path too. He's made peace with his background, his art, his Māori identity, with a lot of ghosts (the book's title isn't entirely a joke – its pages contain quite a body count). He has found new ways to stretch and apply himself, particularly in the arts world. He also reckons he's a writer now. On the strength of his first book, he has every right to.


I've been thinking more about songs and their deeper purpose since this year's Taite Prize ceremony. This year's Classic Record, Moana and the Moahunters' Tahi, and the 2019 Taite Prize winner, Avantdale Bowling Club, both have a cultural resonance that goes well beyond music.

And when the Prime Minister spoke, something she said really got into my head. When the memorial for the victims of the Christchurch mosque attacks was being planned, she said, her first thought was about what music would be right. And I thought, you're one of us.

Anyone who watched the memorial service will know how pivotal the music was. And something similar was true of the subsequent benefit concert, the first time in a long time that so many New Zealand songs have been played live on prime-time TV. I thought, aren't we lucky to have a modern canon, to have the shared understanding of songs we can convene over. To have the cultural tools when we need them. To have waiata.

Julia Parnell, the co-director of the Chills films and really the reason it got made, has also been doing her part there too with the Anthems series currently screening on Prime. The creators of the songs we all sing have turned out to be quite insightful on the works they've created: they've been closer to them than any of us. I know that catch-up viewing for Prime is a pain, but if you haven't caught any of the episodes, it really is worth the effort. I would like to hear more of ourselves on air.

Songwriters need people who believe in them. And that belief is its own reward.


Cabinet and the Reeferendum

Today, it has been reported, Cabinet will consider the government's approach to next year's cannabis legalisation referendum – including whether voters will be able to see a detailed bill before they vote "yes" or "no" and, crucially, whether such a bill will be passed by Parliament before the referendum.

My understanding is that half of that is likely: that there will be a detailed bill – because no one can look at Brexit without being aware of the folly of an open-ended referendum question – but that the governing parties will not attempt to pass that bill through Parliament before the referendum.

It has been suggested to me that the roadblock is New Zealand First, but other people have told me that's not the case, and that it's more likely that Labour simply doesn't back itself to complete such an exercise, which would inevitably stretch into election year.

It is true that there is no obvious champion within government for the project. As things stand, there is only one party with a clear policy on the matter. As the Greens' Chloe Swarbrick has repeatedly stated, her party strongly favours the option of an enacted law to be affirmed, or not, by the public vote. As I noted in a Matters of Substance story last year, this is also the position of constitutional lawyers.

Yesterday, the National Party added to the confusion by releasing parts of what it says is the Cabinet paper to be considered today. Chloe Swarbrick took to Twitter to say no, it's not that, but an older discussion document.

Whatever it is, the paper outlines four options: a general question around legalisation with no real detail (the Brexit option); a "specific policy framework document setting out the basic principles" for legalisation; a question relating to "draft legislation that outlines the regulatory model for cannabis"; or the full-service option, "legislation already enacted but conditional on an affirmative vote on the referendum."

In the case of all but the last, according to the paper, "a ‘yes’ vote would result in the duly elected government and Parliament having some moral imperative, but no obligation, to enact the legislation." To be honest, I can't see a government bucking a clear "yes" vote. I could see a post-2020 government (remember, that government will be elected on the same day as the referendum) messing with the detail. And I would certainly expect it to result in a delay of at least a year in getting legalisation done.

National, in the person of Paula Bennett, takes a different tack: that there is a disastrous lack of detail in the proposals and we need to know about things like tax rates and age of purchase. This a continuation of National's recent line of argument but it it's not going to be sustainable for much longer: if there is to be either a bill or an enacted law, and it will almost certainly be one of the two, it will contain that detail.

According to Derek Cheng's Herald story from Friday, this will be the level of detail before Cabinet today:

The Herald understands the option Cabinet will consider has been approved by the Green Party and the New Zealand First caucuses.

It will include some regulatory details including a legal age limit for purchase - likely to be at least 18 - strict limits on marketing and availability, a ban on consuming in public places, and allowing a "common sense" amount of cannabis to be home-grown.

The Herald understands there are plans for a public consultation process, and the proposed bill will aim to reduce drug-related harm, protect young people, and cripple the livelihood of gangs that benefit from the current prohibition model.

Not all details have been confirmed, and it is unclear if the paper to go before Cabinet will include proposed limits on THC potency or the types of products, such as edibles.

Using tax revenue from cannabis products to fund health services is also a possibility, although there are concerns that this would create a perverse incentive in a similar way that money from gambling is funnelled back into communities.

There has been a dedicated team at the Ministry of Justice working on a potential policy (much as there is such a team at the Ministry of Health writing the medicinal cannabis regulations due in their final form this December). This team is focused and has been engaging with stakeholders and discussing options for some time. The ways in which a non-profit-at-retail model might best work has been discussed, which I think is encouraging.

But – and I think the goverment can fairly be criticised here – the Justice team struggles with a lack of political impetus. Basically, things go quiet at ministerial level unless the issue is in the news. I think these last few days will have sorted that problem.

In Friday's story (but not, interestingly, in yesterday's release about theleaked paper), Bennett says that "legislation going through the House would give it the most scrutiny and be the most open and transparent process" and that there is still time for that to happen. I agree, and I look forward to National offering its support in the House for such a bill to proceed to first reading.

I don't actually expect that offer to be made. But it would be helpful for National to accept the standing invitation for it to join Parliament's cross-party working group on drug policy. Or, really, make any sign of its good faith on these issues. Because merely playing politics isn't going to help.

In conclusion, it bears noting that we have actually come a long way since that Matters of Substance story last year. Back in July 2018 (or, to be more accurate, in May when I actually wrote the story) Justice minister Andrew Little was far from sure we would go into the referendum with a draft law. That seems a certainty now.

Other things have happened in the interim. The new amendment to the Misuse of Drugs Act guiding police discretion will mean that pretty much no one will be charged with cannabis possession. And at J Day at Albert Park on Saturday, raw cannabis and and range of edibles could be bought by anyone who cared to. The ground is shifting already, and quite quickly.

John Roughan has a column in the Herald today in which he offers the view that cannabis and all other drugs should be sold and marketed without restriction or regulation so that anyone (including children, it would appear) can "fry their brains", but that there should be no public heath response to any problems that ensue, because he "would sooner spend public health funds on illnesses sufferers had not brought upon themselves." Sellers of meth and synthetic cannabis should be free to wreak whatever harm on communities brings them the most profit, because those communities only have themselves to blame.

Roughan does not extend this prescription to the drug that causes by far the most social and medical harm, alcohol. Because, of course, that's different.

But Roughan is just a retired journalist with a newspaper column, so he can say whatever feckless nonsense he chooses. An actual government has clearer responsibilities. And it's incumbent on the present government to step up to those responsibilities and get this right. Please, stay focused.