Hard News by Russell Brown


We have to rethink the annual cannabis recovery operation – or at least honestly account for its cost

Over the past week, the annual police cannabis recovery operation has been taking place in West Auckland. A helicopter – accounts differ on whether it is a police or NZDF aircraft – and a spotter plane have been flying low over the Waitakeres and the West Coast beaches, directing a ground crew towards small outdoor grows.

These operations take place around the country every summer and are partly funded via the Criminal Proceeds (Recovery) Act, which provides a contestable fund allocated by Cabinet for (mostly) anti-drug initiatives. And they take a fair chunk of the money, it appears: in one round in 2015, $721,000 went to "more police anti-cannabis surveillance flights", from a total allocation of $5.1 million. (The largest grant, $1 million, went to a programme to identify and prevent foetal alcohol syndrome disorders, which seems entirely laudable. FASD is a huge generational public health problem.)

There is also an effective subsidy from the New Zealand Defence Force, which provides helicopters and personnel, and it can be very difficult to assess the total cost of resources. In 2016, an OIA request by Kyle Sutherland seeking that information with respect to  the Tasman District operation of that year was bounced around the office of the Minister of Police, the New Zealand Police, the Royal New Zealand Air Force and the NZDF. The NZDF was able to confirm that the cost of the use of an RNZAF helicopter was $52,800 but declined to provide a breakdown of staff costs on the basis that it would be too much work. The Police, for their part, responded that information on police costs in the annual cannabis recovery  operations "is not collated or held". It's not exactly a triumph of accountability.

Residents, whether they are growing cannabis or not, largely hate the annual operation in the Waitakeres. It's intrusive and the aircraft fly low – and where plants are detected, herbicide is sprayed from the air. On past form, there will also be criminal prosecutions resulting from the operations. Those cost money too, and the Proceeds of Crime disbursements don't nearly cover all the costs. But I don't think it's unreasonable to suppose that the operations continue to happen because there is funding to be had.

What the operation in Auckland does not do is meaningfully reduce cannabis supply in the region, where the serious, commercial cannabis growing is done indoors as an organised criminal enterprise. Such cannabis cultivation was driven indoors by aerial surveillance years ago.

But this year's operation has claimed a further casualty. Below is an open letter written by Pearl Schomburg of Auckland Patients Group, who published it along with pictures of a small medicinal cannabis grow, before and after it was sprayed with herbicide. Pearl says the grow was composed of entirely medicinal strains used to make products destined for "very unwell patients including palliative patients."

Pearl believes, probably correctly, that it will be three to five  years before whole-plant cannabis products are legally available under the new medicinal cannabis regime. In the meantime, the only way patients in palliative care – who are themselves protected from prosecution – can access such products is through small, illicit operations like this.

Rolling out the operations year after year just doesn't make sense in the current environment, at last in West Auckland. It doesn't meaningfully reduce supply, it diverts money that could otherwise go into treatment and education, and it hurts people. We urgently need to rethink what is happening here.


Dear Jacinda, 

Recently the NZ Police commenced with their annual air searches for cannabis plants in the north and indeed yesterday I had reports they were out at Piha, Karekare and Huia. 

The grows they are finding are mostly small individual personal grows, and our compassionate providers organic outdoor annual grows.

I have attached heartbreaking photos of my provider's (Gandalf) crop that was poisoned by Police last week. These plants were all medicinal strains and destined for high quality products for very unwell patients including palliative patients. This will make it very difficult for Gandalf (my provider) to guarantee supply for all his patients including me. 

Our ADHB specialists continue to refuse to write prescriptions for legal Cannabis medicine due to departmental policy and the products legally available are limited, expensive and ineffective for many patients.

Our compassionate providers are trying to manage the increased amount of patients they are receiving due to medical professionals refering patients to seek cannabis to ease their suffering where conventional treatments have not helped.

Although the Medicinal Cannabis Bill has passed I believe it will be 3 - 5 years before all patients will receive access to affordable, quality, whole plant cannabis products, with guarantee of supply from the companies currently setting up in NZ. Indeed it will be a year before we know what the regulations will allow.

Our compassionate and self providers have been achieving great results for themselves and others during the last 90 years of prohibition and indeed there is recorded safe usage of cannabis by communities for centuries beforehand across many cultures.

These folk deserve a voice at your regulation table and this cannot happen while they continue to be criminalised. I ask you to establish a pathway to 'grandparent' these folk into the future which must include an immediate amnesty on all medicinal cannabis patients and their supporters including providers, nurses and carers.

Patients continue to be traumatised by raids and the loss of their plants and medicine has a huge impact on their wellness and recovery. 

Police discrimination is not working for our patients and their providers and I ask you to show your greatest kindness and compassion by resolving this issue immediately and allow our community to continue doing their very best work.


Pearl Schomburg

Auckland Patients Group


Gandalf's medicinal grow, before:

And after:


Music: Three Festivals

Most music festival organisers, anywhere in the world, have some idea of cultural victory in their heads. They want not only to make money, but to have their shows stand for something.

You've probably seen one or both Fyre festival documentaries, which are an excruciating look at what happens when you crave a victory – albeit, in this case, a victory within a celebrity culture that's toxic to the heart of music itself – but lack the honesty, decency and dedication to actually achieve it.

The truth is, music festivals are really hard. You're responsible for ultimately uncontrollable spaces, answerable to both the authorities and the people who pay you money. And to really succeed, you rely on those people to embrace your event as part of their culture.

The annual Laneway festival is, by tradition, the home of bands and singers you probably haven't heard of yet. The bands and singers who are going to be big next year, or the year after: that's the brand. As the sole big urban festival (it briefly crossed over with the Big Day Out) it has also become the place where city kids show up and show off, sometimes in ways that don't have a whole lot to do with music.

Of course, Monday's 10th anniversary Laneway Auckland was headlined by the very-well-known-indeed Florence and the Machine (who, you may recall, played the first one, at Britomart). But, as Sam Flynn Scott put it in his review:

I’m pretty sure I used to be the target market for Laneway, but this year I barely know anyone on the lineup.

As a joke, my good friend Lukasz sent our group chat what we thought was the lineup, but was actually a list of food stalls. None of us even noticed. I’d happily watch Judge Bao live or get a glass of Rex Orange County. It’s all new to me.

Yeah, I did a double-take at that food banner too. I mean, it's plausible.

Our crew arrived at Albert Park about 3pm (missing what sounded like a pretty good crop at the bottom of the bill, per Graham Reid's review). There were dozens of discarded Lime scooter around the gate.

We headed over to hear Skegss at the Dr Marten's stage. They seem like an okay sort of garage rock band and they drew a crowd. But then they played this one song and the kids in the crowd went nuts and sang all the words. It was 2017's 'I Got on My Skateboard' and it's the one, presumably, that cracked the Spotify algorithim and got on playlists. Well, I guess: I mused for the rest of the day that I don't really know how people 30-odd years younger than me discover and consume music.

From there, we went over to the first act I really wanted to see: Bene. She turned out to be something of a victim of her own success. Alfred Street, the narrow lane that is the site of the Thunderdome stage, was rammed nearly all the way up – which presumably had something to do with the diabolical sound. For most of her set the bass was a loud mess and her vocals flew away on the wind. At one point, her mic cut out completely. Many of the people packed in there seemed keener on talking than listening, which also didn't help.

But again, it was the hits. Things took off when she played her first single, 'Tough Guy', and when she did her current single, 'Soaked', it seemed like every girl in the crowd knew every word and sang along and it was brilliant. As evidenced by its current No.1 position in the NZ artists singles chart, that's clearly her Spotify hit.

We walked back over to the Dr Marten's stage for something completely different: The Dead C, this year's strange and solitary example of a heritage act. Let's face it, no one ever expected to see Florence and The Dead C on the same bill, until it happened. We waited in the shade of the tree by the stage until they started – and then just stayed there when they did. I found their squalling free noise not only enjoyable, but oddly relaxing. The Dead C, it turns out, are a great festival act. They even had a fancy video backdrop!

From there, we took in some of A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie over at the Rotunda stage, which was where the hip hop and soul acts were scheduled. It was bangin', felt like it had a bit of a sound system vibe and it was fun to be in a big crowd set on having it large. Possibly a little too large: about 20 minutes in, the packed crowd in front of the stage parted and a stream of wide-eyed, overheated kids gushed past us in pursuit of shade, water or whatever. Stay hydrated, young people. And wear a hat.

It was time for Parquet Courts back at the Dr Marten's stage and I enjoyed their ability to sound like a different band with every song. A little punk rock, a little psych, and in the case of their singalong Spotify playlist killer, 'Wide Awake', quite a lot disco. I'm very much in favour of rock bands playing those rhythms.

In the course of all that, I missed Lontalius, which I regret now, but I'd been put off by my Thunderdome experience a couple of hours before.

We tried a bit of Jorja Smith, but, frankly, none of us could get into it. It just seemed pretty ordinary. So we went and sat down under another tree and relaxed. And this is where I really disagree with Graham Reid, who wrote:

And what became increasingly clear as the day wore on and people peeled off for shade and rehydration-by-beer was that in fact the music – for many there – was incidental to the event itself ...

Music festivals may have always been less about the music than the chance to hang out with friends, but I don't think so.

Sitting right at the back of a Sweetwaters on a hill, halfway down in front of a Big Day Out mainstage or even at previous Laneway festivals, it always seemed to me that people were there for the whole set.

This time I did not get that impression.

Music has become much less important in the lives of young people – we know that – but it seemed to me that this very well organised Laneway was an expensive way to catch up with friends.

I actually felt that this was the Laneway that delivered on what promoter Mark Kneebone said about the Albert Park site when the festival first moved there three years ago. It was a site where people could comfortably spend hours and, if necessary, get away from the music for a bit. Lie down, eat some good food, have a yarn.

It's not actually compulsory to shuttle from one stage to another like maniacs – it's just that Mt Smart Stadium and Silo Park, where there was no real escape, made it seem that way. I'd long made a habit of wheedling my way into the VIP bar at urban festivals, just to have some respite. I don't bother any more at Laneway. It's better out in the park.

Then it was time for Courtney Barnett, the only act we watched at the big Princes Street stage. She was all class. You know what you're getting – she never loses touch with her Oz rock roots – but she's authentically great at it. My friend's daughter joined us and she and I sang along loudly to 'Depreston'. We were happy.

That's when I really took account of something I've seen others mention: there were a lot of women at Laneway this year, and presumably the headliners had something to do with that. And not just young women, but groups of mums whose once-a-year MDMA was clearly coming on, old-school lesbian couples, all sorts. I think it made for a better festival.

In the first year at Albert Park, 2017, I was struck by how wasted a lot of kids were early in the day, to the extent of being stretchered out at 2pm. My guess at the time was that it was a combination of alcohol bingeing and some shitty cathinones masquerading as MDMA. I didn't see that this year.

There was bedlam at certain times and places, as you'd expect – that's part of the fun and you shouldn't go to a music festival if you don't want to be in a lively crowd. And while I saw a couple of young guys lose the plot – including one at Bene who inexplicably decided he wanted to fight the man next to him, and even, tragically, spat at the man before being guided away by his mate – the male dickishness seemed to be dialled down.

My friend Jean, who was subjected to really nasty harassment at the last Silo Park Laneway – thought so too. This is worth talking about: Laneway's promoters took what happened to Jean and others in 2016 very seriously. They didn't want that bad year to happen again. So Jean's shitty experience was a factor in the introduction of a women's safe area (the best toilets, Jean says) and an 0800 onsite emergency line. The promoters also granted her five years' free entry to the festival. This year, she chirped to me, men danced with her in the crowd and that was a lot better than being harassed.

(She also got quite a few kids coming up to tell her how great it was that old people come to festivals. You get that. Charlotte Ryan got that.)

It's a rule of festival production that the first year on a new site is always the hardest: after that, you can work out what your problems are and refine what you're doing. Laneway is getting pretty refined. I never had to queue too long at the bar or for a toilet and the wine bar area – to whence we repaired after Courtney – was just very pleasant. It had bean bags! None of us had any interest in seeing Florence, so we relaxed again, with a couple of glasses of rosé.

The only thing I really wanted to see – indeed, the artist I wanted to see more than anything else on the bill – was Jon Hopkins, so while we waited for him to come on at 9.30pm, my buddy and I sampled Denzel Curry (which just sounded like yet more 808 hip hop that I'm not into) and then found ourselves back at the Thunderdome for DJDS, who performed amusing and occasionally risible EDM to a small, frantic crowd.

We walked back past the Princes Street stage, where Florence was howling and groaning to a huge crowd. I mean, I'm glad she makes people happy – even Simon Sweetman – but I just want no part of it.

After another rest at the wine bar, we went over for Jon Hopkins and he did not disappoint. I had the dance I'd been craving all day and while my body moved, my head was working through what he was doing with those tones and those rhythms. It was wonderful, as good as techno gets in this kind of setting. I was elated by it. Jonah Merchant got some video of the title track from Singularity:

Yeah, the lights were really that bright.

After that, we waited for my friend's daughter and her boyfriend to finish up with Florence and then walked down the hill, expecting to catch an Outer Link bus back to my place, as I'd done in previous years. No dice. First, the usual (and in past years) bus stop was closed, with not really enough signage saying so. Fortunately, I noticed and we decamped to the temporary stop on the other side of Queen Street. There were no buses. It felt like the day's big production fail was not at the festival, but at the damn bus stop. Auckland Transport, do better.


I've been to a couple of other festivals this summer. Wondergarden on New Year's Eve was the first. The promoters got caned last time over the crazy bar queues, but they fixed that this time – partly by adding another bar, but mostly, I suspect, by managing to get people to not all arrive at once at 9pm. The stretched-out day also earned them quite a few family groups, which was cool.

But I found myself internally shouting at people to put some damned muffs over their small children's ears. The stages got a significant production upgrade this year and it was loud. Too loud, perhaps, for the Silo Park site. There were a few older punters cowering down by the kids' playground at times.

The big innovation was the setting up of a nightclub in the silos. It was a brilliant idea not so brilliantly executed. Fiona and I went in and had a nice dance for a while in one of the outer spaces – they each had their own PA stack – but it was kind of unpleasant eventually. Getting the sound right in a series of round concrete spaces was always going to be a challenge, and so it proved.

But the big problem was that at the same time as the festival sorted its event production, something went badly wrong with the stage production. We caught Avantdale Bowling Club, who were brilliant in front of a smallish crowd, and showed another side of themselves in a festival setting.  ("It's kinda nice to be in Auckland on New Year's Eve," Tom Scott observed from the stage. "Usually at this time of year we're in some zombie campground.") 'Home', which they play live with the long rap performed entirely a capella, just gets better every time I hear it.

From there, it seemed a long wait for local Instagram-R&B star Matthew Young. Who was fucking dreadful. I get that he has an audience, but a festival stage is not the place for his music – not until he can do something that's not as dreary and formulaic as what he dished up. I understand why he was booked – compiling festival bills is a matter of reaching different ticket-buying audiences – but it sucked. And did I mention it was really loud?

Katchafire were up next, after what seemed like another longish wait. They were, well, Katchafire. And that's where things seemed to go off the rails. Fiona and found bean bags to sit on and waited for Cut Off Your Hands. Forty five minutes after their scheduled set time, they came on. They were pretty cool and had a new thing going on – I loved their version of 'Pull Up to the Bumper'. But because of the delay, their scheduled 50-minute set wasn't even 30 minutes long. Ladi6's set – again, 45 minutes late – was also great and similarly truncated.

By then, Fiona was exhausted and I had a party to DJ at, so we headed home, missing the internationals Dam Funk and Nightmares on Wax. We'd had an decent enough time, heard some good music, but I feel like Wondergarden still hasn't found its sweet spot.

The other day out was Fat Freddy's Drop's festival lineup at Western Springs outer field – on a scorching day with little in the way of shade. This was the kind of show where families bring their folding chairs and relax. At times, it even felt a little too relaxed. If Wondergarden was a little too loud for its site, the Freddies show was a little the opposite. It was certainly quite different to the last time I saw them – their thunderous, intense Bays album launch show at Auckland Town Hall.

But what it was, was a lovely day out with dancing. And, as my friend Madeleine pointed out, one apparently devoid of dudes being jerks. ("It's like they've put something in the water!" she marvelled.) The consensus of a subsequent Twitter discussion was that that's a Freddies thing. They foster niceness. Long may they do so.


Seeing as this is a music post and not just a festival post, allow me to recommend the most delicious new dub album I've heard in years. Last week, Christoph El' Truento, the adventurous Auckland producer and DJ, released Peace Maker Dub to mark his own 30th birthday. It's finely-tooled, warm and basically the musical equivalent of a welcoming hug from a friend . Get your name on it while there's still plenty of summer to come.

You might also want to get onto this free download of a previously-unreleased John Morales remix of Candi Staton's 'Victim', while it's there.

And, finally, Massive Attack playing 'Teardrop' in Glasgow a few days ago. Oh my goodness ...


Splore Listening Lounge 2019: Keeping it Freaky

As I've done for the past five years at the Splore festival, I've put together The Listening Lounge, a Saturday morning talk programme for conscious (in both senses of the word) Splorers.

Again this year, we'll be talking about drug policy. Feedback in past years has been that people particularly appreciate these discussions – because they generally don't get to hear them anywhere else. But Splore principals John Minty and Fred Kublikowski were also keen to reach into something that happens when Splorers get home from their weekend: we all think about how we can bring some of what's special about Splore back to where we live.

So, Saturday morning at the Living Lounge ...

10.30am FLASHBACK: The surprising promise of psychedelic therapy

This discussion has its roots in a feature story I wrote late last year for Canvas. It looked at the way that Michael Pollan's book How to Change Your Mind: The New Science of Psychedelics has vaulted years of serious research on the therapeutic potential of LSD, psilocybin and other drugs into the headlines. I'll be joined by two of the people I interviewed for the story, University of Otago medical anthropologist Geoff Noller and Amadeus, the founder of the Psychedelics New Zealand Facebook group, and ADHB registrar Will Evans, who has worked on studies with Dr Suresh Muthukumaraswamy of the Auckland School of Medicine and has a strong interest in this fascinating new therapeutic field.

If you want to know what's up with this stuff, this is where you'll find out. 

11.15am PLEASE DON'T F*CK THIS UP: The next two years' drug law reforms

New, health-oriented directions for police discretion, a new medicinal cannabis regime, the Minister of Police praising festival drug-checking, new budgets for treatment and, of course, the 2020 cannabis referendum. We're entering an unprecented couple of years for drug policy in New Zealand – can the government get this right? And what does "getting it right" look like?

I'll be delighted to welcome Chlöe Swarbrick MP, a backbencher who has become a key figure in the Parliamentary drug policy landscape. Wendy Allison of independent harm reduction champs Know Your Stuff joins us again and Geoff Noller (who is also a former boad member of Norml) stays on the stage. I'm particularly pleased to also have someone from the addiction treatment frontlines: David Hornblow, who works independently and with the Waiparera Trust.

12.05pm KEEP AUCKLAND WEIRD: Visions of urban placemaking

I'm stoked to welcome Juval Dieziger, co-founder and Chief Emotional Officer of Berlin's Holzmarkt, an urban development project designed to capture and not simply roll over the spirit of what went before it. Or, as this Guardian story puts it: "what if a city allowed a new quarter to be built not by the highest bidding property developers or the urban planners with the highest accolades, but the nightclub owners who put on the best parties in town?"

We'll be joined by Frith Walker, placemaking specialist at the Auckland Council CCO Panuku Development and Chlöe Swarbrick – who, before she was an MP was a mayoral candidate with some perceptive ideas about Auckland nightlife. Auckland is changing – can we guide some of that change so that it includes the diversity and strangeness that make urban life what it is. And if you think I'll be talking about Karangahape Road, damn right I will be.

It's a content-packed two and a half hours that will be all wrapped up by 1pm, at which point I personally will be vigorously shaking off my respnsibilities. I would also note that if you're onsite at Splore on Friday, do get along to to all-new DJ Stage, where Sandy Mill and I will be opening proceedings from noon til 2pm as Mum 'n' Dad Disco, delivering happy tunes for proper people. Bring the kids!

PS: Splore is sold out, soz.


Cannabis reform is a serious matter – so be serious about it

I've wondered here several times where an organised "no" campaign in next year's cannabis referendum might come from. Outside of Family First, it's still hard to tell where the opposition emerges. But I think what we are starting to hear is the sound of two hands wringing.

The Listener ushered in the new year with an editorial that seemed to lean heavily on Bob McCoskrie's talking points. What factual claims the editorial makes are both ominous and vague  and it appears that the author has not made any attempt to read source research. There is this passage, for instance:

Rates for use by all people aged 12 and over are nearly twice as high as in non-legal states. Underaged users – those 12 to 17 – are now nearly 50% more likely to have consumed cannabis in the previous month, according to the US Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

I had a look at the most recent SAMHSA report, from which I imagine this claim is taken. Yes, adolescent past-month use in legal-weed states is generally higher than those that have not legalised. But the highest rate – 10.75% – is in Vermont, where cannabis was not legal at the time the data were gathered (2016-2017). And the difference in every legal state was evident long before legalisation. In Colorado, for instance, past-month use among adolescents was higher in 2008-2009 than it was in 2017, three years after legalisation (data for all states here). Yup, teen cannabis use has dropped significantly in Colorado since legalisation. The SAMHSA survey also found that past-month youth use had reduced significantly year-on-year – from 11% to 9%.

The story is similar in all other legal states: youth use is either stable or declining since legalisation. It's worth noting that some of those states had forms of decriminalisation and/or loose medicinal laws before they legalised. That could suggest that fully legalising and regulating is more effective than any half-measure. That's actually the potential implication of another statistic highlighted in the editorial:

In Colorado, which legalised the drug, initially for medicinal use, in 2010, youth cannabis-related emergency hospital admissions quadrupled in the decade to 2015.

There is no doubt that cannabis-related emergency admissions have increased in both Colorado and Washington state since legalisation. But at the same time, in both states, admissions to drug treatment programmes and police arrests have declined. That might be about one-off incidents related to the states' initially way-too-strong retail edibles (which have since been reined in). Or it could be that people, and young people in particular, are now more willing to present themselves to ED when they've overdone it.

At any rate, more Americans are using cannabis – but the increase seems to be solely among adults. There are also more near-daily users – yet the number of Americans diagnosable with Cannabis Use Disorder is stable (pages 24-26 here).

Part of the problem is that there's so much epidemiological data that it's easy to cherry-pick in service of a belief. We're all guilty of motivated reasoning – and I don't exclude myself. But I think anyone writing a major editorial has a duty to do more than simply copy someone else's bullet points.

The next contribution doesn't have that problem – because it doesn't bother itself with facts at all. It's by Karl du Fresne on Stuff and it is absolutely fucking execrable. Du Fresne isn't really writing (let alone thinking) about cannabis reform so much as firing off another of his wearisome dispatches from the culture war.

He targets – to the point, I think, where an editor might have had a word – two people: former National Addiction Centre director Doug Sellman and New Zealand Drug Foundation executive director Ross Bell. Both of them believe legalisation and regulation are the best way of getting a handle on cannabis from a public health angle. But du Fresne has a conspiracy theory that says different:

I suspect Sellman and Bell are at least partly motivated by hostility toward capitalism. They certainly share a dislike of the capitalist liquor industry, which in Sellman's case could be described as a fixation.

Given that cannabis and alcohol are both potentially dangerous mind-altering drugs, why do both men display a more forgiving attitude to the former than to the latter? In my opinion the reason is at least partly ideological. It's the capitalist business model, as much as anything, that they object to.

Well, firstly, both Bell and Sellman want to regulate legal cannabis far more carefully than legal alcohol is currently regulated. How that amounts to a "more forgiving" attitude is a matter for du Fresne and whatever the hell's going on in his head.

He witters on, repeatedly confusing legalisation and decriminalisation and objecting to the recent medicinal cannabis bill which which "essentially legalises the use of cannabis by people with a terminal illness", something he says a few lines later can be  "justified on grounds of common sense or compassion". Then:

But there should be no doubt that what we're observing is decriminalisation by stealth, which was why the National Party withdrew its support for the medicinal cannabis bill.

It really isn't, and it makes no more sense for du Fresne to say so than it did when Simon Bridges said it. As framed, the law offers a statutory defence for people in palliative care who possess cannabis without a prescription, as a transitional measure until the new regulations that give the bill meaning are written over the next year. It doesn't protect anyone who sells the cannabis, or even acquires it for a dying relative. But it suits du Fresne's conspiratorial mindset to declare otherwise. If he'd complained the government bill is poorly-written, I'd agree – would a decent explanatory note at the top have been too hard? – but he hasn't. He's too busy rushing around challenging imaginary monsters to a fight.

His actual argument, to the extent that he has one beyond flinging poo at his ideological foes, is an odd one: that there may be risks to cannabis, so we should install a highly commercial sales model because capitalism is good and corporates would be safer than "a backyard dealer" or "a dreadlocked stoner in Golden Bay":

... if a safe, regulated cannabis market is the way to go, and corporates are best-placed to deliver that outcome, what's the objection? It can only be ideological.

There's actually a straightforward and well-founded argument against handing the market to big companies (and especially publicly-held companies, which du Fresne asserts would to the best job): in order to generate profitable growth, such companies need to do two things: recruit new users, and sell hard to problem users. That's what happens  in the liquor industry, where there's a classic 80/20 rule and most profit comes from dependent users. Perhaps we'd want to think twice before replicating that.

The Drug Foundation goes through this in the model drug policy it released last year, proposing regulation in favour of "small-scale community development" which would help "avoid developing a powerful industry lobby" that could influence future policy choices. I think the idea of having these enterprises distributed among, and bringing revenue into, local communities is worth looking at. It's also likely to be important to Māori.

It's also worth noting that the effect of not regulating on scale in the US has not been everyone making heaps of money. It's been a weed glut, where producers in Oregon and elsewhere are quietly supplying out-of-state criminal dealers just to keep going. It's kind of a mess, and something we'd want to avoid.

Although du Fresne declares himself quite unable to think of any alternative, there are other working models, the cannabis social clubs of Europe among them. I think production needs to be commercial – there are costs and regulatory burdens to be borne, capital investments to be made – but it's just stupid to bellow that anything short of weed supermarkets on the high street is creeping socialism.

There is, I should note, a final irony. Who has intoned most frequently and darkly about the threat of "Big Marijuana" in the past year? Is it trade union leaders, the woke of Twitter or the educated liberals who crave subversion from inside the system? No. It's that well-known crypto-Marxist Bob McCoskrie.

I did find one fan of du Fresne's column. Former Act MP Stephen Franks declared it "sensible" and insisted that the slew of errors in the column were mere "technical" points that a columnist could hardly be expected to recognise.

A couple of days later, Franks was was back recommending a New Yorker article in which, he declared, "Malcolm Gladwell deftly questions the woke consensus in fashionable support for cannabis legalisation". Why, one must ask, do these guys have to turn everything into the culture war?

The short New Yorker piece consisted of Gladwell looking at a new book by former New York Times reporter Alex Berenson, Tell Your Children: The Truth About Marijuana, Mental Illness, and Violence and saying "hey, maybe this guy's got a point." Similar promotional pieces have appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Mother Jones and elsewhere. A sensible person could certainly be forgiven for thinking that perhaps Berenson's dire warnings about cannabis should be taken seriously.

Unfortunately, as the headline over a frustrated piece on The Stranger put it, East Coast Media Is Grounded From Writing About Weed. The author, Lester Black, writes:

But almost as soon as journalists started jumping on Berenson’s bandwagon, the actual scientists behind the research Berenson cited distanced themselves from his book. Those scientists say he is distorting their research, mistaking correlation for causation, or he is just outright drawing incorrect conclusions.

To keep things simple, Black focuses only on the New York Times op-ed. He notes that after Berenson claimed that last year's comprehensive National Academies review of the evidence around the health effects of cannabis and cannabinoids found unequivocally that cannabis use causes schizophrenia, Ziva Cooper, a member of the panel that spent years working on the review came forward to say "we did NOT conclude that cannabis causes schizophrenia." Cooper further notes in a Twitter thread that:

we found 1) an association between cannabis use and schizophrenia and 2) an association between cannabis use and IMPROVED cognitive outcomes in individuals with psychotic disorders

She says that since the review was published it has been established that "genetic risk for schizophrenia predicts cannabis use, shedding some light on the potential direction of the association between cannabis use and schizophrenia" (in medical terms this is actually a really big deal) and that:

... under placebo-controlled conditions, #cannabidiol (#CBD) improves outcomes in patients with schizophrenia when given as an adjunct med, showing that cannabinoids (not necessarily cannabis) improve symptoms.

There's a really important point here. Over the last 25 years or so, illicit breeders have been selecting for higher THC levels in cannabis flower. But in doing so they seem to have been inadvertently also selecting for lower CBD levels. That's something that cannabis critics have almost universally missed, but it's significant: there is good evidence now that CBD, the other main cannabinoid in cannabis flower apart from THC, mitigates against psychiatric risk. It's something that Rose Renton talked about when I interviewed her in 2017 and she lamented the "rocket fuel" effect of the black-market weed her kids were offered. In a legal market, it's something that could actually be regulated.

Black also looks at the increase in homicide rates in Colorado and Washington State that Berenson repeatedly highlights. Here's the thing. Those rates are below what pre-legalisation trends in both states suggested. Can we say that legal weed reduced the murder rate? Hell no. It's way too complex an issue for that sort of claim. But we really can't say that cannabis increased the number of murders.

Black isn't the only one to take to the internet in frustration at the ready reception of Berenson's arguments. Jesse Singal in The Intelligencer noted that Berenson's claim that cannabis has led to higher murder rates in legal states is "a case study in how to misleadingly use statistics to make oversimplified arguments about human behavior and public policy."

He also quotes former Washington State pot tsar (and now director of the Crime and Justice Program at NYU) Mark Kleiman's observation that over the  pre-legalisation years since 1992, where we know US national cannabis consumption increased, the US homicide rate has halved.

The most detailed rebuttal I've seen comes from the excellent Maia Szalavitz. She cites a lot of data that don't support various claims by Berenson, from his embrace of the "gateway hypothesis" to assumptions about cananbis potency and international trends in cannabis use and mental illness.

And finally, on Vox, German Lopez concludes:

There are concerns about marijuana and how legalization is playing out. As the National Academies’ report makes clear, there is still a lot about cannabis that we just don’t know, including its harms and benefits. There is a risk to commercializing another product that’s addictive for some and may be harmful in other ways for others, and there may be better ways to legalize or regulate pot that minimize those risks than what we’re doing today.

But Berenson’s book, with its sensationalist claims and shoddy analysis of the evidence, doesn’t genuinely address those concerns. Tell Your Children claims to inform its readers of the “truth” about marijuana, but it instead repeatedly misleads them.

Amen. There are real things to focus and and talk about here. By its nature, legalisation is an experiment. But how many of the harms that can reasonably be attributed to cannabis are effectively addressed by criminalising people who use it? Is the world due a better, smarter form of legalisation than it currently has? I think we can do better. But we don't get there via idle editorialising, blowhard culture wars or misleading use of evidence. If you're going to declare cannabis reform a serious matter, then for god's sake be serious about it.


Music: Telling Stories

Amid the calm of the holidays, in the blessed present between the race to wrap up 2018 and the need to envision the year ahead, a series of stories have flipped me way back up the river, into my own memories.

First it was the news the Britain's HMV music store chain is going into administration for the second, and possibly final, time, putting more than 2000 jobs at risk. I love record shops, but I don't feel much about the looming demise of another of the mega chains. They were about a time between the arrival of the compact disc, which for years brought in the greatest, most effortless bounty the music business has ever seen, and the arrival of a fundamental change in the way ordinary people consume music.

I remember when their proposition –  stocking every record there was, or so it seemed – was an exciting one, when the big stores were a stop on the route of any tour for someone from New Zealand, where we didn't have them. Moreover, for a while I was behind the counter when people from other countries came in to fill their arms with treasure. Now, we have every record there ever was, or so it seems, on our phones. Music is everywhere and nowhere.

HMV Trocadero, on the edge of Piccadilly Circus (for a while there was a Tower Records on the other side of the circus) was the first record shop I worked in, and my first job in London, in 1986. I worked nights and we served a lot of tourists. There were good times (wangling my onto the counter where the shop stereo was and blasting out Public Enemy and Zodiac Mindwarp on Friday nights) and there were bad times (the two weeks when the Phantom of the Opera soundtrack came out and we were ordered to play the fucking thing over and over in some particular vision of Hell).

But the thing I enjoyed most was helping people from behind the Iron Curtain, who had somehow gained permission to temporarily visit the West, buy records for themselves or their relatives. I wasn't good at everything, but I was good at that.

Probaby my single greatest day at HMV wasn't behind the counter, but one day nearby on the street, when Duncan, the company van driver, pulled up and told us to get in. The van was loaded with thousands of unsold reords, which the London managers had ordered pulled off the shelves so they didn't attract the attention of the regional managers. (HMV was like that, very managerial. Virgin, where I worked later, still gave you the occasional whiff of a slightly more glamorous hippie capitalism.)

Duncan had been ordered to take all these records to the incinerator to spare management's blushes. Well, fuck that. He drove me and two workmates to the flat we shared in New Cross and we had an exhilirating few hours making piles of stuff to keep.

Years later, back in New Zealand, the fruits of those few hours helped us buy the house we live in now. We'd used up all our money scraping together a deposit, and I sold records to feed us for a week or two. I could never have guessed that keeping six copies of that Cramps picture disc would turn out to be such a good idea.

If the HMV story didn't really make me sad, the news a couple of days later did. The great music writer David Cavanagh had died. I've only thought about David occasionally in the decades since, but he was a mate when I worked in the British music press in the late 80s, and I followed him from Sounds to the new glossy Select in 1990.

That personal move mirrored the wider shift in the music press from the trinity of inkies of which Sounds was part, to the era of Q and Mojo. A lanky, friendly chap called Graham Linehan also wrote for Select at the time and so, apparently, did Caitlin Moran, although I can't remember her. Sounds folded in 1991, not long after I'd returned to New Zealand, and Select died in 2000, having given the world the term "Britpop". As much as the HMV and Tower Records, the music press became stranded out of its time and perished.

I'd decided by then anyway that music journalism was no job for a grown man with family responsibilities. But David hadn't. I don't think I've ever met anyone so utterly fit to write about music. He was friendly, sharp-minded (it was a rare pub trivia machine that could defeat him), often the dominant figure in a conversational group – and completely focused on music. It was what he did, and would continue to do – to some extent as media revolutions passed him by. As this excellent obit by John Harris notes, he was never on Facebook and only briefly on Twitter and no one ever thought to make a Wikipedia page about him (startlingly, the Wiki entry for Select doesn't even mention him).

It left everyone a bit unprepared when he suddenly wasn't around. All there was was all that he had written. And perhaps that was the best record of all of who David Cavanagh was.

The third element is a prodigious one. Terence Hogan has written his version of the Toy Love story. It's long: just shy of 30,000 words, and far longer than you might think the not much more than 18 months of Toy Love's admittedly busy existence could sustain. But what he has crafted is a personal story (his own path, as the WEA graphics guy who took the demos to Tim Murdoch and became the band's record company minder, was entwined with that of Toy Love), the story of the band itself and a wonderful account of Auckland's post-punk milieu. Not just in music, but in publishing (he was a founding hand in the seminal comics zine Strips), fashion, business, photography and art.

Terence's name might not ring a bell for you, but if you're interested in New Zealand music you probably know his work. In the course of the story, he talks about how he created these two iconic record sleeves.

I don't really know Terence. I met him when I worked at Rip It Up and he came back from Australia for a while to work on Ngila Dickson's pivotal fashion mag ChaCha (his chronology is a little screwy there – ChaCha came about some time after Murray Cammick's experiment with Rip It Up Extra) and I think once since. I do remember how excited everyone was that Terence was coming back for a while.

But I did come to know, and in many cases developed enduring friendships with, about two thirds of the people in his story. I toiled in Rip It Up's loft, I wrote for ChaCha (as man-about-town Wayne Washington) and I was inducted by the Snake T-Shirts crew into the Monday Night Problem Drinkers' Club at the Queen's Ferry. I was young and fresh and people were kind to me (Ngila called me "Rascal", which I rather liked) and I've always tried to bear that experience of kindness in mind.

I also connected with Terence's story at the top. He was moved to write it down when a couple of years ago he met a woman called Christine at a barbecue. She told him how she and her friends were obsessed with Toy Love as kids in Christchurch and saw them every time they played. I didn't manage every gig – I was a bit young for that – but my mates and I saw every one we could. Four in total, I think. Toy Love played more than 350 shows in total.

Thanks largely – but far from entirely – to Audioculture, this is a time when musical histories, cultural histories, are being captured. Memoirs like Terence's, stories by people who were there, add to that wave. And when they're as well and fondly written as Terence's, when they light up not only a personal narrative but the nature of the times, they're really valuable.

So all I can say is that if you were there too, or if you simply have a place in your heart for this music, for that era in publishing, or simply for Auckland's creative narrative, fetch yourself a refreshing beverage, put aside a couple of hours and enjoy what Terence has to tell you.


What with all this reminiscing, perhaps it's good to end with the (more or less) new. Simon Grigg – who, ironically, features in multiple music histories, including Terence's – posted on Facebook a list of his favourite 2018 releases. Simon being Simon, he acquired and obtained them all on vinyl, but my summer break has been greatly enhanced by going through and locating on the digital a few of the albums I hadn't heard during the year.

I can heartily re-recommend the Tony Allen/Jeff Mills, the Mr Fingers, the Kamaal Williams and the Against All Logic (which is Nicolas Jaar in uncharacteristically but most enjoyably messy mode). Basically, do what Simon says and you won't go wrong:

Avantdale Bowling Club - Years Gone By
Tony Allen, Jeff Mills - Tomorrow Comes The Harvest
Kamaal Williams - The Return
Hieroglyphic Being - The Red Notes
Julien Dyne - Teal
Marlon Williams - Make Way For Love
Elvis Costello & The Imposters - Look Now
DJ Koze - Knock Knock
EABS Featuring Tenderlonious - Kraksa / Svantetic
The Beths - Future Me Hates Me
Tenderlonious Featuring The 22archestra - The Shakedown
Moses Boyd Exodus - Displaced Diaspora
Mr Fingers - Cerebral Hemispheres
Binker And Moses - Alive In The East?
Against All Logic - 2012–2017
Jamie Isaac - (4:30) Idler
Kamasi Washington - Heaven And Earth