Hard News by Russell Brown

21

Drugs and why Dunne did it

There should not really have been such surprise at news reports about associate Health minister Peter Dunne last week proposing the legal, regulated sale of cannabis and the Portugal-style decriminalisation of other drugs. He has been advancing essentially the same ideas for a couple of years. He announced those ideas as United Future policy the week before and at the beginning of this month he expanded on them in a speech to a police strategy conference.

But his timing in making these relatively explicit proposals is notable. Dunne knows better than anyone that it is likely that the Misuse of Drugs Act 1975 will get a comprehensive rewrite in the next Parliamentary term. He's putting a stake in the ground.

His proposals warrant some debate. His policy when the Misuse of Drugs Act is rewritten, would be to "transfer the current Schedule of Class C Drugs from that Act to the Psychoactive Substances Act." This doesn't quite work, as phrased. Raw cannabis is a Class C drug in the MoDA schedules – but any cannabis preparation is scheduled in Class B, alongside amphetamine and morphine. And yet cannabis preparations are more likely to be approved as medicines and even to meet the "low risk of harm" standard in the Psychoactive Substances.

It may be safe to assume that the minister knows this and is simply choosing to say "Class C" because it's a clearer proposition for a press release. But it does shed useful light on the unholy mess that is the MoDA schedules. Because you might be surprised to know what is actually in Class C. You'll find codeine in its various forms, barbiturates – and also oxycodone (aka "hillybilly heroin") and fentanyl, which has been associated with a wave of overdose deaths in the US. Clearly, we're not going to be seeing those for sale in corner shops.

There is strangeness further up the schedules too. Relatively less harmful drugs such as LSD and magic mushrooms are Class A drugs alongside heroin. It's reasonable to wonder what the schedules actually signify, if not potential for harm. The answer, to some extent, is that they signify whatever panic was abroad at the time.

For Dunne, the regulated supply of cannabis should follow an overall shift to Portugal-style decriminalisation of all drug use and possession:

First, we should move to an overall approach similar to the full Portuguese model, where the cultivation and possession of all drugs remains illegal, and all drug users are referred for assessment and treatment, but where there is a tolerance exercised for the possession of what are essentially Class C drugs under the current Misuse of Drugs Act. In that event, persons caught with – say – no more than the equivalent of one week’s personal supply would be referred directly to treatment rather the Courts, in an extension of our current diversion scheme. This would require significant additional investment in the provision of assessment and treatment services, but that makes far more sense than investing similar amounts more in the Courts and prison services for the same purpose. At the same time, it would free up more Police resources to concentrate on catching the criminals behind the New Zealand drugs scene.

Let's be quite clear here. Portugal's reforms were an attempt to curb alarming rates of harm from IV drug use in particular. They have been an unqualified success by that measure. Between 2001, when the reforms took effect, and 2012, annual new HIV infections plummeted from 1,016 to only 56. Overdose deaths fell from 80 to 16. The number of heroin users has halved. Lifetime prevalance rates suggest that drug use overall is on a long-term decline.

Portugal's system is not the libertarian paradise it's sometimes characterised as. In fact, it's quite nanny-state: the system can, and does, limit the freedom of people it decides are a danger to themselves.

But people picked up with personal quantities of drugs are not all "referred directly to treatment" as the minister suggests. They must appear before a panel ordained as part of the Commissions for the Dissuasion of Drug Addiction, which typically includes a psychologist, a social worker and a legal advisor. The panel may direct a user to treatment: but in as many as 85% of cases, it doesn't. The user's name is simply kept on file and action is suspended for six months. Coming before the panel again within that six months may be seen as evidence of a more serious problem.

This is actually a good thing. Forcing treatment on people who don't need treatment isn't a good use of resources.

New Zealand's most significant source of illicit drug harm is not opioids, but methamphetamine. The harms are different: less likely to involve blood-borne disease and fatal overdose, more likely to encompass mental illness, socal dysfunction and violence. A New Zealand solution thus may not look exactly like a Portugal solution. But Dunne is absolutely right to believe that directing resources from policing and prosecution of individual users to treatment and assessment is the right thing to do.

Portugal's system, however, entrenches another set of problems: those entailed by illicit drug production and supply. It still offers organised crime a monopoly in those areas. More radical solutions would extend regulated supply beyond just the cannabis market. But those solutions can't presently be observed in action anywhere and perhaps it's unrealistic to expect a Parliament to embark on that adventure just now.

What this all adds up to, however, is that drug law reform is absolutely an issue in this election year. The next Parliamentary term represents a once-in-a-generation chance to rewrite a 42 year-old law groaning with anomalies and contradictions – and to bring that law into line with our quite enightened National Drug Policy. We haven't done that well at all so far: the government's dismissal of the Law Commission's thoughtful, cautious review of the Act in 2010 was a disgrace.

It's also perhaps a more fruitful question to ask of those seeking election for the next term. Even the Greens have had qualms about going into an election with a law reform policy and Labour continues to bleat about it "not being a priority". It's not going to be in most manifestos. But asking for a commitment of good faith for when the law must be overhauled seems entirely reasonable.

44

Budget 2017: How do we get out of here?

I was otherwise occupied on Budget day and thus missed most of the scoring and shouting of odds. But I did catch Checkpoint opening its coverage with a look at Budget's 2017's headline story: the combination of tax threshold adjustments, increases in the scope and size of the accommodation supplement and a boost in Working for Families tax credits that is widely reckoned to have benefited lower-income families.

The report noted Finance minister Steven Joyce's expressed desire to "give middle-income families a hand" and quoted a mother of two school-aged children, who agreed that the extra $25-30 a week it meant to her family – described as being "at the upper end of the middle income bracket" – would make a difference.

"Some weeks we struggle to buy petrol, or we struggle to buy fruit or even a loaf of bread. So that would at least give us a chance to either get to work or  to feed the kids for lunches."

She said her family and many of her friends' families still relied on their parents when things like car repair bills came in.

"It's very hard to be able to sort of run a family easily without any added help from our parents."

I sat there listening in the car and thought: in what sort of high-performing economy are upper-middle-income families relying on benefits and help from their parents just to get by? How did we get here?

It seems that an economy whose claim to fame has been getting rid of subsidies is now more reliant than ever on a subsidy to landlords which became the centrepiece of National's housing reforms of the 1990s (and was embraced again when the party regained office) and a subsidy to employers that was a flagship policy of the Clark Labour governments (I'm told it was politically verboten in Treasury at the time to characterise WFF as a benefit, which it really is).

Both of these subsidies are expensive. Last Thursday's announcements run to an additional $2 billion a year. That's a hell of a lot of money not going to more conventional goverment spending on services.

It clearly isn't just me thinking these things. David Slack, who is on quite roll in his Sunday Star Times column lately, contemplated the nation and wished for "a Budget that goes further than simply patching things". And Fran O'Sullivan also delivered a sceptical review of the Joyce's first Budget:

The lack of substantial growth in real wage rates is another failure. It is really quite disturbing that the Government is having to fund a massive increase in Working for Families tax credits and the level of the accommodation supplement simply because for many families their take-home pay packets are not sufficient to live on.

Andrew Dickens, a more capable prose writer than most of his radio colleagues and a centrist at heart, chimed in on a similar note, asking whether the ballyhooed boost for families was a sign of success or failure.

Analyses from all points of the compass, it seems, arrive at the same, uncomfortable conclusion. We can bask all we like in our pretty-good-in-global-terms recent economic growth, but we have made a country many of us can't actually afford to live in; one in which it is also proving difficult to maintain the services expected of a modern social democracy. Were it not for the stimulus of a high net migration rate, the numbers would look worse.

There's a conversation I've been having in the past few years, which is, essentially, with all this good economic news, exactly who is doing well? The answer, in general terms, is people who don't rely on wages. Labour as a share of income in the economy has fallen in the long term, but it did recover between 2002 and 2008. Since then, well, there's a reason people might feel that another $25 a week – be it a tax cut or one of those subsidies – would help them manage. And that feeling in turn guides an affinity for economic policies that might not be to the eventual good of the majority of wage earners.

In a 2015 paper noting these trends, the Productivity Commission asked:

... would New Zealanders prefer to participate in an economy where real wages are increasing strongly but the LIS [labour income share] is falling because productivity growth is even faster, or an economy with weak growth in real wages and productivity so that the LIS is more constant?

The paper's authors merrily kick for touch on which would be preferable, but it's really quite a silly question. I'm sure the large majority of New Zealanders would opt for the former – but how do we achieve that productivity growth in a way where we enjoy its rewards? It's the question we've been asking ourselves for a long time in New Zealand.

So perhaps the question isn't how did we get here? but how do we get out of here? Whatever the anwer is, I suspect it won't flatter any one particular ideology. And I know it didn't come in this Budget.

4

How disabled people are excluded from public leadership

by Robyn Hunt

Nearly thirty years after the introduction of Equal Employment Opportunity, (EEO) into the New Zealand public service there is still an impenetrable glass ceiling for Deaf and disabled people. While government continues to “promote” employment for disabled people, career paths and advancement in the public service for people who identify as Deaf or disabled are problematic.

EEO has been relatively successful for women, who have reached a critical mass, but a timid and conservative bureaucracy seems reluctant to harness the skills and talents of nearly a quarter of the population, including disabled and Deaf women.

The Office for Disability Issues was set up in 2002 to implement the first Disability Strategy and as a disability contact point for all of government. Later it became responsible for oversight of the implementation of the Disability Rights Convention, (CRPD.)

At the time of establishment this structure within the MSD was not ideal for many in the Deaf and disabled community. There was wide discussion then about the importance of having a (qualified) director who identified as disabled or Deaf. Disabled people applied but the first director was non-disabled, as was the second. At the time of establishment a governance council was suggested, but an advisory group of Deaf and disabled people was what we got. That was not successful for a variety of reasons and was abolished.

Fifteen years later we seem to have made no progress at all. Numbers of disabled people in the public service have not been collected for many years, although they were collected in the early days of EEO, and were woefully low compared to the proportion of Deaf and disabled people in the overall population. The situation may not have changed.

More Deaf and disabled people are graduating from university. A record number of 103 Victoria University graduands had disabilities in the May 2017 graduation, the highest number for any of Victoria’s graduation periods, I frequently meet lively, smart, ambitious and talented young Deaf and disabled people, but I don’t get a sense that the public sector is keen to snap up their services. Some have joined the public service and have struggled or left. A few remain.    

Now the third director of the Office for Disability Issues has been appointed. This is not a personal criticism or attack on him. Brian Coffey is an experienced public servant with a special education background. But where is the disabled or Deaf leader who should be in the role? Where is the Deaf or disabled person who was being encouraged and career-developed for the role, an ideal opportunity?

I don’t know who applied, or what the process was. I’ve been approached in the past by recruiters for a disability NGO. When I indicated I wasn’t available to apply I was encouraged to provide other names, which I did. The role was also advertised in the usual way. A disabled person was eventually appointed on merit. That seems to be a sensible way to proceed for a role so important to the disability community.

Many years ago I wrote a paper for a Department of Labour seminar on employment. My subject was defining merit. In the paper I explored the possibilities of redefining merit to include the Deaf and disability experience as positive. But I fear that considering a broader range of life experience, skills and attributes as well as the necessary academic qualifications is a bridge too far in today’s risk-averse public service.

There’ll be no change if we always do what we always did. We’ll continue to get the same old policies and outcomes we always have, and these don’t bode well for the advancement of the rights of Deaf and disabled people, or indeed the New Zealand Public Service.

Robyn Hunt is a communications consultant via her company AccEase, a long time disability advocate and commentator and a former Human Rights Commissioner

4

Friday Music: A melodic thread

Jed Town has been through a few musical guises: Beatlesque punk rocker with The Features, and then everything from confronting experimentalist to electronic raver as Fetus Productions. But through it all there's been a continuous thread of melody.

And that thread has never been as evident as it is in his current band, Ghost Town. This video for 'Make it', from the album Sky Is Falling – shot on Super 8 film! – provides a moody, grainy accompaniment to what is a remarkably sweet song.

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Now that I have my tickets (after paying a wtf $10.78 in booking fees) I guess I can safely tell you about Nadia Reid's show at the Hollywood Cinema on June 16. The evening will also feature songs from Anthonie Tonnon, poetry by Courtney Sina Meredith drinks by Garage Project and food by Lord of the Fries and trailers and curiosities on 35mm film by John Lily.

It's Nadia's last show before she heads off to Europe for a while. Her second album, Preservation, continues to reveal more of itself the more I listen to it and I'm really looking forward to hearing the songs played live. Here's the most recent video from the album, 'Richard'.

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The 19 year-old South London rapper Dave didn't choose his name for easy googling, but I saw him perform this song, 'PictureMe', on a recent Later With Jools Holland and was quite struck by it. It's a dense, flowing meditation on life choices, beautifully captured here here as a video by Lx. He has a new album out soon.

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If you live in Wellington and go out a bit, you probably know about DJ Bill E's Atomic and 24 Hour Party people nights at the San Francisco Bath House. He has a special one coming up next Saturday the 27th:

And guess what? I have three double passes to give away to Public Address readers (it's only $10 on the door anyway, but that's like a whole extra drink at the bar, right?). Just click the email link at the bottom of this post and mail me with "See me Go" in the subject line.

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Followers of the way and the truth in rock 'n' roll may care to know that a documentary about Australia's legendary Radio Birdman is nearing completion – details here from a newspaper in Birdman's spiritual home, Detroit. There's even a  trailer:

 Meanwhile, just because it's awesome, this guy cut together a video Birdman's immortal 'Aloha Steve and Danno' from actual episodes of Hawaii  Five-O.

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 Tunes!

 The 95bFM Top 10 is pretty fly right now. Number one this week is 'My Smile Is Extinct' by Kane Strang. It's from the forthcoming album Two Hearts and No Brain. Kane's currently touring Europe.

Number two is '030' by Suren Unka on the Japanese label dos . ing. He's been playing there this month. Note that this is a free download:

And number three is Dirty Pixels' 'Spacesuit', the first song from a forthcoming EP. They're the band of Ethan Moore, the son of Phil Moore of Goblin Mix fame. And I think you can tell he was raised on the right records ...

And finally, I've long loved Daughter's 'Youth', more so in the remix. This popped up in my Apple Music yesterday – a cover by Haux, about whom I know nothing. But I like this ...

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The Friday Music Post is sponsored by:

Songbroker

Representing New Zealand music

23

The Oncoming Day

On Saturday night at the Kings's Arms, in the course of a triumphant two-encore show, The Chills' frontman Martin Phillipps made an announcement from the stage. He had recently received his test results back after antiviral treatment – and they indicated that he was clear of the Hepatitis C virus for the first time in 20 years.

"So you'll be hearing from me for a few years yet."

He looked and sounded like a man who had had a great weight lifted from him. I recognised that unburdening from people I'd spoken to for this story about Hep C in 2015.

Martin had earlier, during another break between songs, alluded to his newfound sprightliness, noting that he hadn't had an alcoholic drink for six months.

"I"m going to be one of those annoying alcoholics who gives you updates," he quipped.

Martin's heavy drinking had exacerbated the symptoms of his disease and contributed to irreversible scarring of his liver. Why would someone do something so self-destructive? Hopelessness, basically. Martin had been told he would die soon and said so freely in interviews, even as the band re-emerged into its most fertile time in a quarter of a century. He'd undergone the brutal interferon cure and it hadn't worked. By the time he stopped drinking, "soon" meant months to a year. I've seen that kind of fatalism before in people I know – it's what living under the virus is like.

So the Sunday Star Times headline the following morning, The Chills' dying frontman Martin Phillipps is given miracle reprieve from Hepatitis C, was not an exaggeration. The drug Martin took for 12 weeks, Harvoni, is, (like the other DAAs on the market or in trials) functionally a miracle cure.

But there are a few things in the story that need addressing. It doesn't make it clear that as of last year, a little more than half of the 50,000 New Zealanders infected with Hep C do have access to Pharmac-funded treatment. That's those with genotypes 1 and 1a of the virus. They can walk into their GP's surgery today and begin the process of being treated with another new antiviral, Viekira Pak The others, such as Martin, face a much, much sterner test. Funded Harvoni is available only to people who are on the verge of a liver transplant, or death.

This isn't Pharmac's fault. I explained why it's the case in this Matters of Substance story.

And still, as I understand it, Martin could have been treated sooner and be living now with less permanent liver damage. If only he had not been living within the region of the Southern District Health Board, which has not only refused to prescribe an imported generic Harvoni (cost to the patient, about $1800 versus $87,000 for locally-sourced Harvoni), but to even tell patients they have that option.

The Star Times story mentions generics, but leaves out the most important information. Which is that, as far as I know, there is only one truly trusted source of generics: the Fix Hep C Buyers Club. Fix Hep C is strongly endorsed by the country's leading liver specialist, Ed Gane, and the Hepatitis Foundation. Other sources might provide good drugs, but they also might not, and the results of taking inadequate medication are problematic.

So if you or someone you know are moved to act by Martin's story, the first step is to go to your GP and get tested. If you're unwilling to go to your GP (who might be Dr Judgey), there are other options, including the Auckland Neede Exchange. Read my story for more information on that.

But one more thing. The comments under that Stuff story. I gather some of the worst ones have actually been removed, but even some of those remaining display a staggering lack of humanity. Yes, people make mistakes, they do dumb things when they're young. That doesn't mean they deserve to die.

And as my new friend Tim from Seattle observed of a different little online flurry of Martin-bitching as we left the King's Arms on Saturday night:

"Perhaps you could tell us about the equivalent to 'Pink Frost' that you wrote, so we can have a balanced discussion about your contribution too."

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Anyway, here's the video I got on Saturday night of 'Lost in Space', a very old Chills song written in 1981 and later used as the theme for the "rock opera" The Chills in Space, which was performed at the Windsor Castle in 1985. Until recently, when it appeared as the B-side of the 'Rocket Science' single, it never been properly recorded (it does appear on a live album). It was great to hear it again.