Hard News by Russell Brown


Synthetic cannabinoids: a primer

What is synthetic cannabis? Why is it even called that? Where does it come from? What's the extent of the problem in New Zealand? And why have we seen a spate of deaths linked to these products in Auckland?

The New Zealand Drug Foundation asked me to write a backgrounder addressing these and other questions, which is now available on its website.

I learned a bit researching it and was even surprised by some of what I learned. Notably, the extent to which the recent spate of acute presentations is an Auckland, not a national problem.

I can say with some confidence that it's not about fly spray or weed killer or  any other impurity in the street products – it's more likely about dose.

Anyway, have a read and if you have any further questions I can try and answer those too.


Friday Music: Down the Hall on a Friday Night

It was only because I happened to see a tweet that I clicked through last Friday to the first live stream of Neil Finn and and friends as they record his forthcoming album, Out of Silence, at Roundhead Studios – and it was quite an experience

I happened to drop in right at the beginning of the final, conclusive take of the new song 'More Than One of You', an epic, Beatleseque number featuring a choir of stars: Sandy Mill, Hollie Fullbrook, Lawrence Arabia, Samuel Flynn Scott, Victoria Kelly and more. And it was beautiful.

It features in this short clip of highlights from the evening:

To see the whole song, you can jump to that point in the original video here.

And thanks to Finn fan blackandwhiteboy for logging shortcuts to other highlights of the two-hour stream:

01:12 -Pablo Vasquez & Elroy Finn

09:55 Gentle Hum

15:33 Faster Than Light

28:00 Widows Peak

31:48 Better Be Home Soon

39:32 As Sure As I Am

47:17 Independence Day(?)

54:06 Ging Gang Gooly

1:08:49 More Than One Of You

1:44:51 Love is Emotional

1:51:05 Second Nature

1:56:48 -Pablo Vasquez & Elroy Finn

Note that 'As Sure As I Am' features Nick Seymour on bass – and Nick's in Ireland. The pair of them work to play a beat apart to allow for the Skype delay, and almost get there.

It's not all action – quite a lot of recording albums involves muddling around setting up to do a thing, and Neil is quite enthused with taking Skype calls from fans around the world – but with a glass of wine in hand, it's an unusual and lovely way to spend a Friday evening.

Tonight's stream – featuring a guest appearance from Tim Finn – starts at 7pm and you can watch it here at Neil's YouTube page or here on his Facebook page. If you can, the YouTube is a better bet – it's in stereo, while the Facebook stream is mono.

The stream is directed by the amazing Hugh Sundae, who will also be doing  the job at Orcon IRL at the Golden Dawn on Sunday.


My friends at Southbound Record Shop currently have a big range of releases from the remarkable ambient-chamber music label Erased Tapes in stock – and a nice little treat for anyone who can make it in to the store and knows to ask.

There's a free CD sampler in store, featuring Penguin Cafe, Rival Consoles and others from the label. Nice.


Moving to Nelson, DJ-journalist Grant Smithies has opened a record shop in a beer garden. Because of course he has.


I really enjoyed Bill Direen and the Builders' show at Golden Dawn last Friday night – this time, there were lots of odds and ends early on (including a version of W.H. Auden's 'Death of  a Fascist') and then, with a band, a set that included a funky swag of songs from CONCH3.

This weekend, it's Wellington's turn. Bill plays the Pyramid Club on Sunday and there are screenings of Simon Ogston's Bill Direen: A Memory of Others on Saturday and Sunday.

See also: Graeme Hill and that Smithies guy sfting through Bill's back catalogue on Radio Live and Campbell Walker's deep, thoughtful examination of the film and the artist for The Pantograph Punch.


Blair Parkes has made a video for my favourite song from his recent album, the krautpop romp 'Run Electro':


Something remarkable arrived at The Internet Archive this week: a huge trove of professionally digitised 78rpm records. The sound files are freely downloadable in a range of formats – as is the label art:


A different kind of musical history: the first LP I ever owned for myself wasn't what I thought it was. I thought I'd bought an album with songs by The Sweet on one side and their glam buddies Slade on the other. But what I hadn't understood was that it wasn't the original artists, but one of the Sounds Like series of cover albums record by top Dutch session musicians. I still played it heaps.

Cover albums were a surprisingly big thing in the early 70s, but I can't find mention of the Sounds Like series released in New Zealand. I'm not even sure I have the name of the series right. Can anybody help?

Anyway, some madman has put together an hour-long mix of soundalike cover versions for FACT mag. And the result is very strange ...



I don't know how I missed this at the time, but about a month ago, Auckland  kiwiana disco kings DICE posted this remix of Chris Knox's 'Not Given Lightly'. It's totally mad, but it works. (Free download.)

The same crew have also pitched in on the Redbull remix competition for Ladi6's 'Royal Blue'. Nice.

FACT highlighted this lovely bit of Afro-synth goodness by Esa, an artist I know nothing about but will be investigating.

And new from Aucklanders-in-London Chaos in the CBD:



A thundering clash of perspectives

It was a deep irony that the final push for the decision of Metiria Turei to end her Parliamentary career appears to have come from Checkpoint, a programme whose people have so often weighed in behind the vulnerable New Zealanders she cares for.

The programme had been contacted by a member of her extended family upset by her account of struggling as a solo mother in the 1990s, to the point where she had had no choice but to misrepresent her living circumstances to Work and Income. Its editors could simply have ignored the family member, pretended it never happened – but they wouldn't have been doing their jobs. At any rate, at least one other news organisation was working on the same story. It was coming.

There's a thundering clash of perspectives here. The people grieving Metiria's harsh exit see journalists as pursuing the poor, brown solo mum she was 20-odd years ago. Journalists are obliged to see her as the Member of Parliament she's been for the past 15 years, as a would-be member of the country's governing executive.

Metiria's AGM speech prompted me to do something I hadn't done before: to say, yeah, me too. Twenty five years ago, I felt it necessary to misrepresent my own family's circumstances to get by, because the system worked so badly. That system still works badly. And the evidence is that the most vulnerable people in it are doing worse than ever. You see those people now on the streets of Auckland.

It seems to have been Metiria's decision to identify her predicament with those people that prompted the family member to contact the press. Perhaps she didn't adequately consider the impact on those who were around her two decades ago of what she said last month.

But I think many people who haven't been there genuinely don't understand how hard it can be to get by on a benefit in New Zealand – still less what people do to get by. People do do cashies where they can, they might cut corners where they have to. Some are so powerless, sick or bereft of whanau support that the best they can do is sit miserably and beg outside the supermarket. They don't count up the coins and report them to Winz.

They were the people Metiria sought to represent. But, as she herself acknowledged on Monday, it might have been better had she settled her own account with the state before doing so. She has earned an MP's salary for 15 years, and that of a commercial lawyer for three years before that. It will probably end up being a matter of around $7000 owed. She could have paid that, closed the matter and cut off any avenue for the Taxpayers' Union to make up a number and multiply it by 10. (At which point, ironically, it looked more like the sum claimed by Bill English for living where he didn't actually live.)

And she'd still have been there fighting.

It is possible for good people to take a different view of the same set of circumstances. Metiria's colleagues and fellow candidates have been overwhelmingly behind her. Yet Dave Clendon, the colleague who resigned in protest at her apparent lack of remorse, actually has more in common with her than many of them. He, too, identifies as Māori. He grew up in a working-class family in Otara.

Meanwhile, I'm aware of both Green Party members enraged by her treatment and who resigned last week because they couldn't support her actions. There are also some Green Party staff furious at how this has gone down. How, they ask, was this not thought through? How could this not have been signed off by the whole Green caucus? They feel let down.

Apart from the usual suspects, I don't think there's a lot of genuine ill-will towards Metiria personally. Her own commitment to her ideals isn't in doubt. Even the scalp-claiming by a couple of journalists last night was half-hearted. (Patrick Gower actually apologised to James Shaw this morning for claiming yesterday's Newshub-Reid poll had preciptated his co-leader's resignation, and I can't recall that ever happening before.) Unlike Todd Barclay, Metiria Turei never treated those around her badly. Unlike Barclay, she didn't brazenly lie to journalists. Indeed, she got caught telling the truth, if not in all its untidy detail.

But before all this, she had also privately expressed doubts about a long political career. To be a Cabinet minister? Or to go back and be an anarchist? It sometimes frustrated people around her. And now the decision has been made in a way no one would have wished. We haven't heard the last of Metiria Turei. I think she'll make an awesome anarchist.


Metiria has, wholly understandably, taken this coming weekend off politics. But I'm extremely grateful to her for – before I even asked – arranging for James Shaw to take her place in the lineup up at Sunday's Orcon IRL. Free RSVPs are close to filling up, so if you'd like to come along, get in today.


The new establishment

Jacinda Ardern opened her transport policy speech yesterday, as she should, with a mihi to the tangata whenua. And then she did something interesting: a specific shout-out to three Auckland transport advocacy groups – Greater Auckland, Generation Zero and Bike Auckland.

Well, actually, she called Bike Auckland by its old name, Cycle Action, so the hell-yeahs from their people were a little hesitant while they processed the error. But that didn't really detract from what seemed a very conscious embrace of the city's most prominent transport advocates. Later, she explicitly linked her party's proposals to the Congestion Free Network plan championed by Greater Auckland and Generation Zero. (The Greens did this back in 2014.) This is this morning's Greater Auckland home page:

Andrew Little wouldn't have done that – or if he had, it would have sounded like something someone told him to say. And the government certainly would not have. Although Transport minister Simon Bridges has a good relationship with the advocates, Steven Joyce is more often to be found bickering with them on Twitter – and elements of the nimby-dominated, intellectually arid Auckland centre right regard Generation Zero as something akin to youth terrorists.

Indeed, when Bridges comes to town he seems to have a better time with the urban liberals than he does with National's own Auckland establishment, which has largely responded to the Super City era by noisily – and generally unsuccessfully – resisting change.

If Ardern can form a government next month – and for all the euphoria of the activists at Wynyard yesterday, that's far from certain – I sense that we'll be seeing the rise of a new establishment, one forged by the Super City amalgamation. On a campaign level, it's the people who've delivered in three mayoral elections and then in Labour's two recent by-election victories. On a policy level, it's the new urbanists.

And fair enough, too. Those groups have worked hard and have a command of the evidence. They've become accepted as authorities. Pretty much everything about Auckland cycle infrastructure is run past Bike Auckland before the public sees it. And last week, Labour's policy was previewed to Greater Auckland and independent researcher Ben Ross.

My sense is that Ardern's personal networks in Auckland will become important beyond just planning and transport. This will cause some tensions in the rest of the country. And it will cause some tensions on the old left – witness the Facebook fury when Greater Auckland et al failed to line up behind Mike Lee in last year's municipal elections.

But Green Party transport spokesperson Julie Anne Genter, who was there at Labour's announcement yesterday with the kids from Generation Zero, won't mind. She was entitled to tweet yesterday to the effect that my-work-here-is-done.

Whatever happens in next month's election, Auckland will be important, and not only for the million votes it holds.


Metiria's Problem

We don't really want our politicans to be honest. Not really honest, omitting nothing, because we all omit things about ourselves, especially about our deep histories. We simply don't want to know everything about the past when we vote in the present.

This is, of course, something that may be shifted along with the technologies that don't forget. It may well be that right now on Snapchat some future Prime Minister is doing or saying something that would be disqualifying for a political career in 2017. Perhaps we'll all become more forgiving in the future.

Sometimes, of course, we appreciate disclosures in a context where we might not have demanded them up front. When every MP on a recent Back Benches panel acknowledged having smoked pot at some point, in response to a direct question from the host, only a weasel would have lied. Even the tried-it-once-but-it-wasn't-my-thing response sounds a bit ropey these days. The strangest thing about John Key's insistence that he had never at any time dabbled in anything was that it was probably true.

There are also situations where a politician is found to have done something so odious in the deep past that it is untenable that they remain. Stealing a dead baby's identity to falsely obtain a passport did that for Act's David Garrett.

The revelation was, of course, compounded by Garrett's self-branding as a champion of the most unforgiving approach to law and order. And also by the fact that Garrett lied even as he admitted to the passport fraud, declaring his recent record clear when – as it transpired only a day after the first story broke – he actually had a 2002 assault conviction. Act's leader Rodney Hide stopped defending Garrett after that, even though the party actually knew about the assault conviction. Garrett resigned first from Act and soon from Parliament.

It's that last one the Green Party co-leader Metiria Turei might contemplate as her initial, bold admission to not being entirely honest about her accommodation circumstances has turned out to be less clear-cut than it appeared. It has transpired that for some time, her own mother was one of her flatmates as she raised her baby on the benefit. And that she was registered as living at the same address as the father of her child – but only because she'd falsely registered that address as hers so she could vote for her friend in an election.

Our lives aren't always lived within the clean lines of the rules, and the vote  she cast for a McGillicuddy Serious Party candidate was hardly about to change the balance of power. None of this is truly odious. But this was a topic Turei opened as a political act and it's on her that there is more to it than she told us at first. If you're going to confess, even for the purpose of opening an important debate, you'd best not be selective about the messy bits.

My friends on Twitter demanding that the Labour leadership rides in on a horse to defend its coalition partner are dreaming. This wasn't Labour's political gamble to take and two thirds of its own voters told a Newshub poll they didn't approve of her deceit (not to mention an even greater proportion of the parties it wants to take votes from and fully half of Green voters).

Of course, the poll question begged a certain response. Was it wrong of Metiria Turei to lie to get a bigger benefit? plays differently to Was it wrong of Metiria Turei to misstate her living arrangements so she could feed her baby? And no one – no one – is actually a stickler for the idea that past criminal offences should end present political careers. Were that so, we'd be howling for the heads of every member who has confessed to committing crimes under the Misuse of Drugs Act.

As I've been writing this post, the news has come through that Turei now says she will not take a ministerial role should Labour and the Greens be in a position to form the next goverment. That's a crying shame, because she has so much to offer politically and personally. But she and her party lost control of the narrative they launched themselves. If you're going to take a political gamble, you'd best best sure exactly what the odds are.