Hard News by Russell Brown


The drumbeat for reform gets louder

It should have come as no surprise after the narrow referendum defeat last year of a bill to legalise and regulate cannabis that its loudest and best-funded opponents should have wandered off to find a new culture war. The people behind SAM-NZ, Family First and Say Nope to Dope have never really cared about drug policy, evidence or reducing harm to the vulnerable.

But one prominent "No" campaigner, the Salvation Army, issued a statement immediately after the result calling on the government to develop "legislation that provides comprehensive and well thought-through decriminalisation", which should include "the further removal of criminal sanctions for casual use of cannabis" and better funding for drug treatment.

There hasn't been a lot since then, but last week, Ian Hutson, director of the Social Policy and Parliamentary Unit of the Salvation Army, joined addiction medicine specialist Professor Doug Sellman, a declared "Yes" voter in the referendum, to write a column expressing "frustration" at political intransigence and urging Parliament to "immediately enact decriminalisation of cannabis for all users of cannabis".

Their call follows an open letter from the Public Health Association, the New Zealand Medical Association, the Mental Health Foundation and others to overhaul the Misuse of Drugs Act 1975 – which provoked a ridiculous response from Health minister Andrew Little.

There was a similar call from Dr Huhana Hickey, Professor Khylee Quince, Manu Caddie and Dr Mark Hotu, the guests on TVNZ's Marae yesterday, who agreed that reform of our creaking 46 year-old drug law was a matter of urgency. (Dr Hotu seems to have forgotten that he wrote a poorly-reasoned and factually wayward column opposing a "Yes" vote last year, but we'll let that pass.)

Manu expressed the view that further reform this Parliamentary term was not only urgent, but – the statements of Minister Little notwithstanding – likely this term. My understanding is also that Little's position does not necessarily reflect that of his colleagues in government. But I wonder if far too much of the energy required to get to that point will be expended on concocting a way for the minister to save face.

If there is a consensus around decriminalising cannabis, it would be fair to say that is less the case around what decriminalisation should mean.

The Salvation Army called for a removal of criminal penalties for "casual use" of cannabis, but it's unclear what that means. What is non-casual use? Does it include self-growing? The ability to possess a limited quantity without question? Social supply?

In his column with Professor Sellman, Ian Hutson seems to favour Portugal-style decriminalisation of all drugs. I would love for New Zealand to follow Portugal, Norway, Oregon and Australian Capital Territories in doing so, but I'm not sure the Portugese model, which was developed in response to a crisis in intravenous drug use, usefully addresses the reality of cannabis in New Zealand.

Portugese police are supposed to interact with someone using or possessing cannabis in the same way they do for heroin. But they actually don't, because it doesn't really make sense to do so. They're more likely to just ignore someone smoking a joint. So you've still got a law that relies for its viability on not being applied by police.

Professor Sellman writes that his preferred legalisation model would be an equivalent to Sweden's "SOE model" for alcohol, under which the supply of cannabis is a state monopoly. I, too, worry about Big Cannabis – and I thought that the Cannabis Legalisation and Control Bill included provisions around market size, marketing and licensing that could have set an example for the rest of the world. I'd have amended it further to Keep Cannabis Small. But I'm not sure a state monopoly is really a good answer for cannabis.

Why? You only had to be at J Day in Auckland on Saturday to see. There were more vendors this year, a dozen or more, offering a range of home-made cannabis products. There's already a community producing and distributing these products, in a way that doesn't really answer to traditional perceptions of the "drug trade", and it's not simply going to pack up because the state grants itself a monopoly on production or supply.

But it's actually worse than that under the current law. Take a moment to admire these cannabis-containing muffins:

These muffins – and the cooking oil, balms, tinctures and infused honey that were for sale on Saturday – are "cannabis preparations" under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1975. That means that while cannabis flower is a Class C drug, baking it in a muffin escalates it to to Class B – the same as morphine, amphetamine and GHB. If you hand the muffin you have baked to another person, the maximum penalty is 14 years imprisonment.

Of course, the law is not generally enforced that way, because that would be crazy and unjust. For similar reasons, police have taken the approach of regarding J Day events as a form of advocacy and steered clear of them. And, frankly, they have no other need to attend – Saturday in Albert Park was an extremely relaxed affair, thanks in part to the absence of alcohol.

But it's not possible to look at our 46 year-old drug law and honestly declare it's not in need of comprehensive reform. It's time for some moral courage.


Audioculture recently republished my epic two-part feature on touring Europe with The Chills in 1987. But the decision was made to leave out a couple of passages that ran in the mag originally but were deemed unsuitable for a website used in schools. Which is fine and prudent – but it did strike me that landing in this place where things were done differently had prompted me to write for the first time about the culture and economy of drugs. I was just very interested in how it worked:

It tickles something else to appreciate the way cannabis preparations from around the globe have found their way to the corner of the bar of a tiny cafe in Amsterdam. Café dealers will be able to offer a range including Mexican seedless, dry, dusty grass from Africa or Colombia, dark, spicy-smelling buds from Jamaica, hash from Afghanistan (purchased, they say, from rebel forces on the Pakistani border), Nepal, Turkey, Morocco ... and even locally-grown sinsemilla, the product of Californian consumer grass technique. The man will have a board listing his products and prices and possibly a folder, like a photo album, of sample bags. As befits its retail status, most quantities are worked round a 25 guilder (about NZD$25) standard price. At that price for two grams of Jamaican buds it’s not wondrously cheap, but this is retail. If it’s all too confusing you can buy a piece of “space cake” for five-seven guilders.

There are hundreds of cafés in Amsterdam but only dozens which encourage cannabis smoking. Of those which do, some are large, perhaps with two floors, some are small. Those aiming for young tourists have big video and sound systems, while others just hum with a quietly hip soundtrack and low conversation. The big ones serve alcohol, the small ones usually don’t. Some are part of a chain, like the Bulldog cafés, which even extend outside Amsterdam. The Bulldog tries to play both games with its Leidseplein branch which has two basement hash cafés and a big, bright, airy restaurant for tourists upstairs. Periodically, a straying group of English matrons will have to be quietly told by the barmaid that hash is being smoked down here and perhaps they’d be happier upstairs. They have to be careful. One such matron last year was served a piece of space cake, hallucinated, and demanded that the British Foreign Office declare war on Amsterdam.

I was also very interested to, for the first time, read High Times magazine, which was strictly prohibited in New Zealand:

Many bookshops carry English-language publications as well. Notable among them is the legendary drug culture magazine High Times. It’s an obscene publication in many countries – if the ever-lovin’ NZ customs found one in your suitcase they’d certainly take it off you and probably want to have a quick look up your bottom for good measure.

It’s pleasing to find out that High Times is an excellent magazine. It’s well-written, very well researched and the four-colour printing is spot-on, which it has to be to depict the subtle but important differences between one cluster of brown-green buds and another.

Inside each ish there’s Ask Ed, a comprehensive growers’ problem page (“The increasing pH is probably being caused by the gravel, which is probably limestone ...”); the Trans-High Market Quotations, a nationwide chart of current recreational drug prices compiled from readers’ figures; Activist News; a legal directory; a readers’ Top 40 of favourite things (usually topped by sex); and even a lung-watering centrefold.

Individual issues include features like a Ken Kesey interview and short story; an enthusiast’s (everybody connected with the mag seems to be an enthusiast) account of a gruelling trip up the Amazon to sample a little-known hallucinogen called Nu-Nu; good music features covering ground from the Fall to Trouble Funk (but the readership still loves the Grateful Dead, it seems); and a calm, serious article on the danger of crack – and the way its mystique has been inflated by those eager to sell newspapers.

It’s all made possible by heavy advertising support, from the likes of growing-aid manufacturers, peddlers of legal “diet aid” type stimulants, and all manner of non-drug products which intersect with the lifestyle.

High Times is a funny, informative, and, in its resolute matter-of-factness, quite responsible. For better or worse, its ethos is probably summed up by regular writer Ed Hassle: “Drugs can be your friend as long as their power respected. Drugs can grant visions, calm fear, expand the mind, and relieve pain. But they can also cause insanity, bankruptcy and death.”

The irony, of course, is that the Dutch system is now regarded – not least in the Netherlands itself – as dated and in need of reform itself, relying, as it does, on criminals to look after production, import and wholesale supply.


Cannabis: Who owns Say Nope to Dope anyway?

After a quiet spell in the news on account of, well, other stories, cannabis and what to do about it staged a modest headline revival this week. First there was this Stuff report on a journal article by Massey University researchers Marta Rychert and Chris Wilkins on how the cannabis referendum campaign unfolded.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s decision not to reveal her position on the cannabis debate during election campaigning could have been a "decisive factor" in last year’s referendum, academics believe.

The article in the Drug and Alcohol Review isn't freely available, but I've read it – and the headline claim, quoted accurately from article's abstract, isn't really backed up in the text, which declares only that Labour's decision not to campaign on the referendum (a Green Party policy) and Ardern's decision not to declare her vote (a "yes") in advance added to the "volatility" of the vote. That's it.

The authors also speculate that in financial terms the "Yes" and "No" campaigns probably cancelled each other out.

Of the 15 registered referendum campaigners, only two were clearly against the reform while 11 were supportive of the policy change, suggesting, on the face of it, that pro- legalisation campaigners outnumbered anti-legalisation groups with potential related greater allowable campaign promotional budget.

They quote their own research finding (which will have been based on  information published by Facebook itself) that "the leading pro-legalisation reform group (‘Make it Legal’) spent nearly four times as much as the main anti- reform group on social media advertising (‘Say Nope to Dope’)."

Make It Legal was prominent on Facebook especially, but it simply was not "the leading pro-legalisation reform group". Only three registered third-party promoters crossed the $100,000 thresheld requiring a return to be filed with the Electoral Commission. Make It Legal was not among them. Say Nope to Dope wasn't a registered campaign at all.

To be fair, the authors acknowledge that their article was submitted before third-party promoter returns, offering a proper insight into who spent what during the regulated campaign period. Those returns have been published now – and they're interesting.

As noted, only three promoters spent more than $100,000. On the "Yes" side there was the New Zealand Drug Foundation and its "Health Not Handcuffs" campaign, which spent $337,241.67 – right up to the limit of $338,000. On the "No" side, SAM-NZ did much the same, spending $320,300. The third big spender was also on the "No" side: Family First racked up $141,224 in expenses.

Which is where it gets intetresting, because Family First and SAM-NZ are really the same people – between them they spent $461,524.

Say Nope to Dope was founded by Family First's Bob McCoskrie and in 2017, after the referendum was announced, McCroskie declared it would be  mounting "a strong campaign" against a vote for legalisation. On June 3 last year, Family First announced it was stepping it up a notch, with the appointment of Aaron Ironside as Say Nope to Dope's spokesman. But only five days later there was another announcement, also made by Say Nope to Dope: Aaron Ironside was to be spokesperson for a new group, SAM-NZ, which welcomed the assistance of the American prohibitonist group SAM (Smart Approaches to Marijuana).

SAM-NZ had a number of organisations listed as members – including those Scientology fronts – and Family First was not among them. But Bob McCroskie – who, lets face it, is Family First – was.

Then we come to the matter of who owns Say Nope to Dope. The Say Nope to Dope website is still up and its campaign material is Authorised by SAM (Smart Approaches to Marijuana) NZ, c/- 28 Davies Ave, Manukau City 2241. And yet, here's a Say Nope to Dope ad Authorised by Family First NZ, 28 Davies Ave, Manukau City 2242.

This apparent donation of office resources is in neither organisation's return.

Anyway, yesterday, in a post gloating about the Massey article, Family First was back using Say Nope to Dope.

By this point, you may not be surprised to learn that all along, including when it was a vehicle for material from one registered promoter (SAM-NZ), the saynopetodope.org.nz domain was owned by another registered promoter (Family First).

So here you have two organisations involving the same people, working out of the same office and using the same campaign material (the URL for the SAM-NZ 'Reasons to Vote No' sheet linked above even contains the text "SAM-VERSION').

It seems that the cleaving of Family First's efforts in two was a successful effort to spend beyond the expenses cap for a single group – nearly half a million dollars versus the cap of $338,000.

That, of course, isn't all there is to it. SAM-NZ and Family First did pursue distinct strategies. SAM-NZ's main expenses were in mainstream media advertising. Family First, on the other hand, spent more money printing pamphlets – and having them translated into Tongan, Samoan, Maori, Arabic and Korean. This was pretty smart.

The biggest expense for the sole "Yes" campaign to exceed $100,000, the Drug Foundation's was $214,387 on media advertising. There was also $80,434 to Augusto for creation of TVCs, digital and print ads and social media material. It's fair to say it wasn't Augusto's best work.

There is one more thing: and that's all the money Say Nope to Dope spent as a Family First vehicle in the nearly three years leading up to the regulated campaign period. We'll  never know now much that was – but there were a lot of billboards.

No assessment of the campaigns can ignore those three years, because that's when the polls turned from being fairly favourable for reform (albeit without knowing the details, including the scope of retail sale) to very unfavourable. "Yes" got close to making up that ground as the referendum drew near, but didn't quite get there. I've expressed previously the view that that was effectively when the referendum was lost.


Another point made by Rychert and Wilkins in their article is that there was always more public support for decriminalisation than for a tightly-regulated legal market and a referendum on decriminalisation might have fared better. I think that was evident to everyone involved.

But – and this is a point that still needs explaining – the Ministry of Justice group that came up with the basis of the Cannabis Legalisation and Control Bill was not tasked with crafting the reform most likely to pass a referendum. It was asked to look at the evidence and devise a regime based on that.

Decriminalisation was canvassed early on, in the first Cabinet paper, and dismissed: it didn't restrict access to cannabis or impose controls on the quality of cannabis products and who could sell them – and it relied on a continuing criminal supply.

Unlike many other people on social media, I wasn't furious at Jacinda Ardern for her decision not to declare her vote in advance, or at Labour for failing to campaign on another party's policy. Ardern declaring would have helped, but I don't think it was the clincher.

But I have been bloody livid at Andrew Little, on his damn way out of the Justice portfolio, for declaring that the very narrow referendum loss was curtains for all drug law reform for the foreseeable, decriminalisation of cannabis included. And for him continuing to say so even now he's not Minister of Justice.

That was not what the referendum was about – and not long afterward there was in fact a key drug law reform, when the government fulfilled a promise to legalise drug-checking at festivals and other venues, a move which has already helped save lives and medical resources.

So perhaps the government might want to look closely at a UMR poll conducted for the Helen Clark Foundation and published this morning. It finds a majority in favour of decriminalisation amongst supporters of every Parliamentary party, excepting the Māori Party, where the sample size was probably too small to publish.

The poll is notable because 49% of respondents say they voted "Yes" in the referendum – that is, almost exactly the proportion (48.4%) who actually voted that way in the referendum. When you add the people who voted "No" but would support decriminalisation, that's 69% of the electorate. I mean, come on.

To save any blushes, the government could simply do what it has promised to do and fix the police discretion amendment in the Misuse of Drugs Act now that New Zealand First is out of the way – so that the default for simple possession of any drug is not to prosecute. From there, it could carve out some special provisions around cannabis – especially in the case of green fairies.

As my profile of the Northland green fairy Gandalf in Canvas last Saturday makes clear, local police very probably know exactly what he's doing, but stay their hands because they don't want to bust someone on whom hundreds of mostly elderly patients rely, knowing a judge might grant a discharge anyway. That shouldn't be the way it works – and the goverment should have the courage to change it.


Family Matters: a post about 2020

My sense of recent history is a mess; sometimes I can't rightly say what happened, when. I tell people about something I did two years ago and it turns out it was late last year. And still, like all of us, I'm still effectively in the moment that unfolded in March.

I recall realising even before we went into our pandemic lockdown that what a lot of what people – including me – were doing was a matter of processing anxiety in public. It was evident, vividly, on social media, where sometimes we expressed it by policing each other, shouting at each other , drawing lines, letting fly. Heartbreakingly, I found myself shouting desperately at old friends who began a descent into malignant conspiracy theories.

By contrast, when, in the first week of lockdown, Bauer Media took the opportunity to shut down its New Zealand operation, removing our household's last reliable source of income, what should have been really alarming seemed to almost get lost in the overall roar of dread.

The wage subsidy helped there, in a way that went beyond mere finance. It was money that had turned up in the bank in a way that didn't rely on the unknowables of the virus economy. It said: there's a backstop. A few weeks later, when some work actually did turn up, making an online series for Spark Lab called The Pivot Reports from my kitchen table, I discovered that had been a widely-shared sensation among small business people. It was room to breathe and it was available swiftly and with few questions asked. The subsidy was an $11 billion chill-pill and worth every cent.

We now know that New Zealand wasn't very well prepared for a global pandemic, and that it took a succession of decisive actions, rapid responses and lessons learned to get us where we are, for now. It's a trusim to say it now, but the government's communications mattered hugely. They worked with the anxiety I mentoned above, as much as against it, in getting us to do the right things. And they invoked a historical national tradition of working for the common good. That card works a little less well every time it's played, so you'd best play it well first time.

In sum, I've thought a lot about this tweet I sent in February. There were screwups and the shine went off a few things, but we have been well-governed at a truly critical time.

There were personal challenges amid it all. During the first Level 3 lockdown, my mother suffered a fall and a stroke – it's still not quite clear which came first – and I flew down to Wellington to spend my days with her and my nights in a hotel room in a locked-down central city. She suffered failures of care that have led me to formally complain to three different organisations. Dealing with ACC was endless and exhausting. Responsibility for Mum's emotional health weighed heavily on me and I had some moments of real despair.

But Mum's home, where she always wanted to be, and she's making a go of it. Since she was young, she's repeatedly had to fall back on her own resources, find personal strength. It's what she knows. I asked her recently how she'd been that week: "I'm boxing on," she said.

There's no question of her joining us for Christmas, but I'm greatly comforted by the care she's getting from the local Nurse Maude organisation. Those women are lovely. They were also good enough to let me know that Mum had asked them to cancel her midday visits over the Christmas break, apparently to give the nurse worker a break ("I can make myself a sandwich"). To be fair to Mum, she did back down more or less immediately on that one.

And then, because there wasn't enough on in 2020, I got myself involved in a campaign for the cannabis referendum. I've written about the subject of the referendum at length elsewhere, so let's just say I'm proud of what we did with We Do. It was a big, exhausting, fascinating experience.

I had watched the polls long enough to know that a win for "Yes" was the less likely outcome, but as the weeks passed I did think we'd get close. We got very close. As I've been telling people, I was ready for a narrow loss – but I wasn't ready for Andrew Little to jump up and declare an end to all drug reform for the foreseeable future. That's not a sustainable or responsible position and it won't stand.

Indeed, it stood only until Jacinda Ardern's government did the right thing and fulfilled a commitment to legalise drug-checking services at events. It was such a relatively uncontroversial move in the end that it's easy to lose sight of how far we've come on this. The idea that we would have High Alert, a drug early warning system that brings together the police, government and science agencies and the community, would have seemed a long shot five years ago.

Wendy Allison, Jez Weston and the other people at KnowYourStuffNZ deserve huge credit for that. They've been ethical and organised, been taken seriously by everyone they've had to deal with, without surrendering the peer-to-peer philosophy at the core of what they're doing. It's still the tribe looking after itself. That's a remarkable achievement.

Things are changing. Most notably, they're changing in America, where the conversation about cannabis reform is tilting significantly towards acknowledging and addressing the damage done by the drug war. I wrote about that last week for the NZ Drug Foundation. Everything's fringe until it's mainstream. Some of us will just keep poking at the parts that look like they might move.

There has been other cause for cheer on the work front. What looked like an extinction event for New Zealand media in March has resolved surprisingly well. Most of the magazines shut down by Bauer are back in some form. Stuff is now independently-owned (this is another one of those things it's hard to believe only happened a few months ago), newly invigorated and paying its staff Christmas bonuses. Editorial commissioning budgets are back and there's work about. But oh, it would be nice if freelance journalism paid better. There's a part of me that loves doing several different jobs about quite different things at once, and a part of me that's just exhausted by it.

There's been another job lately. I'm looking to get our 26 year-old son back into education, for the first time since we had to withdraw him from school when he was 12. He has such a quick, interesting mind. It's going pretty well so far, but we've had false starts before and I know it's not going to be easy. I do occasionally remind myself I generally keep it together fairly well. Maybe I'm boxing on a bit like Mum.

I value the part of my life that's out there with the tribe. I missed my friends during lockdown, I missed talking and dancing. I relished the sense of everyone valuing those things extra hard after lockdown. You felt it at gigs and parties. At one particularly busy and brilliant party this year, the birthday host's wife stood up and spoke about how lucky we all were to be able to do this. Auckland went back into Level 3 lockdown four days later.

But that, in truth, wasn't like the first one. Level 3 isn't Level 4, we knew the drill, and when every small retailer in our suburb had the table out the front with the hand sanitiser it felt oddly like some sort of street fair. The family who took over Point Chev Fresh just before the first lockdown and  looked terrified when you went in (I remember thinking they should just close up and go home) had it all down by August.

Allow me to put in a plug for Point Chev Fresh, by the way. They've been steadily developing the shop and it's a top place not only for produce, but both Indian and Mediterranean food supplies – and they're also just really nice people.

The same is true of various other businesses in our community, not least, Cupid, that little bar I always bang on about. In a horrific year for hospitality businesses, Alix McEntegart and her crew have maintained their composure and their standards, and they've given a lot of us a place to play. The Mum 'n' Dad Disco Christmas party at the bar last Friday, where Sandy Mill and I played our records, was great because it was fun. We need fun in our lives.

For those of us with access to some form of it, family matters too. One of the things that brightened lockdown for us was seeing our next door neighbours come out every day and play with their little kids. As a family, we ourselves are very used to each other's company and that helped too. I also bless the day in January we got Fiona an e-bike. Riding together during lockdown and since has added another great element to our long, loving relatinship. It's one more way we know each other well.

Best wishes, everyone. Stay safe, be well.


Public Address Word of the Year 2020: Doomscrolling

The Public Address Word of the Year 2020 is "doomscrolling", which narrowly beat out "bubble". But in a shocking turn of events, Public Address founder Russell Brown was unable to complete his traditional mock press release announcing the results of the vote.

"There has just been far too much 2020," Brown told reporters, "and quite frankly, it's used up my sense of irony. I'm at a point where I can't even do sarcasm, let alone satire. I mean, how do you even start to process that?"

After his brief remarks to journalists, Brown excused himself, explaining that "I just need to go and check Sweden's daily case numbers. Well, that and make sure Trump hasn't pulled another fully depraved stunt since I checked an hour ago. There's probably a new existential climate threat too – it's important to keep up with those and stare impotently at the screen for a while before breaking free and tweeting about Baby Yoda or some shit."

Brown did leave a brief statement confirming the Top 10 Words voted by readers were:

1. Doomscrolling

2. Bubble

3. #NZHellhole

4. Covid-19

5. You're on mute

6. Lockdown

7. Covidiot

8. Unprecedented

9. Bloomfield

10. Go hard, go early

The statement also confirmed that the winners of amazing Nuraloop earphones are Andrew Carr and ChrisB, who should get in touch if they have not already been contacted.

Brown's family said he was improving on a new diet of pre-lockdown Antiques Roadshow episodes and a high-potency supplement of seasons of Two Fat Ladies.


Public Address Word of the Year 2020: The Vote!

It's that time again! You can now vote for the Word of the Year 2020. Thanks very much to all the people who nominated for the long list in the form below, and to Hadyn Green for his good work in getting the voting form together for another year. As he has noted on the form, there has been a hell of a lot of 2020 to be thinking about.

As previously noted, thanks go to Nura for our prizes this year. There's a pair of the amazing Nuraloop earphones for one lucky voter, and I'll give another pair to the nominee of one of the Top 10 words in the final vote. All you need to do is vote – and tell your friends!

NB: You may find that the "submit" button is obscured at the bottom of the embedded voting form. Just scroll down within the form to show it. If that doesn't work for you, or if the embed isn't displaying well on your phone, here's a direct link to the voting form itself.