Hard News by Russell Brown


A fun but flawed weed documentary

Patrick Gower is good value when he's high. Not that I've ever, you know, got stoned with him. But in the second part of his documentary Patrick Gower on Weed, he does what you'd expect in a modern weed documentary and immerses himself – first with a doctor, then a member of the Auckland elite who's producing cannabis tea in California, and a "ganja yoga" group. He's funny. It's interesting, and a good watch.

And yet, I was pretty angry by the time I'd finished watching it. The reason why can be summed up in a little speech he gives to a delegate at a SMART Colorado seminar five minutes from the end. ("SMART aren't opposed to legal marijuana," he assures us. Uh, yeah, they really are.) He says:

"I know New Zealand and I understand how the government works there. And if they vote yes to legalise, then that's it. I kind of think we're gonna do this and we're not going to have a plan."

Dude, we already have a plan and it's fairly detailed. It's contained in the Cabinet paper published in May and it's the result of work by a Ministry of Justice team that began last year. They've studied the cannabis reform experience in various jurisdictions and produced a draft set of proposals, which I summarised here on the day of its release.

"A legal industry [in New Zealand] will likely bring big brands, new products, advertising and licensing," Paddy warns the viewer. Parts of that sentence are true.

There will not be advertising of cannabis if the "Yes" vote succeeds next year. The MoJ blueprint includes a complete ban on advertising and severe restrictions on marketing. The chances of that being reversed by the time legalisation becomes law are zero. Why would it? We already (unlike the US) prohibit the advertising of tobacco and we restrict the advertising of alcohol. It's not rocket science.

Big brands? Maybe. Some of the local medicinal cannabis companies now pitching for investor cash would enter an adult-use market if one emerged. And if – this is important – they actually get licences to do. It's not a given. The stated aim of the proposal is to not increase the cannabis supply in New Zealand. There will be social conditions attached to the licensing process.

Importation of cannabis is expressly banned under the Cabinet proposals. This doesn't mean that big US companies won't try and have a presence here, but they face some significant obstacles. That's not the case under the new medicinal regime – because the Ministry of Health has not yet licensed any New Zealand company to produce cannabis products and they had to come from somewhere, which currently largely means the Canadian company Tilray.

Paddy frets about potency without limit. The Cabinet paper proposes potency limits. It does provide for regulated sale of concentrates, but I suspect that will be one part that drops out along the way. Or – and this is sensible, and what Canada is doing – regulation will be staged and consideration of concentrates will come later.

Wait, you say, didn't Paddy go to a dab bar in Vancouver? Why yes, he did, and it occasioned some of his fretting for New Zealand about the way things might cut loose under legalisation. But here's the thing: those dab bars, serving up concentrates, aren't the result of last year's national cannabis legalisation. They've been there for years. Indeed, the government is now starting to close them down under the new federal law.

Vancouver authorities had simply grown tired of enforcing cannabis law, and just tolerated the sale of whatever, because it really didn't cause much trouble. The federal government introduced the law in part to get a handle on what was already happening. Paddy doesn't say that and I don't think he was trying to deceive his audience. He just didn't know. But as an argument against legalisation and regulation, it fails on the basic facts.

Elsewhere in the programme, Paddy gives Colorado-based Kiwi weed entrepreneur John Lord repeated opportunities to say that New Zealand should "go all the way" – that is, embrace full commercialisation and corporate cannabis– "or not do it at all". Lord isn't tasked with justifying such a stance, which is a shame, because it's fucking terrible advice. Would we say the same about tobacco?

Paddy covers the concern that has garnered most headlines here this year: what about the kids? He hears the concerns of the SMART delegates to that effect. But he never mentions the research – reported very ably by his own company – that shows that in Colorado and every other legalised US state, youth use is either stable or declining.

He interviews Dr Joe Boden of the University of Otago about the risks of youth use – but not about Joe's view that the best way of addressing the overall risk is a strictly-regulated market. He never finds a Canadian politician to explain that trying to get a handle on youth use was a key reason for legalising and regulating. These are real failures.

Worse, actually, is an indulgent interview with the self-professed "Wolf of Weed", aka Ross Smith, whose would-be medicial cannabis producer Medicann went into liquidation at the beginning of this year. The liquidation is mentioned in the documentary. Not mentioned: Smith resigned from Australian medicinal cannabis company Phytotech after making a series of violent online threats. He also parted company with the European company MGC Pharma after a series of abusive online threats. He made violent, homophobic threats against a journalist reporting on his abusive posts about cannabis industry rivals and was consequently obliged to quit another company, Jayex. And he was recently investigated in New Zealand under the Harmful Digital Communications Act over posts that may have been connected to the Medicann debacle.

Is he really going to score one of the limited number of licences under a regulated market in New Zealand? Really?

And yet Smith is allowed to spout uncontested bullshit like "I just want to see the industry done properly – and to do that that's about large corporations", to make grand claims about securing legendary cannabis genetics and to make the plainly silly claim that $250m in cannabis tax revenue would "fix New Zealand's roads". I get that this kind of documentary relies on first-person encounters, but not providing pretty basic investigative detail is risn't good enough.

The time given to Smith – or even the time spent doing "ganja yoga" by the pool in California– could have been devoted to explaining what the referendum process actually is. Which, after all, was the professed purpose of the programme – to inform New Zealanders ahead of next year's referendum. Instead, by never even mentioning what is currently proposed, it does the opposite.

I feel a little bad about this degree of criticism. I actually largely enjoyed the documentary, I appreciated the good-faith adventuring and the vulnerability in the first episode. I like Paddy. But what he repeatedly declared about the inevitable consequences of legalisation is not true. Or, rather, it doesn't have to be. That should be the whole point. We have choices to make.

There are key decisions ahead about licensing and regulation – we'd want to be more like Washington state, or Canada with its "artisan" licences, than California, where misguided regulation basically ensured Big Cannabis and made it almost impossible for the existing black market producers to go legit. I know that some stakeholders here are seeking to interest the government in a differential tax regime, where lower-THC (and higher-CBD) products are favoured. Like, say, beer is taxed differently to hard liquor. No one's done that before, but there is no reason we can't be the first.

Legalisation in Seattle isn't the same as in Los Angeles, or Uruguay or Luxembourg or Spain with its cannabis social clubs. Yet Patrick Gower on Weed gave the misleading impression that we don't have any choices. That was really, really wrong. But I trust Paddy will agree with me that we should have that conversation.


Time for a New Deal: 25 years on

In 1994, I was editing an ambitious street mag called Planet, from a fabled office at at 309 Karangahape Road. The thirteenth issue of the magazine was published in the winter of that year and its cover embodied a particularly ambitious goal: the end of cannabis prohibition.

I wanted to do more than just call for reform. I wanted to show how thoroughly – a quarter of a century ago – cannabis was embedded in New Zealand culture. Paul Shannon interviewed Les Gray, the psychologist who had caused a national storm by calling for reform 10 years before, and wrote a piece about anandamide (this was before the endo-cannabinoid system had been properly identified). Dr Hamish Meldrum contributed a piece on the state of medical knowledge. Rick Bryant wrote about cannabis in literature, Stinky Jim covered the hits from the bong and Colin Hogg recalled shenanigans.

I interviewed "Ringo", a grower, and "Elton", a longtime dealer. (The latter story constitutes a fascinating history that, ideally, someone else will type up for publication here.) We got comment from the Drug Foundation, the Minister of Justice and the cop in charge of the annual cannabis recovery operation ("I tell you what, I'm not going to get into a decriminalisation debate. I haven't got the time, I've been down that track so many times before").

I also wrote the introductory essay that follows. I think it still reads pretty well. A few things have changed – most of us tend to refer to cannabis rather than marijuana now, and only Family First calls it "dope".

Cannabis has become even more of a social commonplace in New Zealand since the magazine was published. In 1994, we quoted the University of Auckland's Alcohol and Public Health Research Unit's 1990 finding that 43% of New Zealanders between 15 and 45 admitted to ever having used cannabis. But more recently the Christchurch longitudinal study of a 1977 birth cohort has found that 80% of these New Zealanders had used cannabis by the age of 25. If the goal of prohibition has been to eliminate or even limit the use of cannabis in New Zealand, it has comprehensively failed.

That's presumably related to perhaps the most significant change in our official approach to cannabis: that the police have spent the past decade coming up with ways to avoid prosecuting minor cannabis offences. A defence lawyer recently told me that police have decided that cannabis in itself is not a driver of other crime and they have better ways to use their resources. Increasingly, the courts are doing the same – people caught with some pretty big grows have been getting discharges. The law is more out of step with the priorities of those who enforce it than it has ever been.

Even the politics have shifted. In 1994, we got this comment from the office of the Minister of Justice Doug Graham:

The Government has no intention of introducing any legislation to change anything. This has been the Government's position for many years.

In 2019, Graham's party has moved from a firm "no" to a kind of bad-faith "maybe", which is progress of a sort. Labour is still hedging its bets, but has, with minimal fuss, seen through a significant amendment guiding police discretion over minor drug offences that would have been unthinkable in 1994.

The other big, global change has been a move towards regulated, legal markets in cannabis that would have been yet more unthinkable back then. And the political argument towards a referendum on that proposition is being led by a Green MP born in the year that issue of Planet was published. We have a chance to choose a solution that is right for New Zealand; to finally bring the law into line with reality. It really is time we got this damn thing done.


Time for a New Deal

Russell Brown, Planet magazine, Winter 1994 issue, pp 36-37

Slowly, the coffin lowers. The deceased has a good crop of friends here, sending him off. He was killed in a road accident that was not his fault. Three or four friends throw a little marijuana in after it.

No one is quite sure whether the deceased has once demanded that this be done in the event or his demise or whether it just seemed a good idea, but everyone knows he'd have approved. He liked a smoke. He was Maori, he was a father. He was an ordinary New Zealander. But what would the police do if they were here?

That sort of thing doesn't happen every day. But it was hardly unusual. And still there are public calls to rid New Zealand of the scourge of marijuana before it "enters the national culture". These calls are usually tagged with a demand for even stricter legal sanctions on the use and distribution of cannabis. The sentiment and the solution have in common a remarkable naivete.

Like it or not, pot's sticky green threads have been irrevocably woven into the national tapestry for nearly two decades. Marijuana in New Zealand has a vocabulary, an etiquette, a code. In thousands of households it's no more remarkable a social lubricant than a cold beer. It is fixed into the culture – and it is not only New Zealanders who know it. Many of the young foreign backpackers who come here in their thousands have New Zealand Green on their list of things to do.

If parts of the feature that follows appear to celebrate marijuana, that is not the intention. Marijuana is a drug, with associated health risks. What we have done is attempted to document some of the culture that grows around marijuana, at home and abroad. Sometimes this culture is unpleasant – the gangsterism associated with the domestic trade in dope, for instance – and sometimes it is lively, colourful and valuable to us all.

New Zealand has internalised marijuana so thoroughly that its dope culture is rich and vivid, but herb culture is international. During the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, kilo bricks of black, oily, Afghani hash – stamped, with gleeful irony, with a gold hammer and sickle – were being shipped all over Europe by rebel tribesmen. While the clamp of apartheid was still down on South Africa you could buy Transkei Super grass in Amersterdam coffee shops – all proceeds remitted directly to black farmers.

Whatever the surveys tell you, marijuana is back in vogue. New York's Village Voicenoted that it had greatly improved the atmosphere of some urban communities by largely supplanting crack. Hip-hop music has taken up the reggae tradition of citing "good" marijuana as the alternative to "bad" cocaine.

Germany decriminalised the possession of personal quantities of cannabis this year. In Britain, both the police and the judiciary have expressed blunt disdain for the vastly increased penalties for personal possession due to pass anachronistically into law this month. Meanwhile, British newspapers have been full of reports that representatives of an unnamed major brewery had been in Amsterdam researching the "hash cafes". Their problem is that young people are no longer going to pubs to drink alcohol.

But if you find the idea of booze companies pushing dope disquieting, consider it in the hands of those predatory purveyors of addiction, the tobacco companies. A tobacco company has already copyrighted the name "Marley" in anticipation of full legalisation in Europe. The Marley Foundation is extremely upset but, hey, that's business. This compounds the hypocrisy which has seen tobacco and alcohol companies fund drug "education" groups with the caveat that their products are not spoken of in the same breath as illicit drugs like cannabis. They do so not because they care, but to protect their market share.

There is in this country a large and profitable marijuana industry. In an era which has been characterised by massive deregulation of industry, this one industry has been regulation into the ground. Or, rather, straight into the hands of gangs to whom the laws mean only a coy monopoly.

And yet, there are serious health problems associated with heavy marijuana use, especially among adolescents. They're nothing to do with the scare stories of yore (chromosome damage, anyone?), but they exist. It would make sense for resources for health education and treatment to come from the marijuana industry. But the industry, a criminal enterprise, is currently what Treasury would call "revenue-negative". The courts cannot decently fine offenders enough to even cover the costs of prosecution.

But that is not the real problem. The real problem is that so many New Zealanders have reason to lie to and to fear the police – and even their neighbours. If they're unlucky (and as many as 200,000 citizens in the past decade have been) they draw the lifelong stigma of a criminal conviction.

The ramifications of decriminalisation in New Zealand are quite different – and arguably less complex – than those in Europe. It does not, for example, threaten the integrity of our borders. Were it not for expensive police helicopters and Crimewatch-addled nosy neighbours, New Zealanders who choose to could grow as much cannabis as they needed in their own backyards. So let them. Revenue? A grower's licence would be no more difficult to administer than the annual broadcasting fee.

The scent of marijuana is not absent from the corridors of power – there have been pot-smoking parliamentarians for some time and the professional sector is full of past and present users. But there is a habit still more endemic – that of compulsive fence-sitting. The climate of fear around marijuana extends even to talking about it.

Eventually, changes to the law can come only from the lawmakers. National, at least, has a clear and emphatic prohibitionist policy – although quite how its libertarian wing sleeps at night is open to question. Labour (notwithstanding David Lange) and the Alliance (notwithstanding the Greens) have been paralysed by the fear of an electoral backlash that probably does not even exist. That is no longer good enough, as recent statements by Labour leader Helen Clark seem to acknowledge. The hysterical response of her electoral neighbour, Christine Fletcher, to Clark's tacit support for decriminalisation served to show how deep the lawmakers' ignorance can yet be. The spectre of organised crime hovers over New Zealand only by default. It is a beast we must stop feeding.


Synthetics: We need to stop calling it cannabis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Who are the medicinal cannabis users?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

The Clean, Dance Exponents

Lincoln College, May 1.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Agriculture students drank a lot of beer.

Russell Brown

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bless that man.


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

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

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

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

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

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