Speaker by Various Artists


Extinction Rebellion is not a cult (but ecstasy for the people)

by Anke Richter

Yoga gurus and cult leaders – I’ve seen a few. Two weeks ago, I unknowingly joined an alleged new-age cult at the Kāpiti coast, together with a giant kraken and some neatly dressed pensioners who would make any book club proud.

They were among the two hundred people of all ages preparing for a week of worldwide protests by Extinction Rebellion (XR). It kicked off in Wellington with rebels temporarily shutting down the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment and gluing themselves to the Lambton Quay ANZ branch with “climate crime scene” tape.

The next day, a Māori XR commando squirted tomato sauce on James Cook’s plaque and decorated the statue of Richard Seddon outside Parliament with a ball and chain. Melbourne rebels sang and danced in the streets to 'Staying Alive', turning civil disobedience into “disco-bedience”. Meanwhile in London, a man had broken down in one of the many protests, overcome by emotion – shaking, crying and clutching a photo of his two little children. Mothers holding babies filled the streets.

After more than a thousand arrests in the UK alone, the BBC stopped reporting to not cause more disruption. Someone got on top of a plane at Heathrow. Over in Berlin, a controversial politician warned young school strikers to stay away from XR’s piraty pranks. Her safety concerns were not because of physical danger. Jutta Ditfurth, co-founder of the Green Party, now on the far left and an abrasive voice even by German standards, called the apolitical action network an “esoteric doomsday cult”. She tweeted that the movement is "anti-intellectual“ and acting hyper-emotional instead of rational. 

The global Greta hating and XR bashing has come from neoliberal and conservative camps as well as the radical left, the latter accusing XR of being too white (make that racist), tame or elitist. But in Germany, only the far-right AfD party branded Extinction Rebellion a “climate cult” – and also declared its full support of a fossil fuel counter movement to the school strikes. “Fridays for Hubraum” was started by car fanatics and instantly gained half a million followers. 

Since XR is now being attacked by both extreme ends of the political spectrum, it must be doing something right which transcends all agendas and appeals to a simple human denominator: survival. If the concerned German politician would have come along to the Paekakariki Holiday Park, she might have found that the training weekend that took place there was one of political activism, even if two kitchen helpers went to meditate during a break and a yoga session was held. 

The overall vibe was friendly, fun and undogmatic. Someone brought a ukulele along. No-one gave me a hard time for arriving by car. Although the food was mostly vegan, there was some milk and cheese at mealtimes – organic, not by Fonterra. My mission for the rebels was to go shopping: finding police hats, pink ribbon and magenta dye for a performance piece with mock arrests. 

Their ethos, pinned to the wall on brown paper, was more in line with the principles of Burning Man and Non-Violent Communication (NVC). It mentions self-responsibility and “radical inclusivity”. No shaming and blaming of individuals – they want systemic change from the top. Hate symbols like swastikas on a US flag aren’t tolerated, nor is swearing at police officers. Instead, local organisers and their artistic helpers like Nelson photographer Jose Cano create a wave of love with visual imagery that they hope will catch on.

The first morning started with a powhiri. Rebel Haimana Hirini stood barefoot on the wet grass, holding a talking stick towards the sky and thanking his siblings: the trees, the mountains, the water. New Zealand’s XR branch has translated the three demands of Extinction Rebellion – tell the truth, act now, lead by Citizen’s Assemblies – into te reo Māori and wants to add a new one: decolonization and recognition of indigenous rights.

What Jutta Ditfurth and the European radical left dismiss as “new age” is in fact the spiritual foundation of many indigenous cultures which are directly affected by the destruction of our dying planet. If those critics are comfortable with Māori, Aborigines, Mongolian shamans or Native Americans referring to higher powers and the interconnectedness of all species, but ridicule the same sentiments if Swedish or white American teenagers express their fears, then it only goes to show their arrogance and inert racism towards non-western cultures by not taking them seriously. 

If the politician calling XR a cult had ended up in the tent for the “Truth Mandala”, she might have fired off more furious tweets. “The Spiral” was written out on a blackboard with a pretty floral drawing, explaining the emotional stages to move through before we kick into action: Gratitude that “brings us back to source”, then “honouring our pain”, finally “seeing with new eyes” and “going forth”. 

It sounds esoteric but is psychological, if not therapeutic. If XR works like a religion, then not as opium for the people, but ecstasy. MDMA can open hearts, heal trauma and bring out empathy. 

“Regen” is short for “regenerative culture”, from massages to cacao ceremonies: the XR wellbeing sector to prevent burn-out and create more connection. I missed the few body-mind offerings for the NVDA (non-violent direct action) training where I practiced breathing deeply and staying calm while being yelled at, for instance by people who cannot get to work. One group was painting hourglass symbols on flags, with endangered birds as an endemic note. In the evening, we sang chants: “The children have spoken – the earth won’t be broken”. 

Sea Rotmann is a sustainable energy advisor and originally from Austria. She put on a kraken costume to introduce us newbies to the “rebels without borders” – not for fun, but because her “spirit animal” is a harbinger of ecological disaster. The Wellington marine biologist has been obsessed with the ocean since she was a child, then studied the dying Great Barrier reef for her PhD. She saw first-hand what is happening to the ice shelf on an expedition to Antarctica in 2016. 

Rotmann gave an introductory talk about the non-violent principles of XR, their mass-mobilising philosophy (“hope dies, action begins”) and the state of the world to come: “Shit is just starting to kick off”. The climate is not warming, but heating. We got all the facts and numbers. “A dying ocean is a nightmare we cannot fathom”, especially in this coastal country and with climate refugees from the pacific islands. No Elon Musk is going to come and whisk us away. “The clock has gone past 12.” She wiped away tears. So did I. 

I thought of Paraparaumu beach where I had walked that morning in the early sunshine, watching birds, water lapping on the sand and shells.  And of my sons – one now a vegetarian, the other one sure that he will never have children. “Dr Sea”, as everyone called her, closed her laptop. “Thank you for sharing your grief. I love you.”

I also saw wet eyes in Wellington when the mourning brigade in red robes and white faces appeared there. One of the performers, decorated as Mother Earth, nursed her baby while she stood on the steps of Parliament, looking straight out of Wearable Arts. It was powerful, heart-breaking – and stylish. The XR newsletter uses similar images and emotive language: “compassion; awareness; courage”, “We’re a movement unlike any other”, “you’re not alone in this”. 

Apocalyptic scenarios, group intensity and woke jargon – this is also cult material which was discussed in July at the annual International Cultic Studies Association (ICSA) conference. Cult researcher Yuval Laor from Colorado has researched the nature of fervour for his PhD and upcoming book, “The Religious Ape”. What I took away from his lecture was that being in a cult – or a “high-demand group”, as is the preferred term among experts – works similar to falling in love: an awe-induced state of limerence that opens us to exploitation, coercion or manipulation. 

How does Laor see XR in the cultish context? Are the XR rebels inducing fervour by sharing grief, riding the trauma wave together and pulling in celebrities like Michael Stipe and Keira Knightley? Yes, he says, but fervour is neither good or bad in itself. “Cults, by definition, are bad, but there are positive groups that resemble cults.” He mentions the French underground resistance in WWII as an example. “Inducing awe is a good way to influence people. When the situation is dire, it would be negligent not to use awe to inspire people to change.” 

Bestselling writer Jonathan Safran Foer says in his new book We Are the Weather that we know about the climate catastrophe, but we don’t believe what’s coming – similar to his Jewish family in Poland. Everyone in the village knew in 1941 what the Nazis were up to, but only his grandmother felt terror, packed her things and fled. The others thought that things would turn out okay somehow. They were all killed. 

Extinction Rebellion is based on hard science but works with emotions. That’s not cultish but smart. 


Disability and the Royal Commission of Inquiry into Historical Abuse

by Hilary Stace

The Royal Commission on abuse in care is very significant for the disability community. For many decades last century, thousands of disabled children, and adults who managed to survive, were locked away from families and communities. This was not for anything they had done, but for the perceived threat their impairments posed to some powerful people who believed that disability was caused by ‘tainted heredity’. 

These widely held but false scientific beliefs held that impairments, particularly learning/intellectual disability and mental illness, but also other conditions such as epilepsy, were signs of genetic inferiority. These supposedly hereditary physical and intellectual defects caused consequent moral ‘degeneracy’ making disabled people less ‘fit’, threatening the ‘fitness’ of the rest of society.

Powerful politicians, doctors, public servants and others decided that disabled people must therefore be segregated from mainstream society to prevent their reproduction. Laws such as the 1911 Mental Defectives Act started the requirement to report and classify disabled people. Later, psychopaedic institutions such as Templeton or Kimberley were developed.

The IHC was founded in 1949 by parents who did not want their children sent away to institutions and instead wanted education and other facilities in their local communities. However, the children and their families faced much stigma and discrimination.

Despite the advocacy of these brave parents a government committee in the early 1950s recommended that the current institutions (‘mental deficiency colonies’) be expanded and parents encouraged (or coerced) into sending their disabled children to them by the age of five. A decade later a government documentary suggested that one in a thousand children should be in such places because of disability. There are families around New Zealand who didn’t find out that they had a missing family member until the institutions started to close in the late 1970s.

There are not many survivors of those times. Lives were often short and sad. But there are numerous reports of children denied identity, education, or contact with families, and exposed to physical , emotional and sexual abuse. The ‘back wards’ of the institutions were often places of horror. We need to hear and acknowledge this history to ensure such things never happen again.

The Royal Commission is working out how best to hear these stories, and to reach and welcome anyone who wants to talk to them, within a safe environment. This is the first inquiry in the world to cover all types of abuse in a variety of settings. It wants to hear the stories of disabled children, but also children who were sent to youth justice or abusive foster homes or experienced abuse in faith-based care. The main focus is 1950-1999, but survivors, family members or staff from outside this era will also be heard. So, coverage is large and complex.

One of the five Commissioners, Paul Gibson, has lived experience of disability and has long been an advocate for an inquiry into historic abuse through various roles he has had in the disability community including with DPA and more recently in the Human Rights Commission. For several reasons, stories of disability abuse are harder to find and hear than some others and need champions. 

The Royal Commission is highly political. The last government fought against the idea, but in Opposition Jacinda Ardern promised an inquiry and announced the Royal Commission in early 2018. Despite its independent status there are numerous and sometimes competing agendas going on. In addition, abuse is messy and complex – and abused and abusers may be the same people. To hear and acknowledge abuse it is necessary to share human vulnerability, which is not easy when we are used to adversarial hierarchical systems. 

Many people are working hard to make this Royal Commission work, but it will take time and the road will not be smooth.

You can find out more or register to talk to the commission through their website:



Catalonia, interrupted

by Robert Southon

Two years have now gone by since the Friday afternoon when my university-student son and I headed out of our Barcelona flat to a nearby primary school, designated as a polling station for the vote that was to be held the following Sunday: the referendum on Catalonia’s independence from Spain on October 1st, 2017. 

Why were we going to the primary school two days before the vote? To keep it open. The Spanish authorities had declared the referendum illegal, and had spent several weeks carrying out aggressive police raids, making arrests and censoring media and internet in an attempt to stop the vote organized by the Catalan government. Yet they had failed. 

So now it came down to whether people power could prevail over a central government which had simply turned its back on the whole issue for five years, while a massive grassroots movement had taken root wanting a vote on Catalonia becoming its own independent state within Europe.

On social media in the days before the referendum, appeals circulated to keep the schools and community centres open for weekend activities, so that the police would be legally unable to close them off. And folks turned up, all weekend – at our Escola Drassanes, and at hundreds of other designated polling stations across Catalonia. 

Those 48 hours were the most intense community happening I’ve ever been part of in our inner-city neighbourhood. All sorts of people came out of the woodwork and between comings and goings it was a glorious improvised mixture of playing ping-pong, sharing meals and standing up to an authoritarian state. Yes. The last of these, because on referendum day morning, the sense of being under assault was brought to a climax as thousands of Spanish police simply barged in and unleashed violence on ordinary people all over Catalonia. They didn’t stop the vote. They just disrupted it at about 5% of polling stations and bashed a hell of a lot of human flesh.

After that, how could things possibly ever be the same again? How could people carry on supporting a state whose only response to a reasonable democratic demand was orchestrated police violence? It would be turkeys voting for Christmas.

And yet the overall sensation at the close of the polls was tremendous, of having achieved something very important ourselves. The referendum had taken place, and it was not in the end the Catalan authorities but the people themselves who had brought it about and protected it. And gosh, how we celebrated – not only at places like Escola Drassanes, where the police never showed up, but at most of the centres where they did. “Hem votat, hem votat”, people roared. “We have voted, we have voted.”


We're two years on here in Catalonia, and as I write we are awaiting the imminent announcement of the verdicts and sentences in the Spanish Supreme Court mega-trial of 12 political and civil leaders who worked to facilitate the referendum and independence process. And if I am to explain how things are, I’d start by saying that, in daily life, Catalonia is as easy-going and relaxed as ever, in general. But politically, it’s as though we’re simply caught in a freeze-frame of one of those classic referendum images, of Spanish police batons poised in the air, ready to swing down on Catalan voters. 

When the images of police violence first went round the world, it was easy to feel that a red line had been crossed: in the heart of the EU, a government was mistreating its citizens and its democracy. So the international community would surely react, and a reluctant Spain, that had buried its head in the sand for five years, would now start to address the problem politically. The idea that the referendum would lead to talks, rather than instantly to full independence, was implicit in the plan.

Yet Spain simply clamped down, the EU didn’t react, the Catalan government lost the initiative while waiting, and the Catalan public, for all its energy, went home quietly at the end of the day as leaders suggested, even on the afternoon when the Catalan Parliament actually made a declaration of independence. On the other hand, the Spanish authoritarian steamroller, which had grunted into life in September to send 8,000 police to Catalonia with their batons and rubber bullets, now gathered speed.  

And although so much has happened since then, it has really all been that same photo: the administration of punishment, and the threat of worse. First, via a destructive six-month period of direct rule from Madrid. But mostly through continuing judicial action, justified under the “rule of law” but mostly just criminalizing a whole sector of the population: throwing independence leaders in jail to get them out of the way (denounced as unlawful by the UN, rejected by courts elsewhere in Europe) with hundreds more people either still facing trial or under investigation for their referendum roles. And a complete stonewall, under successive Spanish governments, to even acknowledging that Catalans might have a legitimate political demand – with at least two million voters supporting it, and a vast majority of Catalans telling pollsters they want to resolve the issue through a referendum. Yet the Spanish state’s ironclad constitution doesn’t allow it, so end of story. Spain, under pressure, has simply retreated into the centralist ideology of national unity that Franco left well entrenched at the end of his four-decade dictatorship. 

Yet, for all this, many Catalan turkeys are still voting for Christmas. Support for Catalan independence and its parties has not suddenly increased since the referendum; it remains only marginally larger electorally than the anti-independence bloc. So this is another sense in which the situation is frozen: we now have two polarized political blocs, but they don’t engage in meaningful politics on the major issue that separates them – since all the pro-Spain forces, both here and in Madrid, say it would be unconstitutional to even consider it. Meanwhile the independence camp’s actions are constantly stressed by the judicial repression. We’re not going to move towards any solution as long as this toxic political tension is maintained. 



But, glory be, a new phase now begins, and it’s tailor-made by the Spanish authorities to raise the political stress even further: the court verdicts, with a general election to follow a month later. The ground has already been prepared: last month, a 500-officer operation by Spanish police arrested nine Catalan independence activists on extremely vague “terrorism” charges, which instantly sent the entire Madrid-based media and Spanish political parties into feeding frenzy-mode Catalan terrorists! What a coincidence! What better way to prime the Spanish public for the verdicts in the country’s biggest trial in recent history, in which violence is the key point upon which the main charges stand or fall? 

The four-month trial of 12 Catalan pro-independence politicians and social leaders was farcical. The principal accusations, rebellion and sedition, respectively depend by definition on “violent uprising” and “tumultuous uprising” from the independence movement. Those never took place, and have never existed in the 21st century Catalan movement. The only violence seen was from the police on 1st October.

Some laws were certainly broken in the referendum process – there was disobedience of court orders, a serious enough matter but not enough to send anyone to prison. But beyond that, the court case showed that the 2017 referendum process in Catalonia managed two extremely powerful things: firstly, it challenged Spanish legality but in a way that was peaceful, juridically smart and based on broad democratic principles; and more unfortunately, it wounded Spanish nationalist pride to the point where the establishment closed ranks and resolved to put a stop to this business, come what may.

Thus, legal experts expect guilty verdicts and sizeable jail sentences for people who have been protagonists of Catalan public life both as capable leaders and admirable human beings. Naturally, there will be a huge reaction from Catalans, both in the independence movement and beyond; new protest platforms organizing mass civil disobedience have appeared in recent weeks, and hundreds of extra Spanish police are once again being sent to Catalonia. The pro-independence parties have been fraught with division lately on where they go now, but, as in 2017, the clumsy action of the Spanish authorities might once again galvanise people to put their bodies on the line to protest the manifest injustice and break the political log-jam. For better or for worse. 

And that’s just it: cynical though it seems, the Spanish establishment is counting on the reaction, and counting on being able to control and discredit it. Because the next matter on the political agenda is the Spanish general election, to be held on November 10th. It's a repeat of last April’s election, called by acting PM Pedro Sánchez’s Socialists because they couldn’t form a good enough coalition.

Their clear electoral strategy is now to reject the support from Catalan parties which brought them to power in 2018 and go the other way. They will take a tough line on Catalonia to gain the handful of seats from the right that they need to improve their parliamentary arithmetic. And Spain will see it live on all channels from here until the election. Can plucky Pedro challenge and slay the evil Catalan dragon in the nick of time, bring peace to the kingdom and be crowned new ruler? That reads like a fairy tale of course - and we know about fairy tales.  


Tadhg Stopford: Why I'm standing for the ADHB

by Tadhg Stopford

Hi there, just call me Tim.

We face tough problems, and I’d like to help, because there are solutions.

An Auckand District Health Board member has nominated me for as a candidate for the ADHB, because her MS-related pain and fatigue is reduced with hemp products from Rotorua.  Nothing else helped her. 

If I can get on to ADHB, my goal is to drive changes in our public health approach that will rapidly improve public health and reduce our health spend.

My family have chronic health issues that are not served by the current model. Your family probably will too at some point. We are all getting older.

But our public health system is collapsing under the weight of obesity, diabetes, cancer, and age-related illnesses (dementia, arthritis, etc). That's why our DHBs are half a billion in the red, and bleeding cash.

Ironically, that cash burn isn’t even fixing those chronic conditions, just spending money.

So, we need to change the model, quickly, if we are to prosper.

Evidence shows a homegrown healthcare solution can reduce many of those problems.

I’m a concerned father of two, a history teacher, and, with Dr Ben Jansen and Dr Graham Gulbransen, wrote NZs first recognised Hemp medicine/Medical cannabis course for GPs in 2017. 

Most people don’t realise that Industrial Hemp is a unique functional food, and that ‘medical cannabis’ is a bit of a swindle really. We can hugely improve our health system and economy if we use hemp properly as a food and dietary supplement; not just as a medicine.

Although a licensed crop for over a decade, with all plants and farmers licensed by the Director General of Health; anti-competitive practices by presumably captured regulators, mean we are not being allowed to use hemp properly.

This is terrible for our people, and local economy. We are passing up the triple win of improved health outcomes, reduced spending, and developing local industry.

We can. We can protect our families and friends better, cheaper; with industrial hemp.

That’s why Italians are paying for hemp flowers instead of taking publicly-funded medicines. Because hemp flower is legal there, and its proving helpful without harm. Not only that, but public access to hemp flower hits organised crime revenues, and crime itself.

The Hemp Foundation has taught hemp medicine to six hundred and fifty medical professionals since 2017, and they support our plan to reduce health costs and improve health outcomes with hemp flower/food/medicine.

We have supportive senior doctors and agencies, and are actively working to educate and collect evidence that speeds progress in this exciting field. We have three RCTs (randomised controlled trials) in various stages, including one at DHB level.

Let’s reduce our health burden, and improve the health and wealth of all kiwis.  It starts with education. Let’s face our future together, and improve our foundations.

For more information:  www.thehempfoundation.org.nz

Introduction to the Endocannabinoid System

Clinical Endocannabinoid Deficiency Reconsidered (PubMed)

Project CBD


Drug History: What happened when Dunedin cancelled methadone

by *Rex

This article is about what can happen if a drug substitution programme is suddenly cancelled. 

In 1978, the Dunedin Hospital Board followed a New Zealand-wide trend and began an opiate substitution programme for local addicts using the synthetic narcotic, methadone. The main aims were to try to stabilise the lives of the addicts and to stop them from committing crimes to obtain drugs as well as to limit the spread of diseases from sharing needles. Prior to this, a few local doctors had been prescribing on an ad hoc basis for the small number of addicts in Dunedin, but there had been no overall strategy or control.

A pharmacy in the city centre was designated as the pick-up point and daily doses of oral non-injectable methadone were dispensed to around a dozen individuals. As part of the programme all of the methadone users attended regular counseling with staff at the Department of Psychological Medicine and the emphasis was on controlled withdrawal.

Dosages were also capped at a maximum of 50 milligrams per day and this was gradually reduced until the addict became drug-free. If people couldn’t cope with this regime there was some discretionary leeway to allow them to withdraw more slowly or begin the programme again.  Long term maintenance (which is now the norm) was definitely not supposed to be available. 

By 1986, the number of people on methadone had risen to somewhere in the region of 120. What caused this big jump in the number of opiate addicts in Dunedin to occur so quickly?

There were two main reasons.

Firstly, there was an increase in the supply of illegal drugs. Although the collapse of the Mr Asia drug ring had reduced the amount of overseas heroin on the streets of New Zealand, home-bake heroin – made in clandestine local laboratories from prescription pain-killers – had become widely available. Many people had also started stealing opium poppies in the summer months and when the resin from these was combined with acetyl anhydride (stolen from chemists) it was easy to produce a rough and ready dose of morphine/heroin at no financial cost. In the early eighties many addicts started growing their own supplies of poppies. 

Secondly, sometime in late 1984 or early 1985 the methadone clinic got a new director, Dr James Hannah, a well-respected physician who was the head doctor at  Cherry Farm Mental Hospital. For most of the week the programme was based at the hospital (which was a 30 minute drive from the city) and the people on methadone were only seen one day at week in the city itself, first at the Psych Service building at the Psychology Department and later at Wakari Hospital.

While the previous regime had stuck closely to overseas models – with a regime of urine testing prior to prescribing to make sure the potential client was really truly addicted and not just dissembling in order to get free drugs – Dr Hannah dispensed with these tests and it was possible to get onto the programme at a high dose on the first appointment.

It was easy to get on the programme now and it was also easier to stay on too, as Dr Hannah was more flexible about allowing people to withdraw much more slowly. As a result many casual users, who in different circumstances might not have become addicts, got onto the programme with little more than a good story and a few fresh needle marks on their arms.

There was good money to be made in selling their weekend takeaway doses (when the pharmacy was closed) and some young people were coached into signing up by older established methadone users who wanted access to their supplies. For almost two years it was so easy to get methadone in Dunedin that some people moved to Dunedin from other parts of the country (particularly Christchurch) to take advantage of the looser controls. This new generation of fresh addicts often saw methadone as a useful currency that they could sell and/or swap for other drugs at weekends. When Dr Hannah retired in 1986, methadone had become the most widely available and cheapest (at $1 per mg) narcotic in Dunedin.

This big increase in the population of local drug addicts did not go unnoticed by the local media or the Hospital Board, which decided that it was time to take action.

In September of 1986  Professor Paul Mullen, the head of the Hospital Board’s Department of Psychological Medicine, which administered the clinic, appointed a new director, Dr Bruce Spittle. His clear mandate was to reduce the number of people on methadone.

Spittle’s first move was to announce that no new drug-substitution programmes would be started. His second was to force all of the clients onto rapid-reduction programmes, often one milligram a day as opposed to one milligram a week or every two weeks. This may not sound like much but anyone addicted to methadone can tell you how painful a rapid reduction can be. Once people’s doses had been reduced to nothing, that was it and there was no more practical help from the clinic.

“Dr Spittle told me I was obviously an incurable drug addict and he gave me a final prescription which reduced my dose to zero at the end of the month. Did I stop using drugs? Absolutely not but I had to do so illegally again.” (Anonymous Dunedin drug user) 

In an article in the Otago Daily Times, Dr. K.W. Berenson, the Chief Superintendent of the Hospital Board denied that people were being forced off methadone against their will.

“No patients at present on the methadone treatment will be taken off unless the person concerned asks for the treatment to be discontinued.” (ODT 25/9/86)  

In the following day's paper Professor Mullen also asserted that patients who were having their methadone treatment reduced were “receiving smaller doses by mutual agreement.” (ODT 26/9/86) He went on to say that if some people were “finding their reduction too difficult to cope with then consideration would be given to actively stabilising their doses.”

 Both these statements were hotly contested by the affected individuals and some of them organized a support and advocacy group called Forum X.

The group's spokesperson, Mike Martin, although not a drug user himself predicted that the “stabilising effect” provided by methadone was infinitely preferable to the obvious alternatives which were “more home-bake laboratories and more crude street drugs.” He predicted that the “social cost (of forcing people off programme) would be enormous.” (‘Withdrawing Drug Treatment Warning’ ODT 28/8/86)

Just four days after Professor Mullen had said that no-one was being forced off the programme, he did an abrupt about-face and announced that it was now being axed completely. It’s hard to believe he made this decision in just four days!

In an article entitled ‘Board curtails Drug Programme’ (ODT 30/9/86) he admitted that people were being removed from the programme whether they liked it or not. At the same time the clinic also withdrew its authorisation for any other general practitioners to prescribe methadone to patients (ODT 30/9/86).

“It is clear that methadone, which was supposed to wean addicts off their addiction, did not work. It simply substituted one addiction for another.” (ODT 30/9/86)

He also said that anyone withdrawing from methadone “had no excuse to turn to crime or any other drugs.”

Over the next few months practically all of the people on the programme had their doses rapidly reduced to zero and by late 1986 there was no longer a methadone programme in Dunedin. 

Some of those affected left the city and moved to other areas whose hospital boards still had a functioning programme. But many others had no choice but to remain in the city. They were still addicts. What could they do? According to Bruce Spittle they could simply stop taking drugs. He didn’t take them and they didn’t need to either. Most of the affected people resorted to two main solutions. They began stealing drugs from pharmacies/doctors/vets etc, as well as poppies in summer and/or found a sympathetic general practitioner who would prescribe some kind of daily opiate regime for them.

By the mid-eighties all pharmacies had modern electronic alarm systems and it was much more difficult to break into them than it had been the previous decade. Despite this, people started trying. The main method was to use a quick smash-and-grab approach to get bottles of opium tincture or packets of codeine to convert into heroin. 

Several sympathetic local doctors had been shocked by the closure of the programme and began to prescribe alternative narcotics to former methadone users. These included codeine, palfium and pethidine, but by far the most common drug prescribed was opium tincture, or paregoric as it is sometimes called. It is a mixture of opium, alcohol and camphor which used to be the basis of cough medicines like Gees linctus.

It was easy for the addicts to burn off the alcohol, freeze out the camphor and turn the opium into an injectable heroin by adding acetyl anhydride. Paregoric quickly became the new drug of choice in Dunedin and was readily available for 50 cents a milligram on the street. More and more doctors were persuaded (or bullied) into prescribing the drug.

Two pharmacists actually started selling it out the back door to certain customers. One was caught and struck off the Pharmaceutical Register. A number of doctors were also censured in 1987/88 for prescribing or over-prescribing paregoric and other drugs to former methadone patients and their ability to prescribe opiates was curtailed. 

“I came back to Dunedin from overseas with a heroin habit and found out they’d cancelled the methadone programme. My doctor started writing paregoric for me and I started buying it from other users as well. Soon I was cooking up and shooting it two or three times a day.” (Anonymous Dunedin drug user) 

Several months after the last few people had been forced off the programme Dunedin’s Midweeker newspaper reported (19/4/87) that there had already been 20 pharmacy burglaries so far that year compared with four at the corresponding time in the previous year. Three months later, a story in the Otago Daily Times headed 'Increase in Pharmacy Burglaries' (15/7/87) reported that the number of pharmacy burglaries was now up to 26, plus 21 break-ins to doctors' surgeries and vet clinics – and six to doctors' houses. 

In the article Dr Berensen denied that this increase had anything to do with shutting down the methadone programme and put it down to “an increase in such burglaries throughout the country”, although he provided no evidence to support this contention.

As well as the increase in burglaries at least three people died and a number of others were hospitalised in 1987 after injecting sodium pentobarbitone stolen from veterinary clinics. Another person died from an overdose of paregoric.

In April of 1987,  31 year-old Steven Duncan died when one of his heart valves became infected. He had been on a methadone programme in Australia and tried several times to seek help at the clinic in Dunedin but had been refused.  He was already in poor health from years of abuse and he had predicted to many people that he would die if he was forced back to using impure street drugs such as paregoric. (ODT 16/4/86) 

In May, frustrated and depressed by the death of his good friend Duncan, Project X founder Mike Martin committed suicide. 

On December 29, 32 year-old Beverly Edwards, one f those forced off the programme, died of an overdose.  The corner’s report stated that the cause of death was “the effects of asphyxia complicating a convulsive episode occurring during the partial withdrawal from the drug, dextromoranmide (palfium).” She had been given a short prescription of this drug by a local doctor when she could not get any methadone. Her son still holds Dr Spittle partly responsible for her death.  

The Hospital Board’s heavy-handed approach was beginning to draw criticism from concerned health professionals. As far back as September 1986, several staff had voiced their concerns about the new policies during a meeting of Drug Treatment Centre personnel and the Health Department’s Drug Advisory Committee. The Medical Superintendent of Auckland’s Carrington Hospital, Dr. F McDonald, also expressed “grave reservations” about the Board’s approach.

How many of these pharmacy burglaries and deaths can be laid at the door of the Hospital Board is of course impossible to say but the board must surely take some responsibility for what occurred when people who had been given a legal recourse to cope with their drug addictions were suddenly forced back into the criminal world.

In an article in the New Zealand Pharmacy Journal by Mr Lex Graham (cited in the ODT in an article called ‘Disturbing Drug Treatment Trends’ (20/11/86) the owner of Knox Pharmacy, who had been dispensing methadone since the programme started in 1978, gave his cautious backing to drug substitution programmes, saying that in his opinion both the addicts and society are on balance “just a little better off.” He acknowledged that methadone provided many people with much-needed stability and made a subtle criticism of the Board’s policy by noting that  “A prescriber (Dr Spittle) at the Drug Dependency Clinic has a fairly inflexible approach to the problem.”

He also said that pharmacies were becoming increasingly attractive to burglars because of the “storage of additional controlled drugs” (i.e. paregoric) now that many former methadone patients were now being "maintained" on this drug by local doctors. 

A number of Dunedin doctors, not just those who were prescribing to former addicts, did not approve of the way the Hospital Board was handling the issue but were reluctant to publicly criticise the board in case the criticism came back to hurt them. Dr John Dobson from Christchurch was freer to speak his mind and in an article entitled ‘Methadone Treatment Policy Criticised” he said that he thought some aspects of the Dunedin Drug Clinic were “inhumane.” (ODT 25/9/86)

A private survey of 25 ex-patients found that 100% had continued to take narcotics since being forced off and that 100% of them would prefer to go back on methadone (or some other narcotic) and not be forced to withdraw unless they asked to. These survey forms and some other private submissions were presented to the Chairman of the Hospital Board, Mike Cooper by Mike Martin shortly before his death.

Even nationwide media had woken up to the fact that something strange was happening in Dunedin. In May of 1988 More magazine published a feature article about the death of Beverly Edwards and the situation with the clinic in Dunedin. 

Soon afterwards, Hospital Board chairman Mike Cooper called for an inquiry and organised interviews with doctors, social workers, nurses, the police, probation officers and drug users themselves. After these interviews an all-day session was organised at the hospital with experts flown in from all over the country.  Eventually, later that year, Dr Spittle tendered his resignation and went overseas on leave.

Dr Gill Carradoc-Davies, a clinical psychiatrist for the Hospital Board, was offered the position of clinic director and accepted. Before taking it up she went on a two-month study tour of drug rehabilitation clinics in the United States and England. In December 1988, the Dunedin Drug Clinic once again began prescribing methadone for local addicts. 

Nowadays, Dunedin drug addicts, like most around the country, are offered a choice between methadone and suboxone (another synthetic narcotic) and can stay on a drug substitution programme as long as they need to without being pressured to come off drugs before they are ready to. One seldom hears of a pharmacy being burgled, no one is prescribing or selling paregoric and hopefully one day soon both AIDS and Hepatitis C will both be just be a bad memory.