Hard News by Russell Brown

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Hard News: The place where things happen strangely

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  • Lilith __,

    How fascinating. Please tell us more as it happens.

    Dunedin • Since Jul 2010 • 3887 posts Report Reply

  • Te Radar,

    Well, that was informatively depressing.

    Auckland • Since Apr 2010 • 11 posts Report Reply

  • Shane Le Brun,

    watching with anticipation.

    Since Mar 2015 • 46 posts Report Reply

  • andin,

    Obama ---- when he rolls up

    Sorry couldnt resist ;))

    raglan • Since Mar 2007 • 1881 posts Report Reply

  • Russell Brown,

    Back enjoying a Brooklyn 1/2 Ale and some chips in my hotel room. (These stainless steel rubbish bins hold a whole bag of ice perfectly!)

    I couldn’t get into the viewing area above the General Assembly for the opening this morning, but it turned out to be better watching it on screens in a breakout room.

    The UN deputy secretary general wanted everyone to get along, even though “some aspects of the drug agenda are sensitive and controversial”. He talked up the human rights language and references to “proportionality” in sentencing in the text of the outcome document but said “it means, in our view, refraining from the death penalty”.

    The SDGs got more airtime, as “a new tool in our hands, which we must use”.

    UNODC chief Yury Fedotov focused on the “drug policy must put people first” language, but still sounded very much like he was defending the orthodoxy.

    Werner Sipp, President of the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB), was interesting, if contradictory. He allowed for “some flexibility” in the way states interpreted the conventions, but “flexibility has limits – it does not extend to any non-medical use of drugs. This was a pretty clear dig at the US and was applauded by both prohibitionists (for obvious reasons) and reformers, who heard it as saying that the US and others can’t pretend they’re staying within the conventions and needed to reform them if they want to legalise. He slammed militarised drug policy but concluded “neither is it necessary to seek so-called new approaches to the problem. We don’t need new approaches."

    Switzerland, Brazil and Costa Rica spoke to to motion and all three slammed the absence of a rejection of the death penalty for drug offences. After all the foregoing talk about “balance”, “consensus” and “integrated” and “friendly” nations, it became pretty fucking clear what a lot of signatories felt about the document. There’s an emerging theme of “we signed it not because it’s actually good but because it’s a first step”.

    And then … Indonesia, whose speaker talked up the “sovereign right” of countries to choose capital punishment (subtext: all the other countries are picking on us). He said that China, Singapore, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Iran all wished to have their names attached to his statement on the matter. Ugh.

    WHO director Margaret Chan was, I thought, a bit absurd and disappointing. She banged on about the brave new approaches of her country, Hong Kong, which turned out to mostly be adopting methadone substitution 30 years after countries like NZ. Her story about someone getting their jewellery stolen didn’t make for much of a metric for success.

    Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto gave the speech of the day – passionate, focsed and practical. It was all the more remarkable given that he’d cancelled his appearance a few days before, in what seemed to be a rejection of the disappointing UNGASS process. Others suspected it might be because he just didn’t care that much, but that’s certainly not how it came across.

    He declared that that “Mexico has paid too high a price” under the drug war, which had “not reduced production, trafficking or consumption of drugs” since is began in the 1970s.

    He explicitly endorsed medical cannabis and wound up by issuing what sounded a lot like a call for a legal, regulated drug market.

    I listened to a few others, including a depressing speech from China, whose rep bitched about other countries “injecting political factors into drug control”, and then took a break.

    We’d just got seated at one of the roundtables which are supposed to sort out details of how principles are acted on when word came through that Peter Dunne was up soon at the General Assembly. It had been a palaver getting in to the roundtable, then we had to run around finding the right door into the General Assembly.

    Dunne’s speech was very good – emphasising the need for boldness in reform (I wonder if this is as much a message to the government back home as to the by-then sparsely-populated room) although I’m still snickering about the phrase “the pillar of boldness”.

    Most remarkably, he talked explicitly of a “regulated market”:

    Responsible regulation is the key to reducing drug-related harm and achieving long-term success in drug control approaches.

    The key word here is responsible – we must not conflate boldness with recklessness – changes in policy must ensure that the likelihood of harm is minimised.

    It is imperative that any move to a regulated market is an authority-led process, and that we do not find ourselves in the position of playing catch up.

    Closing lines:

    If nations continue to muddle along, choosing the easy options and throwing the problems to their police and judiciaries, then the answer will be very little.

    If the pace of change picks up, appropriate regulation is put in train and bold, innovative, compassionate and proportionate policy thrives, then the answer will be progress.

    I came back to the hotel to regather and do some work after that, and on the way a UN cop explained to me why access had been such a pain today. Partly just managing limited spectator space, but also that today had been a “dry run for Thursday”, when Obama comes. I actually still have little idea of where I’ll be allowed to be on Thursday. These guys need to work a little on their conference fu.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 22754 posts Report Reply

  • Russell Brown,

    Tomorrow is a big day – the NZ Permanent Mission has kindly given us the use of its boardroom and I'm going to interview as many people for Media Take as I can.

    We have NZ delegation members Tuari Potiki (who speaks on Thursday) and Papa Nahi, as well as Mexican journalist Lisa Marie Sanchez and Sanho Tree. We're hoping for Nick Clegg and Helen Clark. I really hope we get Clark – the UNDP contribution seems hugely influential here – it has given the whole event some important focus.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 22754 posts Report Reply

  • Mike O'Connell, in reply to Russell Brown,

    This is a brilliant running commentary, keep it coming Russell. I do hope Peter Dunne will unfold those same points in his speech about responsible regulation to his cabinet colleagues, Police Association etc when returns.

    Christchurch • Since Dec 2006 • 379 posts Report Reply

  • Kevin McCready,

    Auckland • Since Jun 2013 • 119 posts Report Reply

  • BenWilson,

    I wish I could admire Dunne’s own personal pillar of boldness in so far as what he’s achieved in drug reform in the very, very long time he’s been the person responsible for it in this country.

    Ultimately I think it always comes down to seeing the reduction of harm as the maximization of good. It’s an extremely weak framework for moral guidance, because it is always framed in the negative, it always tends towards more and more prohibition. It simply doesn’t even have the vocabulary to express any other part of goodness than the absence of harm. This is so very far from how practically everyone in the world actually understands morality that it’s no wonder it makes such painstakingly slow progress, with many reversals.

    We’ve unleashed an optimizer on the wrong objective. It’s like we handed over maximizing profits to accountants who are only allowed to look at cost cutting. Then we struggle to understand why our business fucked out when they sold all the manufacturing equipment. We reverse that. We can’t understand why they never have a good idea, why somehow even with all the cost cutting, profits still go down.

    Dunne is stuck squarely in this. I don’t doubt he has honest intentions to reduce harm. He just doesn’t have any other angle on drugs than harm, and so can’t understand that every cut he makes just fucks something else up, that he never has (because he never can, because he’s following a broken idea) any way of improving the overall harm/good balance in our society. So he reduces harm, and kills goods in doing so, which causes more harms to show up. And this could go on forever… The only way a broken optimizer can be set on the right path is to rework the objective function. Otherwise it dutifully keeps plugging away at the wrong objective, diligently and patiently, and often very cleverly. And it will just keep fucking things up.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 10633 posts Report Reply

  • Mikaere Curtis, in reply to BenWilson,

    Ben, I'm not sure what you are getting at. Harm reduction is a reasonable model if you consider harm can come from sources other than the directly from the substance being consumed (e.g. actions of others such as drunk people or your drug dealer's gang connections).

    Under a harm reduction model you would see MDMA being legalised as it would lead to a massive reduction in harm associated with alcohol (and probably a rise in MDMA-related harm - but an overall massive reduction in harm).

    Similarly, you could have medical-grade opiates available on prescription for junkies to prevent them from overdosing on street-grade opiates of unknown provenance and strength.

    So, less violence and fewer deaths, what's not to like about that ?

    Tamaki Makaurau • Since Nov 2006 • 528 posts Report Reply

  • Sacha, in reply to Russell Brown,

    the pillar of boldness

    more of Glucina's thrusting poplars :)

    Ak • Since May 2008 • 19686 posts Report Reply

  • Russell Brown, in reply to Mikaere Curtis,

    A more direct consequence of a harm-reduction approach would be the struggle to get raw cannabis legalised and regulated – it would run counter to NZ public health strategies to be green-lighting smoking. Perhaps cannabis would be more likely to get the nod as cannabis products. Or do you run a public health campaign telling everyone how much healthier using a vapouriser is?

    At any rate, the same philosophy would dictate that you would avoid doing further harm to people who chose to smoke anyway.

    With respect to Ben’s substantive point, I’m not sure the kind of goods he means can easily be conceived by the state. Harms manifest at a population level – you measure them in your hospitals and courts. But is there any good way to measure how much more people enjoy music or sex, or just feel happier, when they take drugs? Maybe only individuals can conceive those goods because those goods are individual.

    One way this crosses a line is in the case of Uruguay’s determination to makes legal cannabis a state monopoly. It’s not going to work if you don’t provide the pot people want to buy. I guess demand would be somewhat inelastic – but the market giving everyone exactly the pot they want in Colorado (including for health reasons) seems to make more sense.

    You smell weed all the time on the streets of Manhattan now. And not just weed, but intensely perfumed smoke from what I take to be modern strains. It’s an article of faith in New Zealand that we have the best weed. I’d say it’s more likely we’re yokels these days, taking what we get.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 22754 posts Report Reply

  • Russell Brown,

    Otago Uni having a brag about the other New Zealand speaker, Tuari Potiki.

    http://www.otago.ac.nz/otagobulletin/news/otago609502.html

    He's a great guy, real sense of presence and composure about him.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 22754 posts Report Reply

  • James Dunne,

    Of course, if one was to remove cannabis from the Misuse of Drugs Act and approve recreational cannabis-based products through the, ahem, Psychoactive Substances Act, it seems likely that it would be hard to demonstrate that a product where you inhaled smoke would pose no greater than a low risk of harm to those who used it.

    Wellington • Since Sep 2013 • 25 posts Report Reply

  • Rich of Observationz,

    Wouldn't a label with: "for culinary use only, not to be smoked" solve the problem?

    Really, if you take a maximal view of a government's duty to prevent its subjects harming themselves, then it becomes hard to move on from prohibition. It's only if one can make a step to government educating, dissuading and taxing, but not prohibiting, that we can change. This isn't evidence, it's philosophy.

    And the same thing would apply to a putative "safe" substance that's been through a testing process - can the government take the responsibility of vouching for its safety? They don't do this for pharmaceuticals - merely asserting that the benefits are believed to outweigh the risks and harms.

    The tacit assumption is that a medical benefit, however minor (getting a stiffy, not getting a headache) is adequate to outweigh a non-zero risk or harm potential. Individuals are not, however, given the agency to decide when the perceived benefits to them of using a recreational substance can similarly outweigh the risk/harm.

    Back in Wellington • Since Nov 2006 • 5550 posts Report Reply

  • andin, in reply to Russell Brown,

    Maybe only individuals can conceive those goods because those goods are individual.

    Interesting point, and seeing as we're generalizing(cause thats what ya do at conferences, unless someones got something earthshattering to say on a subject).
    All people and animals, yes, will experience something a high?
    But seeing as we're talking 'umans here that general something is where understanding it runs into individuals.

    Perhaps we could all have a smoke and talk about it, yes all of us. Figure out a lot of stuff thats going Kablooey. Buckle up for the next few centuries as this GW thing runs through our planet. Dont know where that word worm "navel gazing is boring" came about. When in certain states of mind...

    Oh thats right! we've got all those fats cats that need supporting.
    What was I thinking...

    raglan • Since Mar 2007 • 1881 posts Report Reply

  • James Dunne,

    Well, the assumption with medicines is that the benefit outweighs the risk. That's why chemotherapy drugs are approved for use even though they're very poisonous and very bad for you: because dying of cancer is even worse. Nobody would approve a drug with chemotherapy-like side effects that just treated a headache.

    The assumption in the PSA is more or less that using an approved product certainly doesn't give you any health benefits and the other benefits you gain from using it (i.e. that it is fun) aren't really quantifiable. Hence the only acceptable risk is a low one - _not_ no risk whatsoever, mind, which I think is a bit of a jump forward from the old prohibitionist model which was that controlled drugs delivered no benefits whatsoever and therefore there was no level of risk that was acceptable.

    The difficulty with leaving that balancing exercise to individuals is that by and large they are pretty bad at it. Which would be fine, except that somebody who has come down on the wrong side of the "should I take methamphetamine" calculus is likely to be something of a nuisance to others, to put it mildly.

    Wellington • Since Sep 2013 • 25 posts Report Reply

  • Alfie,

    A brief aside.

    Otamatea Grey Power in Northland have voted unanimously to write to Parliament lobbying for cannabis to be legalised.

    With age comes wisdom. ;-)

    Dunedin • Since May 2014 • 1386 posts Report Reply

  • BenWilson, in reply to Russell Brown,

    But is there any good way to measure how much more people enjoy music or sex, or just feel happier, when they take drugs?

    I think there is. You ask them. Or, if you want to build it all into harm, you ask them how harmed they feel from having the right to it taken away. You get them to make comparisons to other harms. You put it all in context. You treat the decision exactly the way that the people making the decision treat the decision - as a balance of positives and negatives. Quite a few of the positives are straightforwardly quantifiable as economic good right away - a drug economy has dollars flowing around it in.

    We do it for every other kind of decision. When we decide to put in a huge motorway junction we balance out the goods and harms. When we legalized homosexuality, we considered also the happiness of homosexuals, not just the harm that might come from unrestrained buggery or whatever it is that people were worried about. When we let people drive cars we consider the amazing power that gives them to get where they want to go, as well as the danger that it poses to life and limb. When we prescribe an old man his cialis, we're considering his right to enjoy sex and balancing that against the not insubstantial risk of him dying during it.

    I don't see why it can't be done for recreational drugs. I'd say that there could still be plenty in which the harm is far too great for them to be legalized, but at least the safe ones would have the basic framework in place for acceptance. Not as an ill to be controlled, a madness in humans to be treated, but a trade-off with ups and downs, something a crazy large number of people do because they want to do it.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 10633 posts Report Reply

  • BenWilson, in reply to Mikaere Curtis,

    Under a harm reduction model you would see MDMA being legalised as it would lead to a massive reduction in harm associated with alcohol (and probably a rise in MDMA-related harm – but an overall massive reduction in harm).

    See, therein lies my problem. If reducing alcohol related harm is your argument to legalize MDMA, it will never be legalized. All you manage to do with that is to build a very strong argument for prohibition of alcohol. The more evidence you amass to that effect the stronger you make the case for prohibition. The evidence you want to amass is twofold - firstly that MDMA is not more harmful than alcohol, and secondly that the people who take it like it more than they like alcohol. That second part is what I see as absent. You can't give a framework that says MDMA has a positive aspect to it, that the users love it, that they have a good time, that this is good in itself. It doesn't need to stand off against another harm to gain it's own goodness. It already is good. It should be seen to be good.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 10633 posts Report Reply

  • BenWilson,

    I'm well aware, by the way, that you could do what I'm saying under a harm minimization regime. You account for loss of freedom and rights as a harm. You measure it. If this was the way that it was being used, I'd have no issue with it - it would be equivalent to balancing harms and goods, and simply treating goods as negative harms. Equivalently you could make it a good maximization framework, with harms being treated as negative goods.

    But it doesn't seem to be done this way. The framing just doesn't allow it. I may be wrong about this, that people do add up loss of good as a harm somewhere, that a lot of work has been done to build a framework more like what I'm saying. But if it has been done, I've completely missed it.

    As I see it, the right to take psychoactives has only the one good that anyone ever counts, that it could be right, a liberty. This massive, unquantifiable, catch all, good, something that reeks of libertarians who suffer from the reverse problem, a complete inability to see true social harms. It's abstract and pitted against countless concrete examples of harms, and endless statistics to that effect. But statistics the other way could be collected. They just aren't. The only good thing harm minimization can ever say about a drug is that another drug is worse.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 10633 posts Report Reply

  • Lilith __, in reply to Russell Brown,

    We have NZ delegation members Tuari Potiki (who speaks on Thursday) and Papa Nahi, as well as Mexican journalist Lisa Marie Sanchez and Sanho Tree. We're hoping for Nick Clegg and Helen Clark. I really hope we get Clark – the UNDP contribution seems hugely influential here – it has given the whole event some important focus.

    Wow, exciting show!

    Dunedin • Since Jul 2010 • 3887 posts Report Reply

  • Mikaere Curtis,

    If reducing alcohol related harm is your argument to legalize MDMA, it will never be legalized. All you manage to do with that is to build a very strong argument for prohibition of alcohol.

    You forget that we tried to prohibit alcohol and it was a complete failure and we aren't going to do that again. So, no, it is not an argument for prohibiting alcohol, it is an argument for MDMA because it reduces an existing, chronic and serious set of harms.

    I see harm reduction as a step along the path to a proper approach that recognises the potential benefits that can flow from responsible psychoactive substance consumption. Kind of like we had to have the Homosexual Law Reform Act and then almost 20 years later the Civil Unions Act and then less than 10 years later we finally got gay marriage.

    These idiots who think the sky is going to fall in if we liberalise, even slightly, on matters around what you can do with your own body can be overcome, but only if we make incremental improvements. And that's where harm minimisation comes in, the benefits outweigh the negatives.

    Sure, I get your position, but I don't think it is the one that will move us forward.

    Tamaki Makaurau • Since Nov 2006 • 528 posts Report Reply

  • Sacha, in reply to Mikaere Curtis,

    These idiots who think the sky is going to fall in if we liberalise

    will die, eventually

    Ak • Since May 2008 • 19686 posts Report Reply

  • Sacha, in reply to BenWilson,

    the right to take psychoactives has only the one good that anyone ever counts, that it could be right, a liberty.

    what about other framing like improved self-knowledge, and joy, even? not all about narrow libertarian isms.

    Ak • Since May 2008 • 19686 posts Report Reply

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