Hard News by Russell Brown


Cannabis: Who owns Say Nope to Dope anyway?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Family Matters: a post about 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Best wishes, everyone. Stay safe, be well.


Public Address Word of the Year 2020: Doomscrolling

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

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

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

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

1. Doomscrolling

2. Bubble

3. #NZHellhole

4. Covid-19

5. You're on mute

6. Lockdown

7. Covidiot

8. Unprecedented

9. Bloomfield

10. Go hard, go early

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

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


Public Address Word of the Year 2020: The Vote!

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

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

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


Public Address Word of the Year 2020: Discussion and nomination

In the normal course of things, I launch the Public Address Word of the Year with a post looking back at all the previous winners. But 2020 patently has not been a normal year, so I'll skip that part. (You can still check the record here if you like.)

I've made a change to this, the korero phase, too. It's a given that our thoughts will revolve around a particular global phenomenon this year, so  you'll only be able to nominate one word per post. And three in total.

For the same reason, I've tweaked the prize criteria. Traditionally, the first person to nominate the winning word has won one of our prizes. This year, I'll draw the nomination prize from the top 10 words in the final vote, so you'll have a chance to win even if you're not in in the first few minutes of nominating. It's a bit like how they changed the four-try bonus point in rugby to make it worth continuing to chuck the ball around.

So you, the readers, nominate words in this discussion. After two or three days of the korero, I'll cull the nominations into a long list for the public vote. As ever, there will be a prize drawn at random from everyone who votes.

Regarding those prizes, I'm delighted to say that Nura has come to the party again and we'll have two pairs of the new Nuraloop in-ear earphones to give away. They're the on-the-go version of the original Nuraphone smart headphones. They really are the thing for briefly, mercifully blocking out the news of the day and embracing the healing power of music. Although you could also listen to podcasts.

Righto, I'm wearied by the effort of writing a whole blog post without using any potential nominee words, so it's over to you all now. Give it heaps.