Hard News by Russell Brown


Cannabis reform is a serious matter – so be serious about it

I've wondered here several times where an organised "no" campaign in next year's cannabis referendum might come from. Outside of Family First, it's still hard to tell where the opposition emerges. But I think what we are starting to hear is the sound of two hands wringing.

The Listener ushered in the new year with an editorial that seemed to lean heavily on Bob McCoskrie's talking points. What factual claims the editorial makes are both ominous and vague  and it appears that the author has not made any attempt to read source research. There is this passage, for instance:

Rates for use by all people aged 12 and over are nearly twice as high as in non-legal states. Underaged users – those 12 to 17 – are now nearly 50% more likely to have consumed cannabis in the previous month, according to the US Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

I had a look at the most recent SAMHSA report, from which I imagine this claim is taken. Yes, adolescent past-month use in legal-weed states is generally higher than those that have not legalised. But the highest rate – 10.75% – is in Vermont, where cannabis was not legal at the time the data were gathered (2016-2017). And the difference in every legal state was evident long before legalisation. In Colorado, for instance, past-month use among adolescents was higher in 2008-2009 than it was in 2017, three years after legalisation (data for all states here). Yup, teen cannabis use has dropped significantly in Colorado since legalisation. The SAMHSA survey also found that past-month youth use had reduced significantly year-on-year – from 11% to 9%.

The story is similar in all other legal states: youth use is either stable or declining since legalisation. It's worth noting that some of those states had forms of decriminalisation and/or loose medicinal laws before they legalised. That could suggest that fully legalising and regulating is more effective than any half-measure. That's actually the potential implication of another statistic highlighted in the editorial:

In Colorado, which legalised the drug, initially for medicinal use, in 2010, youth cannabis-related emergency hospital admissions quadrupled in the decade to 2015.

There is no doubt that cannabis-related emergency admissions have increased in both Colorado and Washington state since legalisation. But at the same time, in both states, admissions to drug treatment programmes and police arrests have declined. That might be about one-off incidents related to the states' initially way-too-strong retail edibles (which have since been reined in). Or it could be that people, and young people in particular, are now more willing to present themselves to ED when they've overdone it.

At any rate, more Americans are using cannabis – but the increase seems to be solely among adults. There are also more near-daily users – yet the number of Americans diagnosable with Cannabis Use Disorder is stable (pages 24-26 here).

Part of the problem is that there's so much epidemiological data that it's easy to cherry-pick in service of a belief. We're all guilty of motivated reasoning – and I don't exclude myself. But I think anyone writing a major editorial has a duty to do more than simply copy someone else's bullet points.

The next contribution doesn't have that problem – because it doesn't bother itself with facts at all. It's by Karl du Fresne on Stuff and it is absolutely fucking execrable. Du Fresne isn't really writing (let alone thinking) about cannabis reform so much as firing off another of his wearisome dispatches from the culture war.

He targets – to the point, I think, where an editor might have had a word – two people: former National Addiction Centre director Doug Sellman and New Zealand Drug Foundation executive director Ross Bell. Both of them believe legalisation and regulation are the best way of getting a handle on cannabis from a public health angle. But du Fresne has a conspiracy theory that says different:

I suspect Sellman and Bell are at least partly motivated by hostility toward capitalism. They certainly share a dislike of the capitalist liquor industry, which in Sellman's case could be described as a fixation.

Given that cannabis and alcohol are both potentially dangerous mind-altering drugs, why do both men display a more forgiving attitude to the former than to the latter? In my opinion the reason is at least partly ideological. It's the capitalist business model, as much as anything, that they object to.

Well, firstly, both Bell and Sellman want to regulate legal cannabis far more carefully than legal alcohol is currently regulated. How that amounts to a "more forgiving" attitude is a matter for du Fresne and whatever the hell's going on in his head.

He witters on, repeatedly confusing legalisation and decriminalisation and objecting to the recent medicinal cannabis bill which which "essentially legalises the use of cannabis by people with a terminal illness", something he says a few lines later can be  "justified on grounds of common sense or compassion". Then:

But there should be no doubt that what we're observing is decriminalisation by stealth, which was why the National Party withdrew its support for the medicinal cannabis bill.

It really isn't, and it makes no more sense for du Fresne to say so than it did when Simon Bridges said it. As framed, the law offers a statutory defence for people in palliative care who possess cannabis without a prescription, as a transitional measure until the new regulations that give the bill meaning are written over the next year. It doesn't protect anyone who sells the cannabis, or even acquires it for a dying relative. But it suits du Fresne's conspiratorial mindset to declare otherwise. If he'd complained the government bill is poorly-written, I'd agree – would a decent explanatory note at the top have been too hard? – but he hasn't. He's too busy rushing around challenging imaginary monsters to a fight.

His actual argument, to the extent that he has one beyond flinging poo at his ideological foes, is an odd one: that there may be risks to cannabis, so we should install a highly commercial sales model because capitalism is good and corporates would be safer than "a backyard dealer" or "a dreadlocked stoner in Golden Bay":

... if a safe, regulated cannabis market is the way to go, and corporates are best-placed to deliver that outcome, what's the objection? It can only be ideological.

There's actually a straightforward and well-founded argument against handing the market to big companies (and especially publicly-held companies, which du Fresne asserts would to the best job): in order to generate profitable growth, such companies need to do two things: recruit new users, and sell hard to problem users. That's what happens  in the liquor industry, where there's a classic 80/20 rule and most profit comes from dependent users. Perhaps we'd want to think twice before replicating that.

The Drug Foundation goes through this in the model drug policy it released last year, proposing regulation in favour of "small-scale community development" which would help "avoid developing a powerful industry lobby" that could influence future policy choices. I think the idea of having these enterprises distributed among, and bringing revenue into, local communities is worth looking at. It's also likely to be important to Māori.

It's also worth noting that the effect of not regulating on scale in the US has not been everyone making heaps of money. It's been a weed glut, where producers in Oregon and elsewhere are quietly supplying out-of-state criminal dealers just to keep going. It's kind of a mess, and something we'd want to avoid.

Although du Fresne declares himself quite unable to think of any alternative, there are other working models, the cannabis social clubs of Europe among them. I think production needs to be commercial – there are costs and regulatory burdens to be borne, capital investments to be made – but it's just stupid to bellow that anything short of weed supermarkets on the high street is creeping socialism.

There is, I should note, a final irony. Who has intoned most frequently and darkly about the threat of "Big Marijuana" in the past year? Is it trade union leaders, the woke of Twitter or the educated liberals who crave subversion from inside the system? No. It's that well-known crypto-Marxist Bob McCoskrie.

I did find one fan of du Fresne's column. Former Act MP Stephen Franks declared it "sensible" and insisted that the slew of errors in the column were mere "technical" points that a columnist could hardly be expected to recognise.

A couple of days later, Franks was was back recommending a New Yorker article in which, he declared, "Malcolm Gladwell deftly questions the woke consensus in fashionable support for cannabis legalisation". Why, one must ask, do these guys have to turn everything into the culture war?

The short New Yorker piece consisted of Gladwell looking at a new book by former New York Times reporter Alex Berenson, Tell Your Children: The Truth About Marijuana, Mental Illness, and Violence and saying "hey, maybe this guy's got a point." Similar promotional pieces have appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Mother Jones and elsewhere. A sensible person could certainly be forgiven for thinking that perhaps Berenson's dire warnings about cannabis should be taken seriously.

Unfortunately, as the headline over a frustrated piece on The Stranger put it, East Coast Media Is Grounded From Writing About Weed. The author, Lester Black, writes:

But almost as soon as journalists started jumping on Berenson’s bandwagon, the actual scientists behind the research Berenson cited distanced themselves from his book. Those scientists say he is distorting their research, mistaking correlation for causation, or he is just outright drawing incorrect conclusions.

To keep things simple, Black focuses only on the New York Times op-ed. He notes that after Berenson claimed that last year's comprehensive National Academies review of the evidence around the health effects of cannabis and cannabinoids found unequivocally that cannabis use causes schizophrenia, Ziva Cooper, a member of the panel that spent years working on the review came forward to say "we did NOT conclude that cannabis causes schizophrenia." Cooper further notes in a Twitter thread that:

we found 1) an association between cannabis use and schizophrenia and 2) an association between cannabis use and IMPROVED cognitive outcomes in individuals with psychotic disorders

She says that since the review was published it has been established that "genetic risk for schizophrenia predicts cannabis use, shedding some light on the potential direction of the association between cannabis use and schizophrenia" (in medical terms this is actually a really big deal) and that:

... under placebo-controlled conditions, #cannabidiol (#CBD) improves outcomes in patients with schizophrenia when given as an adjunct med, showing that cannabinoids (not necessarily cannabis) improve symptoms.

There's a really important point here. Over the last 25 years or so, illicit breeders have been selecting for higher THC levels in cannabis flower. But in doing so they seem to have been inadvertently also selecting for lower CBD levels. That's something that cannabis critics have almost universally missed, but it's significant: there is good evidence now that CBD, the other main cannabinoid in cannabis flower apart from THC, mitigates against psychiatric risk. It's something that Rose Renton talked about when I interviewed her in 2017 and she lamented the "rocket fuel" effect of the black-market weed her kids were offered. In a legal market, it's something that could actually be regulated.

Black also looks at the increase in homicide rates in Colorado and Washington State that Berenson repeatedly highlights. Here's the thing. Those rates are below what pre-legalisation trends in both states suggested. Can we say that legal weed reduced the murder rate? Hell no. It's way too complex an issue for that sort of claim. But we really can't say that cannabis increased the number of murders.

Black isn't the only one to take to the internet in frustration at the ready reception of Berenson's arguments. Jesse Singal in The Intelligencer noted that Berenson's claim that cannabis has led to higher murder rates in legal states is "a case study in how to misleadingly use statistics to make oversimplified arguments about human behavior and public policy."

He also quotes former Washington State pot tsar (and now director of the Crime and Justice Program at NYU) Mark Kleiman's observation that over the  pre-legalisation years since 1992, where we know US national cannabis consumption increased, the US homicide rate has halved.

The most detailed rebuttal I've seen comes from the excellent Maia Szalavitz. She cites a lot of data that don't support various claims by Berenson, from his embrace of the "gateway hypothesis" to assumptions about cananbis potency and international trends in cannabis use and mental illness.

And finally, on Vox, German Lopez concludes:

There are concerns about marijuana and how legalization is playing out. As the National Academies’ report makes clear, there is still a lot about cannabis that we just don’t know, including its harms and benefits. There is a risk to commercializing another product that’s addictive for some and may be harmful in other ways for others, and there may be better ways to legalize or regulate pot that minimize those risks than what we’re doing today.

But Berenson’s book, with its sensationalist claims and shoddy analysis of the evidence, doesn’t genuinely address those concerns. Tell Your Children claims to inform its readers of the “truth” about marijuana, but it instead repeatedly misleads them.

Amen. There are real things to focus and and talk about here. By its nature, legalisation is an experiment. But how many of the harms that can reasonably be attributed to cannabis are effectively addressed by criminalising people who use it? Is the world due a better, smarter form of legalisation than it currently has? I think we can do better. But we don't get there via idle editorialising, blowhard culture wars or misleading use of evidence. If you're going to declare cannabis reform a serious matter, then for god's sake be serious about it.


Music: Telling Stories

Amid the calm of the holidays, in the blessed present between the race to wrap up 2018 and the need to envision the year ahead, a series of stories have flipped me way back up the river, into my own memories.

First it was the news the Britain's HMV music store chain is going into administration for the second, and possibly final, time, putting more than 2000 jobs at risk. I love record shops, but I don't feel much about the looming demise of another of the mega chains. They were about a time between the arrival of the compact disc, which for years brought in the greatest, most effortless bounty the music business has ever seen, and the arrival of a fundamental change in the way ordinary people consume music.

I remember when their proposition –  stocking every record there was, or so it seemed – was an exciting one, when the big stores were a stop on the route of any tour for someone from New Zealand, where we didn't have them. Moreover, for a while I was behind the counter when people from other countries came in to fill their arms with treasure. Now, we have every record there ever was, or so it seems, on our phones. Music is everywhere and nowhere.

HMV Trocadero, on the edge of Piccadilly Circus (for a while there was a Tower Records on the other side of the circus) was the first record shop I worked in, and my first job in London, in 1986. I worked nights and we served a lot of tourists. There were good times (wangling my onto the counter where the shop stereo was and blasting out Public Enemy and Zodiac Mindwarp on Friday nights) and there were bad times (the two weeks when the Phantom of the Opera soundtrack came out and we were ordered to play the fucking thing over and over in some particular vision of Hell).

But the thing I enjoyed most was helping people from behind the Iron Curtain, who had somehow gained permission to temporarily visit the West, buy records for themselves or their relatives. I wasn't good at everything, but I was good at that.

Probaby my single greatest day at HMV wasn't behind the counter, but one day nearby on the street, when Duncan, the company van driver, pulled up and told us to get in. The van was loaded with thousands of unsold reords, which the London managers had ordered pulled off the shelves so they didn't attract the attention of the regional managers. (HMV was like that, very managerial. Virgin, where I worked later, still gave you the occasional whiff of a slightly more glamorous hippie capitalism.)

Duncan had been ordered to take all these records to the incinerator to spare management's blushes. Well, fuck that. He drove me and two workmates to the flat we shared in New Cross and we had an exhilirating few hours making piles of stuff to keep.

Years later, back in New Zealand, the fruits of those few hours helped us buy the house we live in now. We'd used up all our money scraping together a deposit, and I sold records to feed us for a week or two. I could never have guessed that keeping six copies of that Cramps picture disc would turn out to be such a good idea.

If the HMV story didn't really make me sad, the news a couple of days later did. The great music writer David Cavanagh had died. I've only thought about David occasionally in the decades since, but he was a mate when I worked in the British music press in the late 80s, and I followed him from Sounds to the new glossy Select in 1990.

That personal move mirrored the wider shift in the music press from the trinity of inkies of which Sounds was part, to the era of Q and Mojo. A lanky, friendly chap called Graham Linehan also wrote for Select at the time and so, apparently, did Caitlin Moran, although I can't remember her. Sounds folded in 1991, not long after I'd returned to New Zealand, and Select died in 2000, having given the world the term "Britpop". As much as the HMV and Tower Records, the music press became stranded out of its time and perished.

I'd decided by then anyway that music journalism was no job for a grown man with family responsibilities. But David hadn't. I don't think I've ever met anyone so utterly fit to write about music. He was friendly, sharp-minded (it was a rare pub trivia machine that could defeat him), often the dominant figure in a conversational group – and completely focused on music. It was what he did, and would continue to do – to some extent as media revolutions passed him by. As this excellent obit by John Harris notes, he was never on Facebook and only briefly on Twitter and no one ever thought to make a Wikipedia page about him (startlingly, the Wiki entry for Select doesn't even mention him).

It left everyone a bit unprepared when he suddenly wasn't around. All there was was all that he had written. And perhaps that was the best record of all of who David Cavanagh was.

The third element is a prodigious one. Terence Hogan has written his version of the Toy Love story. It's long: just shy of 30,000 words, and far longer than you might think the not much more than 18 months of Toy Love's admittedly busy existence could sustain. But what he has crafted is a personal story (his own path, as the WEA graphics guy who took the demos to Tim Murdoch and became the band's record company minder, was entwined with that of Toy Love), the story of the band itself and a wonderful account of Auckland's post-punk milieu. Not just in music, but in publishing (he was a founding hand in the seminal comics zine Strips), fashion, business, photography and art.

Terence's name might not ring a bell for you, but if you're interested in New Zealand music you probably know his work. In the course of the story, he talks about how he created these two iconic record sleeves.

I don't really know Terence. I met him when I worked at Rip It Up and he came back from Australia for a while to work on Ngila Dickson's pivotal fashion mag ChaCha (his chronology is a little screwy there – ChaCha came about some time after Murray Cammick's experiment with Rip It Up Extra) and I think once since. I do remember how excited everyone was that Terence was coming back for a while.

But I did come to know, and in many cases developed enduring friendships with, about two thirds of the people in his story. I toiled in Rip It Up's loft, I wrote for ChaCha (as man-about-town Wayne Washington) and I was inducted by the Snake T-Shirts crew into the Monday Night Problem Drinkers' Club at the Queen's Ferry. I was young and fresh and people were kind to me (Ngila called me "Rascal", which I rather liked) and I've always tried to bear that experience of kindness in mind.

I also connected with Terence's story at the top. He was moved to write it down when a couple of years ago he met a woman called Christine at a barbecue. She told him how she and her friends were obsessed with Toy Love as kids in Christchurch and saw them every time they played. I didn't manage every gig – I was a bit young for that – but my mates and I saw every one we could. Four in total, I think. Toy Love played more than 350 shows in total.

Thanks largely – but far from entirely – to Audioculture, this is a time when musical histories, cultural histories, are being captured. Memoirs like Terence's, stories by people who were there, add to that wave. And when they're as well and fondly written as Terence's, when they light up not only a personal narrative but the nature of the times, they're really valuable.

So all I can say is that if you were there too, or if you simply have a place in your heart for this music, for that era in publishing, or simply for Auckland's creative narrative, fetch yourself a refreshing beverage, put aside a couple of hours and enjoy what Terence has to tell you.


What with all this reminiscing, perhaps it's good to end with the (more or less) new. Simon Grigg – who, ironically, features in multiple music histories, including Terence's – posted on Facebook a list of his favourite 2018 releases. Simon being Simon, he acquired and obtained them all on vinyl, but my summer break has been greatly enhanced by going through and locating on the digital a few of the albums I hadn't heard during the year.

I can heartily re-recommend the Tony Allen/Jeff Mills, the Mr Fingers, the Kamaal Williams and the Against All Logic (which is Nicolas Jaar in uncharacteristically but most enjoyably messy mode). Basically, do what Simon says and you won't go wrong:

Avantdale Bowling Club - Years Gone By
Tony Allen, Jeff Mills - Tomorrow Comes The Harvest
Kamaal Williams - The Return
Hieroglyphic Being - The Red Notes
Julien Dyne - Teal
Marlon Williams - Make Way For Love
Elvis Costello & The Imposters - Look Now
DJ Koze - Knock Knock
EABS Featuring Tenderlonious - Kraksa / Svantetic
The Beths - Future Me Hates Me
Tenderlonious Featuring The 22archestra - The Shakedown
Moses Boyd Exodus - Displaced Diaspora
Mr Fingers - Cerebral Hemispheres
Binker And Moses - Alive In The East?
Against All Logic - 2012–2017
Jamie Isaac - (4:30) Idler
Kamasi Washington - Heaven And Earth


About that Rhythm and Vines "dangerous drugs" alert

I was at a music festival in Auckland on New Year's Eve when I saw, on my phone, the news that "dangerous drugs, made with pesticides and paints, have been found at Rhythm and Vines." And that patrons had received a warning about about the potentially poisonous drugs that evening, via a push-notification from festival management that went to all phones on site.

I still haven't been able to locate a screenshot of the actual warning (but would be keen to see one), so for the moment I have to assume that it was identical, or at least very similar, to the one posted on Facebook by the local DHB.

On one level, it was the kind of health-based early warning that harm reduction advocates have been calling for  as a lifesaving measure for years. On another, it was frustratingly vague, to the point of being almost useless. The harm reduction organisation Know Your Stuff, which was not on site at R&V, politely tweeted:

We urge those issuing alerts to at a minimum include a description of the pills/substance, and likely symptoms from consuming.

The part of the alert urging anyone suffering "adverse effects" from drugs to see onsite medical services was salient in a general sense – and the request that, if possible, they bring a sample of what they'd taken was useful. It might have helped to emphasise that no one bringing such samples to medics would face police action, but it seems notable that police  made no arrests of any kind at Rhythm and Vines.

Ruwani Perera managed to introduce more useful information – after the fact – in her Newshub report, with the news that the bad drugs were pills and "the pills look like MDMA or Ecstasy and are purple."

But we still don't know what quantity was seized, what the exact contents were. Inevitably, the vagueness of the alert has led some people to suspect that it was simply a scare story to put people off taking drugs altogether, rather than a real warning. I would hope not, because the ultimate effect of that will simply be to lead users to ignore such warnings. That's obviously undesirable.

It was also unclear who had actually issued the warning in the first place. The DHB? Festival organisers? The police? The One News report offers a bit more context there. It appears that Gisborne police had borrowed a spectrometer  from Customs to analyse contraband drugs seized by festival security. Some pills were just sugar.

It is likely that a properly set-up spectrometer, drawing on a library of reference profiles, would be able to promptly identify toxic paint and pesticides. More so given that in the field Customs uses the FirstDefender handheld Ramam spectrometers, which are built to identify almost any chemical, including those found in poisons and explosives.

But the FirstDefender is a quick-detection device, and doesn't have the level of forensic analysis offered by the likes of the FT-IR scanner owned by the New Zealand Drug Foundation, which is used in the field by Know Your Stuff. It could be difficult to identify multiple substances in one sample, especially for non-expert users – and to determine actual quantities of the contaminants.

So did the machine pick up mere traces of pesticides and paint? That's possible. But even traces of unwelcome contaminants should be a warning sign. And it's worth noting that one of FirstDefender's shortcomings is its relatively poor detection limits, so there had to be enough of the contaminants for the spec to pick up. So it was worth a warning, I think – just a better one.

Some of the information in the One News story came from Police minister Stuart Nash, who visited the site and was also shown the spectrometer by officers. What he had to say was immensely encouraging:

Festival-goers overseas are often able to get their drugs tested openly to check that they're safe and that they are what they're claimed to be.   

And the New Zealand Government would like to see pill testing become the norm here, too.  

"You know, you had 20,000 young Kiwis party and have a really good time here. I would like to see drug testing at festivals. I think it saves lives, it save hospitalisations. And it's actually the right thing to do. And it's dealing with the reality in which we find ourselves," Mr Nash said.

It's a shame that the government has satisfied itself with talking about drug-checking at this point, rather than moving forward and actually amending the Misuse of Drugs Act in time for this summer's festivals. The truth is that festival organisers don't want kids getting sick or dying from bad drugs, but  they put their businesses – and specifically their event insurance – at risk by acknowledging that people use drugs at all (other than alcohol, which is easily the most problematic one at large events).

But we seem to have reached a point where politicians, police and health agencies are on board with realistic harm reduction strategies. A point where, however flawed, an alert has been issued to people who may consume something very harmful.

What needs to happen next is to allow this to be done properly. As Dr Jez Weston of Know Your Stuff wrote in a series for SciBlogs last year, the psychology of drug-checking is just as important as the technology:

Trust is critical for people in possession of illegal substances to bring them to us for testing. It helps that we’re not the authorities. We are a grass-roots organisation and many of our volunteers have attended, assisted, or organised festivals for more than a decade. Being members of the community we serve nurtures a higher level of trust, in what can be a very exposing situation for our clients.

We are going out of our way to provide a free service for our clients, so in a sense, it’s a gift from us to them. This sets up a mutual obligation. We’ve provided our clients with a service that they value; it’s now up to them to reciprocate by providing us with something that we value, namely making safer choices about their drug use.

This kind of harm reduction, the kind that works, is about more than fancy machines. Jez concludes:

The majority of drug users we see are not addicts or drug abusers. They are adults who want to have a good time, are willing to take on a small amount of risk to do this, and are keen to reduce that risk.

When someone who has purchased drugs and is planning on taking them becomes someone who is willing to not take them and dispose of their drugs in front of us, that shows the confidence they are placing in our testing and explains the remarkable effectiveness of this form of harm reduction. Put simply, providing factual, objective information to allow people to make better choices leads to them making better choices.

There's a right way to do this. Let's get on with it.


Meanwhile, in Australia, where a young man died (and two others were hospitalised) after taking an "unknown substance" at a music festival on New Year's Eve – the fourth such death there since September –  a former Labor Party leader tweeted this filth:

Ironically, the story linked above emphasises the extraordinary lengths Australian police are going to to detect and prosecute drug possession at events. It's not keeping anyone safe. If anything, it's doing the opposite. But this most recent death has moved the leader of Latham's former party in New South Wales to rethink his opposition to drug-checking. Things may be changing there too.


Another year on earth

Sometimes – often, even – grief is an ambush. You don't know what's in there until you lose something, or someone. You don't know how the experience of loss will make you feel about yourself, or what to do about it.

It was chance that brought me back into the ambit of my old friend Grant Fell and his wife Rachael at the end of 2017. Officially, Grant was clear of the brain tumours that had been the central fact of his life for three years, and I wanted to do a follow-up on an interview I'd done with him for a planned Audioculture article – which itself had taken two or three attempts to conduct, as he shuttled in and out of hospital. He wasn't answering his phone or returning messages.

Eventually, I got hold of Rachael, who told me that complications from treatment had made Grant very ill, very quickly. He was back in hospital and it wasn't good. I went and visited him, but we never did the follow-up interview. My old friend was dying.

I don't mean to pretend I was one of the group of people, led by Rachael herself, who cared for Grant for every day of those three years. I'd only seen him occasionally. But I think I did sense quite quickly that it was time for me now to step up. One of the first things I did was break the law.

Grant seemed to have benefited earlier in his cancer battle from the modest use of cannabis oil. It came in a syringe, passed on from another cancer patient who had died, but Rachael's mother had accidentally thrown out the last of it when she cleaned the fridge. Rachael and I discussed it and I said I figured I could source some more.

The experience of doing so, and briefly entering the community where these things are shared, was humbling and intriguing. As I wrote later in a submission on the government's medicinal cannabis bill, it seemed to make a critical difference to Grant's final, precious days.

When Grant left us, we were lucky to have Hilary Ord, a brilliant and experienced celebrant, to lead the small group of friends tasked with putting together a funeral service. She explained to us what a funeral for someone like Grant meant – it wouldn't be a small affair. I was tasked with quickly raising some money. We didn't announce the names of people who helped financially at the time, but I think it's appropriate to record them here. The New Zealand Music Foundation, Tim Wood, Phantom Billstickers, the Music Managers Federation and Flying Nun Records, thank you.

At Rachael's request, I also delivered the eulogy. That was a deep dig. I think it was the first time I've spoken some words of te reo Māori and not been simultaneously conscious that I was doing it: it was as if the words at the end simply flowed up through me. I almost wasn't sure what had happened.

It wasn't just about Grant, but about all of us; the kids who met all those years ago, grew up and did things. About how often we did things because Grant decided they could be done and beckoned us all in to the doing. I talked about it in interviews and in the Audioculture article – and every time it made me reflect on the way he'd changed my life.

It also made me think a lot about tribe and identity, about who we all were and what was important to us. In particular, about my role in our tribe. Outside of the bonds of family, it seemed the most enduring duty I had.

One thing it wasn't was a job. After nine years of at least 20 weeks annually of TV money, I was obliged in 2018 to reinvent the whole thing. It wasn't easy and at times I wondered whether it was even possible. I've long been comfortable with the risks of freelance life, but it was getting a lot harder. Every time editors are ordered to cut editorial budgets, the first and easiest place to do that is freelance costs. It was hard to get commissions and when I did, the word rate was hardly better than it had been in the 1990s.

We're homeowners, so we are not poor. But with two adult disabled children still at home, we're not a cheap household to run. It's not a pleasant feeling, burning through long-time savings just to keep things going. I wasn't depressed, but there was the odd despondent day. You just keep pitching.

And all the time, things circled back to Grant. I spoke about him at the Taite Music Prize ceremony, then did a little crisis PR the next day. I wrote the medicinal cannabis submission about him, then travelled to Wellington to make an oral submission to the committee. I don't think I was released until the Headless Chickens played that huge, emotional set in his name at The Other's Way festival.

There was also Public Address. I've been thinking about how much I used to do here and I genuinely don't understand how I had the bandwidth. Writing blog posts most days, moderating the sprawling discussions in the most intensive, sometimes emotionally taxing, way. Trying to have new ideas. And because it generally wasn't a living, making a living elsewhere.

This is a quieter place than it used to be, for a range of reasons. A new, more professional generation of digital publishers has sprung up. The most immediate argument now takes place on social media, and Twitter in particular. But also, I couldn't really do it any more.

I've always been good at drawing a crowd; at throwing a party. A community had formed around Public Address and it brought me wonderful new friends. But when you're the host, you're responsible when the guests – some of whom had literally been together under my roof at various times – start fighting, it's not fun. It feels like there has been a new, sharper, more polarised kind of argument abroad in recent years that the site is ill-equipped to deal with. That I am ill-equipped to deal with. Maybe it suits venues where no one is really responsible; where there is no host cleaning up the empties. In that sense, this being a quieter place has been a choice.

I also feel less inclined to general commentary these days. I'd rather write about the things I have experience with and insight on. So you mostly get drug policy, music, bike-riding, the occasional fact-check. Sometimes this year, I've been too busy fretting about not having writing work to just write, and simultaneously aware that that's a dumb position to be in.

The entry of Press Patron and its voluntary subscription platform has come a little late for any big strategies on my part, but I would like to express my deepest gratitude to those of you who have contributed. It's a significant motivation to keep going with this. I've begun to treat it as not just support for the site, but support for what I do in general. Most months, the $700 to $800 it brings in has been a crucial part of our household getting by.

Happily, things improved in the latter part of the year and I'm reasonably optimistic that I'll be in a position to ask CactusLab to do some modest work on the site. I'm not really recruiting new bloggers, but I'd like to tidy up the cruft of years, retire all our inactive personal bloggers to an emeritus section and maybe open a couple of new topic blogs for occasional contributors. I think Access has been of value in that sense and I'm grateful to Hilary Stace in particular for her care and commitment to disability issues.

It hasn't been all bad. I've leared new skills and written some things I'm really proud of. It was nice to be completely vindicated on the "meth contamination" debacle I wrote about two years ago. I've really enjoyed working a few days lately at RNZ and it looks like that will continue in the new year. I'm hugely happy that my older ASD son is working again, with good people who like and respect him, at the excellent Cotto restaurant.

I have also been cheered and enriched more than ever by the music made by people around me. Blair Parkes, Tom Scott, Julia Deans, Tom Scott, Julian Dyne, Marlon Williams, Sandy Mill, Anthonie Tonnon and others, thank you. You make a difference to us – to me. And The Beths: guys, you would not believe how many dishes and kitchen cleanups your brilliant, bouyant album has facilitated. I'm also personally pleased to have delivered on what I wrote this year after Golden Dawn closed – about making your own spaces. On Friday night, our final DJ night for the year at Point Chev's Cupid bar was great. It really felt like we'd done something. We'll be back there next year. Come see us.

I was delighted that you all voted "kindness" as the Public Address Word of the Year. Do be kind to each other, and think what kindness means in action. Have a good summer and take joy in people and places. Swim, ride, walk. Ask for help if you need it, offer help when it's needed. Be kind.

And next month, Grant's anniversary will come around, and that will be tough for Rachael more than anyone else. I'll cry, yet again, when I think about him. We'll all think again about who we are, where we've come from and what matters to us. We'll be another year on earth.


WOTY: The Kindness Scandal

In a hastily-issued press release today, Public Address publisher Russell Brown admitted that his site's annual Word of the Year vote "may have been used by terribly nice people to express a blessedly good sentiment."

Shortly after the announcement that the 2018 Public Address Word of the Year is "kindness", it was revealed that so-called Kindness t-shirts are already being sold by a company called Good Bitches Baking to raise money toward's the company's goal to "try to make the world a little bit less shitty, by baking treats for people having a tough time."

"I'm as shocked as everyone else," said Brown. "I had no idea our annual vote would be harnessed by people who want to make the world better."

In the wake of the announcement, it further emerged that the Public Address reader who nominated "kindness" for the vote, Nicole Murray, is in fact a co-founder of the Good Bitches enterprise.

"As the first person to nominate the winning word, which won the public vote by the proverbial country mile, Ms Murray has won a double pass to any date on Fat Freddy's Drop's boffo summer tour," said Brown.

"I have contacted her and her first response was to ask if she could give the tickets away to someone else. I simply can't explain the unabashed kindness on display here. I wish to apologise to anyone who is triggered by this and possibly made to feel that they should seek ways to practice kindness in their own lives, perhaps by buying a t-shirt."

Brown added: "I know it looks bad, but Richie Hardcore had nothing to do with this."

The Top 10 words for 2108, as voted by Public Address readers, are:

1. Kindness

2. #metoonz

3. Mahi

4. Omnishambles

5. Woke

6. Brexit


8. Virtue signalling

9. E-scooter

10. Lime

"It was nice to see 'mahi' get up to third in late voting," said Brown. "It's the latest word from te reo Māori to cross over into mainstream usage and it has a sense of soul to it. Ka pai.

"And a word about word number seven. As nominated, it was 'TERF', an acronym whose perceived meaning has become markedly more negative over the course of the year. I did wonder about not including it after it was nominated in the discussion, but reasoned that 2018 was the year in which a fairly large number of people heard it for the first time and then possibly wished they hadn't.

"But after a number of strongly-worded submissions via Twitter from people I don't even know in the UK, I have made the the decision to swap it out out with [gender-critical feminist]. In the context of a debate which sometimes seems to consist almost entirely of people trying to make each other feel bad, I figured that Christmas week was probably not the time to incrementally increase the overall level of feeling bad. Consider it an act of kindness."

Update: I thought putting an alternative term for #7 in brackets was a suitably snarky way to acknowledge all the people who were yelling at me last night. Clearly, it wasn't, as I now have another set of people expressing hurt and offence at what was meant to be neither hurtful or offensive. I've changed it back.