Hard News by Russell Brown

Another hat on

Another trip to Welly, another hat on. Last week it was my Web Guy Hat, this week, the Drug Policy Hat. (I'm not sure what a drug policy hat looks like, but I assume it's quite colourful.) I was asked by the New Zealand Drug Foundation to chair its second annual Policy Roundtable, focusing on drugs and young people, in the old legislative chamber at Parliament.

There was a lineup of international speakers, including Professor Rodney Skager, the author of Beyond Zero Tolerance: A Reality-based Approach to Drug Education and Student Assistance, but the highlight for me was the presentation of Dr Joseph Boden, one of the researchers on the Christchurch Health and Development Study, which, like a similar (and slightly older) project in Dunedin, is a longitudinal study of a cohort of New Zealand children born in Christchurch in 1977.

In recent years, the study has generated some globally important data on drug use and marijuana in particular. It has done a great deal to illuminate links between cannabis use and mental illness, positing the idea that there is a genetic vulnerability in a segment of the population, for whom cannabis use substantially increases the risk of developing a psychosis, especially in cases of heavy use. The other risk factor - and this was the big takeaway for me - is early onset of use. All social and medical risks involved in cannabis are hugely amplified by early onset of use. Adolescents smoking dope is a bad thing. (Contrary to what you have read in the papers, the research has reached no conclusion on the exact nature of the "gateway effect" of cannabis.)

But the study has also found that 80% of its cohort has used cannabis at least once. The researchers regard it as - and Boden admitted the term is "controversial" in some circles - a "normative experience". In other words, trying a toke is part of growing up in New Zealand. The 80% figure is higher than other estimates, but that's likely to be a function of trust amongst the participants. You're more likely to 'fess up in a lifelong study like this than you are if someone cold-calls you on the phone to ask if you do drugs.

Interestingly, in his opening address, Jim Anderton cited the data from the Christchurch study as the reason that he would countenance no alteration to the laws on cannabis. Then two hours later, Boden said that on the basis of their data the researchers believed the current law was "ineffective" (fairly obviously, given that it fails to deter eight out of 10 New Zealanders) and "discriminatory", and needed changing. The important qualifier here is that they believe changes should be be small and incremental and extensively evaluated at each step.

Boden also admitted he was disappointed that the evidence of the Dunedin and Christchurch studies is not referred to at all in the draft National Drug Policy consultation document.

This is where we reach one of the oddities of the debate over "evidence-based" approaches to drug policy. Isn't all policy evidence-based? Not in the matter of drugs it isn't. Faith, ideology and morals often trump evidence, and often to quite bizarre effect. The most notorious example is the DARE program, in which (typically) cops come in to primary schools and scare the bejeesus out of children with the aim of "inoculating" kids against future drug use. Study after study has demonstrated that DARE is at best ineffective and at worst actively counterproductive. Yet it's still in use at 80% of American schools. Total abstinence remains a politically popular educational strategy - and harm reduction a politically risky one. The evidence doesn't really come into it.

I did enjoy the day. The fact that the health select committee had to meet meant that some of the MPs who had RSVPd couldn't be there, but National's Jacqui Dean and NZF's Barbara Stewart attended, the former for the whole day. There were also departmental CEOs, treatment providers (who were at mains to emphasise the alcohol remain their biggest issue) and other interested parties. It was a fairly open setting, and one in which I felt comfortable speaking plainly.

There's a related debate going on in Australia at the moment, around the current Parliamentary inquiry into Amphetamines and Other Synthetic Drugs. This transcript is interesting - particularly the evidence given by Dr Susan Carruthers of Australia's National Drug Research Institute. She has quite a robust exchange of views with the elected representatives, who don't always seem very receptive to what she has to say. (Enlighten is covering proceedings on a daily basis.)

The Australian delegate at Wednesday's conference, Professor Richard Midford (an associate professor at the National Drug Research Institute), had some harsh words for the current direction of Australian drug education policy, which he described last week as "a slogan masquerading as an outcome."

I sat next to Richard at the previous night's dinner, and talked to him about the current political debate here with respect to differences between wealth and taxes in Australia and New Zealand. He said that such was the nature of the "mining boom" that you almost can't get anyone to do anything in Perth, because the money's all in the mines. He said he'd gone into a mining town on a community drug education project and realised that even the apprentices were making more than he was.

As luck would have it, Tim Selwyn looks at the same issue this week:

They don't call it "the lucky country" for nothing. The line in their anthem about "wealth for toil" is relative - there certainly isn't anything in there about having to have a knowledge economy to succeed in the world - just grab your shovel, cobber! A graph in the link shows in 1980 the export value of minerals and agriculture were equal. In 2000 minerals are almost twice that of agriculture. Does this help to explain why they have done supposedly so well compared with us over the last 25 years?

Meanwhile Don Brash said this:

I have a terrible fear that the economic gap between NZ and Australia will become so vast that the skill drain will accelerate still further. If that happens New Zealand society as we know it may not survive.

Well, actually, he said that in 1979, in a letter to his parents, quoted on page 104 of his biography.

Other stuff: Jason Mackenzie emailed to put me in my place for fretting about Haditha:

Hard to imagine how things could get any worse in Iraq, is it? How about one third of the women and girls in the eastern quadrant slaughtered or raped by the invading force (see the Red Army's soldiering in Germany 1944 - 45). War is hell and terrible things happen but there is no great power in all recorded time with a more honourable record in such proceedings than the US. Faux-bro, senior woodchuck, Muslim butt-kissers like you need to get some perspectives on events.

Jason, your moral compass appears to be broken.

Now, I usually leave the Sir Humphreys crew to get on with their thing while I get on with mine. But Lucyna's latest post is unintentionally hilarious. She's disturbed at the news that children in state schools are being taught the names of body parts:

I guess that some sex obsessed bright spark decided that as soon as children got into a state school, they needed, just needed to know these extra special names. I would be interested to know from any parents out there with five year olds in state schools if the names of every single body part, ala physical anatomy, are taught as well. Some how I doubt it, since the purpose of such teaching is not anatomy, but sex.
I'll just end with the thought that at the age of five, a child needs to know there are parts of themselves that are private, and that privacy be reinforced by absolutely not mentioning them. By introducing this lack of privacy at age five, insidiously creates a crack through which a child and their future sex life is open to public scrutiny. Which seems to be the purpose, maybe unintented, by teaching five year olds words for gentalia.

"Mum, what's this?

"Shhh, darling, that's a part of your body that must absolutely not be mentioned."

Still, I guess anything that gets me and AL on the same page can't be all bad …

And, finally, John Cawston posted the following list of priceless Super 14 quotes to our little rugby mailing list. I'm not sure of its sources, but it doesn't seem to be online anywhere, so I think I'll just paste the whole lot below. Toodle-pip!

UPDATE: Ah - okay, and yup, I should've Googled a little more. As a number of helpful readers pointed out, the following quotes aren't really real. As PC notes, they're listed here. Snopes a little more on it.

I'd love to say I was just testing, but actually, I was in too much of a hurry to get out the door for a school appointment to think before pasting-then-posting. And in my defence, I would point out that the Mexted quotes below are no sillier than many things he has actually said. I'll leave them there for your amusement anyway …

"Nobody in Rugby should be called a genius. A genius is a guy like Norman Einstein." - Jono Gibbs - Chiefs

"I'm going to graduate on time, no matter how long it takes." - Rodney So'ialo - Hurricanes - on University

"You guys line up alphabetically by height." and "You guys pair up in groups of three, then line up in a circle." - Colin Cooper - Hurricanes head coach

Chris Masoe (Hurricanes) on whether he had visited the Pyramids during his visit to Egypt: "I can't really remember the names of the clubs that we went to."

"He's a guy who gets up at six o'clock in the morning regardless of what time it is." - Colin Cooper on Paul Tito

Kevin Senio (Auckland), on Night Rugby vs Day Games "It's basically the same, just darker."

David Nosafora (Auckland) talking about Troy Flavell "I told him, 'Son, what is it with you. Is it ignorance or apathy?' He said, 'David, I don't know and I don't care.'

David Holwell (Hurricanes) when asked about the upcoming season: "I want to reach for 150 or 200 points this season, whichever comes first."

"Andy Ellis - the 21 year old, who turned 22 a few weeks ago"(Murray Mexted)

"Colin has done a bit of mental arithmetic with a calculator." (Ma Nonu)

"He scored that try after only 22 seconds - totally against the run of play." (Murray Mexted)

"We actually got the winning try three minutes from the end but then they scored." (Phil Waugh Warratah)

"I've never had major knee surgery on any other part of my body." (Jerry Collins)

"That kick was absolutely unique, except for the one before it which was identical." (Tony Brown)

"I owe a lot to my parents, especially my mother and father." (Tana Umaga)

"Sure there have been injuries and deaths in rugby - but none of them serious." (Doc Mayhew)

"If history repeats itself, I should think we can expect the same thing again."(Anton Oliver)

"I would not say he (Rico Gear) is the best left winger in the Super 14, but there are none better." (Murray Mexted)

"I never comment on referees and I'm not going to break the habit of a lifetime for that prat." (Ewan McKenzie)

Murray Deaker: "Have you ever thought of writing your autobiography?" Tana Umaga: "On what ?"

"Well, either side could win it, or it could be a draw."(Murray Mexted)

"Strangely, in slow motion replay, the ball seemed to hang in the air for even longer."(Murray Mexted)