Hard News by Russell Brown


Listening Lounge 2016: Drugs and the dancehall

When the promoters of the Splore festival asked me to put together another Listening Lounge talk programme for this year's festival, they asked whether I had a dream guest I'd like to bring in. I did. And I'm pleased to say that the plan came together and, with the assistance of the New Zealand Drug Foundation, Dr Sanho Tree will be delivering the keynote speech.

Sanho is the director of the Drug Policy Project at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington and if you've read any of the work I've done for Matters of Substance in the past three years, you'll probably have seen him quoted. Indeed, at one point my editor felt moved to politely suggest that I should write a story without quoting Sanho.

He's a former military and diplomatic historian and investigative journalist and a one-time personal assistant to entertainer and social activist Harry Belafonte. And he draws on all that to place the war on drugs "at the intersection of race and poverty". He's also witty, quotable and very smart.

Sanho will talk about the foundations of the global drug war in US foreign policy imperatives, the reasons it has failed and the prospects and means for reform. He'll also look forward to UNGASS 2016 – the United Nations General Assembly Special Session on the World Drug Problem, which takes place in New York in April.

I've written an extensive backgrounder on UNGASS for Matters of Substance, which traces an arc from the bold promise of "a drug-free world by 2008" on which UNGASS 1998 was branded, through to 2016, where the slogan might as well be "maybe we're doing this wrong ..."

Sanho's talk will be the concluding part of the first section of The Listening Lounge, at the Living Lounge stage from 10.30am on Saturday the 20th. I'll kick off with a brief summary of the history of psychoactive drugs and the laws that regulate them in New Zealand and an outline of where we're at now.

Then, at 11am, it's time for our panel:

Richie Hardcore is a broadcaster, steward, personal trainer and former kickboxer who spends his days working in the community with people with drug and alcohol problems. The twist? He does not use alcohol or drugs and has not done so far many years. But he's not judging.

Wendy Allison has done fascinating work on harm reduction and what people are really getting when they buy recreational drugs on the black market – and why that's a big problem.

The Rev Dr Hirini Kaa is a historian, social campaigner and Anglican minister. He has characterised the war on drugs as part of a "war on the poor", but, like many Maori leaders, is deeply wary of any move to relax drug prohibition.

Dr Jamie Whyte is, of course, the former leader of the Act Party. In line with his libertarian philosophy, he endorses the legalisation of drugs. But even for a libertarian, does the state have a role to play? And why can't even the party of personal choice get behind drug law reform?


Sanho will speak from 11.30 till noon, when the theme changes to The State of the Dancehall Nation, which takes up the theme of the state of dance music that proved so profitable and interesting with Mr Scruff at last year's Listening Lounge.

 First up is the panel I'm calling The Parliament:

Eddie Johnston (aka Lontalius aka Race Banyon) is a young producer and performer who moves across musical boundaries with disarming ease. He's steeped in dance music history but worries about appropriating cultures he didn't create.

Aroha Harawira gave a fascinating (and sometimes alarming) account of working as a woman in the DJ trade at one of our Orcon IRL events last year and so I've asked her back. She's smart and strong and she know her tunes.

Lady Flic began her DJ career in New Zealand, got her break via the Red Bull Music Academy and moved to London and thence to Bali, where she she was until very recently music director at the Potato Head Beach Club. She's shared a stage with Snoop Dogg, Fatboy Slim and Derrick May, to name a few.

Which brings us to the final part of the programme: the House of Lords.

In the late 1980s Hackney brothers the Ragga Twins helped create the original gritty jungle sound that became drum 'n' bass. They're still working, still recording, still a massive bundle of fun – and reggae probably still owes them money.

They're joined by Barry Ashworth of the Dub Pistols, who was in the room (and in Ibiza) when the late 80s house revolution changed the face of global dance music and has worked since as a DJ, musician, TV broadcaster and occasional football pundit. He also helped get The Specials back together, and who can say that?

After all that, I have to leg it over to Splore DJ Stage to play my own 90-minute set of vintage house vinyl from 1.30. I'll probably be due a beer and swim when all that's done.

You can see the full Splore programme and purchase your tickets here.


PS: Note that Sanho Tree speaks at public seminars in Auckland and Wellington in the week following Splore, under the banner A New Deal? Changing approaches to drugs in 2016. If I haven't already made this obvious, he's worth catching.

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