Hard News by Russell Brown


Strange times with Starboy

Late last month, Fairfax reported that legal-high entrepreneur Matt Bowden had moved with his family to Thailand, apparently to escape debts of more than $3.5 million, including more than a million in tax bills.

The reporter, Chloe Winter, had not been able to speak to Bowden, but it turns out he has been talking – to Vice drug nerd Hamilton Morris, who makes a video series called Hamilton's Pharmacopeia. On Friday, Vice posted an episode of the series that has apparently been a long time in the making ...

Bowden quickly let his Facebook friends know with this message:

Thoroughly enjoyed making this piece with Hamilton Morris, Andy Capper, Dan Cain, Christopher Gill and others from VICE. Thank you all for coming all the way to NZ and then to China to make a rock video with me, and thanks to Shane for taking an interest, what a cool gesture. This was filmed mainly in 2012 right during that election when government were pressured to destroy my operations, and national media wanted to put the boot in, these guys came and offered to make this video and tell this story. I'm honoured to be featured in Hamilton's Pharmacopoeia. Can't wait to see the rock video filmed at Hell's Gate Rotorua and various pharmaceutical factories and labs in China. It was a lot like being on tour! (Apologies to any children or ladies viewing, I used inappropriate language a couple of times.) Enjoy!

But you know what? I really don't think this video does what Matt Bowden thinks it does. It makes him look like kind of an asshole.

The 15-minute report traverses New Zealand's Psychoactive Substances Act, but the timeline is unclear – is that psychoactive substance that Morris vapes at the counter of Shosha in K Road before or after the PSA was amended to end the interim regulations and proactively ban all such products?

"All my life I'd dreamed of visiting the great cannabinoid laboratories of Shanghai," Morris claims, dubiously.

And lo, he does, with Bowden's assistance. The lab's owners are happy to have Bowden and a videographer visit, Morris explains, because of all the money he's sent their way. The lab itself is pretty much a horrorshow – everything you feared about grey-area Chinese drug factories but were too scared to find out.

And amid it all, Bowden is making a music video. While bemused Chinese workers point their phones, he prances around as Starboy, his alter-ego vanity project. He actually dances next to an open tray holding kilograms of your-guess-is-as-good-as-mine white powder.

"The message of the song is that when you do make a stand for the things you believe in, the system will try to crush you," Bowden explains to Morris. "Basically there's no time to apologise when you're in their sights and the the sky is falling. Which is kind of what happened to me right after I wrote the song. So I've got a lot of energy to communicate these basic issues of freedom."

Then we're back in Auckland, at the house that Bowden has since had sold out from under him, with the subject acknowledging he's had a tough year but insisting that his research continues.

Fast-forward to this year, and Morris Skyping Bowden in Thailand, where the latter explains explains: "I had to leave my country –  they wanted to put me in jail. Right after I started talking about if we could develop an alternative to alcohol. It took about two weeks and my life was basically over."

He claims that "the alcohol industry went to the Prime Minister basically, and "put pressure" on the government, which is what he told me, vaguely, the last time I interviewed him last year. But the facts say that his problem was that he didn't pay his taxes and he got audited. Certainly, the abrupt end of the PSA's interim licensing period cut off his revenue stream, but when your revenue is contingent on a hugely controversial – and temporary – government dispensation, you'd surely be bearing that in mind.

The Skype call closes with Bowden offering to send Morris "some new tryptamine analogues" to try, subject to US law permitting that.

The interesting thing is that Bowden's company, Psychoactive Research Limited, has been granted Psychoactive Substances Regulatory Authority licences to import psychoactive substances for research, in the name of Dr Shangjin Yang, who was made a joint director with Bowden this year. Dr Yang is a genuine scientist who has previously worked on cancer treatments.

So perhaps it's possible that Dr Yang will come up with Bowden's dream: the low-risk psychoactive product that will make its way through the regulations and be approved for sale in New Zealand – and thereafter the world.

But it's hard to see this very weird video helping that happen.

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