Hard News by Russell Brown


Drug Symposium day two: Māori women in the room

ACLU lawyer Alison Holcomb, a woman with a long history of looking the system square in the eye, was struggling to hold back tears.

She had taken the stage as respondent at last week's Parliamentary Drug Law Symposium, immediately after Tracey McIntosh, whose specialist area of research is Māori women in prison – and she hadn't had time to process what she felt.

McIntosh, an Associate Professor at the University of Auckland, had also struggled to speak – because she had a cold and had lost her voice. It came though clearly not long after she stood, as if a microphone had suddenly been switched on (she thanked her tipuna for the intervention), then wavered in and out. It had the effect of making everyone in the room lean forward and listen, attentive and a little worried.

Ironically, it was what McIntosh didn't say that had wrecked Holcomb: slide after silent slide of the art and poems of Māori women in prison. It was a very humanising way of picturing a research cohort.

The images above are from the Twitter account of Anne Fordham, executive director of the International Drug Policy Consortium. A conference notable for the fact that all its featured speakers were women became a platform for Māori women on its second morning, and it was clear that their first encounter with Māori history, identity and ways of being was what the visitors would take away.

As it should be. There is no group in New Zealand who need to be heard more in the drug policy debate than Māori. Māori had no use for intoxicants before European contact, but are now more likely to to use drugs, to use them younger, and to suffer the harms of drugs. Prison included.

There isn't a monolithic voice here. After announcing that her only dependence issues were Facebook and being a Warriors fan, Khylee Quince  went on to frame judicial reform in light of Treaty principles. As she wrote in the Wireless column published that morning, there could be nothing about Māori without Māori. She favours legalisation of cannabis with that firm proviso. Interestingly, while the column emphatically rejects the idea Māori communities becoming producers, her speech allowed that, per the Treaty, it would be a decision for individual hapu.

But I can't accept "he was speaking to his own people" as an excuse for Hone Harawira's call for a racially-targeted death penalty and brutal Singapore-style penal practices. There's just no right way to frame those things.

It was McIntosh, speaking next, who really brought it home, in that teetering voice.

"All the women I meet in prison had previously been excluded from school by age of 13," she said. "We criminalise children and by criminalising them completely stifle their opportunities for the future."

Many of them had drug problems: "My love for these women hopes they can be drug free, but if not, then let them buy drugs in safe places."

And, most resonantly, the system had to change: "Māori are often asked to create cultural solutions to structural problems. It's time for structural solutions."

Holcomb responded by talking about the problem of mass incarceration in America: the same structural imbalance that plagues Māori. And then it was time for the youth panel.

Julia Whaipooti, chair of the youth justice organisation JustSpeak, struck the same notes as the women before her. "We are not inherently criminal people," she said, and noted the need for action as well as words – calling for a cross-party pact on drug law reform and a more responsible approach from media, and endorsing the Drug Foundation's model drug policy. There was no time left, she said, for "all hui and no do-ey".

Green candidate Chloe Swarbrick also talked about the system.

"It's important that as we talk about drug reform we realise it's just one part of a broader system ... Let's just not rethink drug law, let's not just rethink prisons, let's rethink politics as a whole."

That last line echoed what Alison Ritter had said the day before about the ineradicable connection between good drug policy and a better idea of democracy. It also triggered a good 12 hours of bitching and sneering on Twitter by right-wing male bores. Such is the life of a young woman in politics.

Swarbrick was followed by her Labour counterpart, East Coast candidate Kiri Allen, who talked very frankly about her own whanau's experience with drugs and the system, noting that they were "so disconnected from this system that makes decisions for us ... Laws made in Wellington have a massive impact on whanau on the East Coast."

She offered a tautoko to Alison Ritter for her presentation on the making of good drug policy the day before ("it answered a few questions for me") and was powerfully blunt on the underfunding of frontline drug and alcohol workers. It was far, far more impressive than the blathering of Labour MP David Clark the day before.

Nicola Willis, National's Wellington Central candidate, did her share of blathering, insisting that "we are making progress" on Māori incarceration and calling for more (unspecified) research before any action on drug law reform.

Roimata Smail, who is taking Tom Hemopo's Treaty claim against the Department of Corrections, expressed the view that progress had to be fought for. She said that there are currently 10,000 Māori children with a parent in prison.

There was an interesting word from the floor by senior Mongrel Mob member Dennis Makalio. Dennis and his wife Liz are filling the gap in public resources for people trying to get off meth in Porirua, pretty much off their own backs. They're amazing. But it is a fact that other Mob members, even in Dennis's own chapter, are continuing to profit from that misery. When the involvement of local gangs in the meth trade came up, he rose, acknowledged that and said: "You've got to realise that everyone's involved in methamphetamine."

In other words, yes, there's retail dealing and even manufacture in every town, but there's big-city money there too. (I was put in mind of the claim in David Herkt's High Times: The New Zealand Drug Experience that the crucial repackaging of meth as a glass pipe drug in the late 90s was the initiative of an Auckland businessman who sensed more profit.)

Swarbrick and Allen were still talking after the panel ended, and were inseparable for most of the day. I don't know how you could be in that room and not feel good about young women in politics.


During the break for lunch, quite a few symposium delegates had business out front of the Parliament, at the rally calling for an inquiry into systemic historical abuse of people in state care. Later that afternoon, Paula Bennett reiterated the goverment's position that a public inquiry would be unhelpful. Yeah, but unhelpful to whom?

It's the same story. Most of the state's victims were brown.

I'm also aware that had my two autistic sons been born when I was, one of them could well have been taken into this hell.


And so into the final afternoon. If you're feeling the need to pause and process, think of how it was being in the room.

It opened with a replay of Tuari Potiki's UNGASS 2016 speech. Crafted with the assistance of David Slack and delivered with Tuari's presence and authenticity, it never gets old.

Next up was Marianne Jauncey, medical director at the Uniting Medically Supervised Injecting Centre. The centre opened in 2001, off the back of a series of reports and debates about the terrible toll of IV drug deaths in King's Cross though the 1990s. The Uniting Church stepped in to run the facility after the Vatican (via George Pell) forbade the Sisters of Charity health service from being involved. Jauncey herself is an atheist.

The centre has survived multiple reviews which have failed to find any reason to close it, but Jauncey admitted she would not be confident if getting its enabling legislation through today's Australian Parliaments. Even though the research had demonstrated that supervised injecting facilities reduce mortality and morbidity, encourage IV drug users to engage with treatment – and save the public money.

She used a phrase repeatedly: "non-judgemental". In a sphere where the underlying noise of moral judgement can be deafening, the real and best care is always provided by those who do not judge.

"I'm also someone who's used lots of drugs and at times lots and lots of drugs," declared her respondent, New Zealand Needle Exchange director Kathryn Leafe.

She said there was work going on here on establishing injecting rooms and other forms of harm reduction service. As I've noted here before, the way that needle exchanges are becoming a way to engage a population with significant health needs who largely steer clear of hospitals (judgement, again) is hugely important.

Things moved on to another form of harm reduction with Fiona Measham, who is both a member of Britain's Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs and the co-director of The Loop, which does drug-checking at UK festivals. The major driver of a sharp rise in ecstasy-related deaths there was, she said, a trend of uncontrolled and unpredictable doses in retail pills. The Loop had found MDMA doses in a single pill varying by a factor of ten.

She also noted that the traditionally awful media reporting of party drug deaths is now being curbed by the influence of grieving parents who want things to change, in particular the Anyone's Child group. But, she lamented, Theresa May's commitment to "the Prohibition agenda" and the trend towards abstinence-only interventions was not good news for harm-reduction approaches.

She was followed by New Zealander Wendy Allison, whose drug-checking work I've written about in detail. In New Zealand the "ecstasy" problem is mostly that it ain't.

She talked about how many people insisted that their brown crystal must be MDMA whatever the test said because it was, well, brown crystal. "We found 15 different things that looked like that." This was her face when she said that.

In part through Drug Foundation strategising, Wendy's mission has become acceptable and could well become actually legal in the next couple of years. And she had something to say about that.

"I am painfully aware that this has been easy because we [dance party people] are a white middle-class community."


Next up was Professor Nicole Lee, Adjunct Professor at Australia's National Drug Research Institute at Curtin University. Her presentation included this eminently shareable slide from an old PanAm inflight menu, which offered, among other things, benzedrine inhalers.

"Drinks cost money but the amphetamines were free," she observed.

She also gave the most useful explanation of how and why people who become dependent on methamphetamine find to so hard to get off and stay off – they've literally lost the ability to make good choices.

Like various other drugs (and activities such as playing pokies and using Twitter), meth triggers the release of dopamine in the brain. Unlike most other drugs, it also blocks reuptake of dopamine at the receptor. With prolonged use of meth, she said, the brain's overtaxed dopamine system "says bugger that" and just shuts down.

The things that dopamine governs – key things in staying off drugs –  emotional stability, the ability to perceive and move towards rewards and the making of simple decisions become extremely difficult. Recovery of the dopamine system can take up to a year.

She also shared this breakdown of where Australia's drug-related public spending goes.

The final featured speaker was Vanessa Caldwell, director of Matua Raki, the national centre for the development of the addiction workforce. She made the point that simply shifting drug addiction problems to a health paradigm "is not a panacea".

Again, we heard, the system has to change.


I confess, I was beyond note-taking by the time Ritter, McLellan and Holcomb were invited up to reflect on the two days of symposium, save to record Professor Ritter's observation about the widely varying goals of whose who'd come along.

Peter Dunne (who had, creditably, been sitting in the audience listening) got up to gave a concluding speech, followed by Tuari Potiki, who commented on the all-woman lineup.

"Ross didn't come to us and say 'let's have a lady-conference'," he smiled. "He said 'Let's get the best people in the world'."

At this point, the symposium's moderator, Alison Mau, deserves congratulations. She was superb in a taxing role – and she even found time to write a column about what she'd learned.

And with a karakia, it was done.

It did feel a little strange walking away away from these two days, with their purpose, rigour, evidence and authentic experience. Away into a world where editorial writers can be as slapdash as they like about this stuff.

I'm mindful of Ross Bell's words about how it can't all stop here. I really hope it doesn't.

This report was funded by readers who made donations via Public Address’s Press Patron account and their support (which just covered my conference fee and accommodation) is deeply appreciated.

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