Hard News by Russell Brown


One big day at the drug symposium

About the time I got on the train at Paraparaumu, in the pre-dawn darkness, the Armed Offenders Squad was assembling in our street back home in Point Chevalier. No cause for alarm, one of them told my neighbour.

It turned out they were there as a contingency, in case the raid on a house around the corner got tricky. In the event, the arrests of five people (three of them over 60) on charges related to the supply of synthetic cannabis and  possession of methamphetamine, seems to have taken place without violence.

It was an intriguing piece of synchronicity, because I was bound that morning for the 2017 Parliamentary Drug Law Symposium, which would be opened by Peter Dunne, who is popularly and incorrectly blamed by the public for the introduction of synthetic cannabinoids to the retail market. (He did preside over an amendment to the Psychoactive Substances Act which removed those products from the high street – if not, evidently, from the black market.)

When I arrived at the symposium I was struck immediately by how many people I knew, either because I'd interacted with them on social media or because I'd interviewed them for stories. They were – as Professor Alison Ritter would later point out in summing up the symposium – there for a variety of reasons. Medical professionals, academic researchers, politicians, cannabis activists, community workers, journalists. The whole gang was there, including the gang members.

The symposium was the work of the New Zealand Drug Foundation, with Dunne as its Parliamentary host, and it was being carefully and consciously staged. Drug Foundation executive director Ross Bell is a very strategic actor, occasionally to a fault, and I had been part of the strategy. A story I wrote two months ago about festival drug-checking was posted early on the foundation's website on the Sunday before the show, to provide context for a Q+A report in which a young Wellington professional discovered that his MDMA crystal included some odd and unexpected ingredients.

Dunne's speech of welcome cycled through his familiar points – our enlightened National Drug Policy, his grief about being misunderstood and abused by activists – but there were a couple of new ones. Most notably, his comments on workplace drug testing: "Let us not lose sight of the health and safety reasons for it and start using it as a punitive measure." Good for him.

Dunne's problem is that the achievements he likes to list are around the margins. They're laudable (the National Drug Policy in particular), but they rarely grasp the attention of people who don't study this stuff the way grand gestures might.

He was followed by Professor Alison Ritter President of the International Society for the Study of Drug Policy, who gave a clear-eyed and – for some of us – rather thrilling presentation on the principles of good drug law. Drug policy is, she noted "multi-dimensional" for governments who approach it, encompassing health, education, criminal justice and families. That's what makes it so interesting.

In observing the 25 countries that have decriminalised drugs (most of them cannabis alone), she said, we have learned that decriminalisation does not increase drug use, but does reliably improve the social prospects of people who use drugs. She provided a handy list of policy settings currently in use.

Making good drug law, said Ritter, speaks to the principles of democracy. "We need to move beyond raw public opinion" in engaging the public, talk with the affected community (offering input on drug law to the people who actually use drugs) and not let let experts dominate the conversation. It was precise and thoughtful and I liked it a lot.

Next up was former Canadian Deputy Prime Minister Anne McLellan, who chairs Canada's cannabis legalisation taskforce. In a field long-dominated by activists and academics, here was someone actually engaged in the business of enacting real change. Slowly and carefully.

"When did you last take something out of prohibition? It was alcohol, nearly 100 years ago," she said, explaining what she saw as the need to be "cautious out of the box" on legalising cannabis. You can always loosen up later.

The big fear of anyone sensible looking at cannabis legalisation is avoiding the creation of Big Marijuana – and it was in this context that she talked about her country's "hundreds or thousands of – let’s call them artisan growers”, observing that it made no sense to conflate them with "people who grow for the Hell's Angels". It was intriguing to hear people conventionally regarded as a problem being spoken of like they might be part of a solution.

The three big takeaways were firstly that Canada is embarking on legalisation because it is has a real problem with rates of youth cannabis use under the black market (penalties in the Cannabis Act for supplying to minors are severe). Secondly, that cannabis legalisation is complex and has a lot of moving parts. Thirdly, it's clear that Canada's policymakers are acutely aware they're being watched ("we welcome that," she said). More so than the US states or Uruguay, Canada is making a model for other liberal democracies.

The process was quite different in the US state of Washington, where the next speaker, Alison Holcomb, helped draft the cannabis legalisation law that a majority of voters backed in 2012. She has a background with the ACLU and for her, legalisation was firstly about keeping people out of courts and jails, where they invariably come to harm.

Washington's post-legalisation numbers are encouraging, she said: no rise in youth use or drug driving, arrests down 98% – and 78% public support in recent polls. She also noted that a proportion of the new tax revenue from legal weed was dedicated to evaluation of the change, "and not just one evaluation".

Next up was the MPs' panel, representing all the Parliamentary parties bar New Zealand First, whose MP Ria Bond dropped out for unspecified reasons. Again, the sequencing was a matter of strategy: they'd heard the good stuff, what was their response?

National's Chris Bishop gamely denied his party was anti-reform and confirmed that the decision on whether its caucus will be allowed a conscience vote on Julie Anne Genter's medicinal cannabis bill is yet to be made. He did, creditably, say that the forthcoming review of the Misuse of Drugs Act should be the forum for this debate.

"Well done, you're a very good politician," the Māori Party's Marama Fox congratulated him. She repeated the party's stance of favouring cannabis decriminalisation and being "open to the conversation" about legalising. "We don't want prisons full of our young people who are locked up on drug charges."

 "Decriminalisation is the worst of all worlds, probably worse than what we have now," said Labour's David Clark and I thought, wow, that's unusually clear for a Labour position.

But (the sightlines were poor) it was the other David, David Seymour of Act, who said that. Clark just kept blathering that Labour supported the recommendations of the Law Commission review of the MoDA, without ever saying which recommendations. The 2011 review is much less a policy than a list of ideas a committee might consider, some of which looks pretty dated now. Labour really needs to get a line on this stuff, as I'm sure some of its MPs are painfully aware.

Metiria Turei outlined her party's fairly detailed policy and, echoing Ritter, emphasised the importance of talking to the people "least engaged by policy-makers" – the people who actually take drugs.

Peter Dunne announced that he would support the first reading of Genter's bill to allow it to go through to select committee. He then declared that "I need a mandate" for real change, in the form of votes for his party.

When moderator Alison Mau asked the MPs if they believed prohibition had been a failure, they all raised their hands.


After lunch, the morning's three guest speakers returned for a Q&A with the audience. Some interesting things came up. Ritter noted that Australia and New Zealand are at a disavantage in general reform through having no history with medical cannabis. On a question about leadership, Holcomb observed that the government of Uruguay was actually on the wrong side of public opinion when it decided to legalise cannabis, but did it anyway. McLellan defended the choice of 18 as the age for legal weed in Canada as a matter of practical necessity (you could be very cautious and say that 25 would be safest, but then you'd marginalise the very group of young users you're trying to engage and educate).

Ritter went through some more of what-we-know-so-far from the US states: adult use has risen (possibly representing novelty use by former smokers), but youth use has not. There's some evidence of fewer opioid overdoses in those states, but more ED presentations. She also said she's not a big fan of Johan Hari's frequently-quoted Chasing the Scream.

The talk turned to process with the presentation from Anne Fordham, executive director of the International Drug Policy Consortium, an umbrella group for NGOs engaged in drug policy (as chair of the IDPC's board, Bell is effectively her boss). She reviewed last year's UNGASS and defended a focus on international drug law, noting the "normative pressure" of the UN conventions on local laws and the way that repressive states use the conventions as a shield for what they do.

She explained how the International Narcotics Control Board, which interprets what the conventions say, has progressively found more and more "flexibility" in the conventions themselves, each time backing further away from its hard line on drug harm reduction. Most recently, it had brought itself to accept supervised injecting rooms, cannabis social clubs and drug-checking as within the scope of the treaties.

But legalising and regulating cannabis is, everyone agrees, not within the scope of the conventions.

What Fordham didn't say – and presumably didn't know – was that UN agencies as a group were hours away from calling for decriminalisation of all drugs. Even the policeman of the conventions, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, signed up to a joint statement with the World Health Organisation in which the call was buried but explicit. It describes a duty for member states in:

Reviewing and repealing punitive laws that have been proven to have negative health outcomes and that counter established public health evidence. These include laws that criminalize or otherwise prohibit gender expression, same sex conduct, adultery and other sexual behaviours between consenting adults; adult consensual sex work; drug use or possession of drugs for personal use; sexual and reproductive health care services, including information; and overly broad criminalization of HIV non-disclosure, exposure or transmission.

Member states include, of course, New Zealand. So it was unfortunate, to say the least, that the following day Prime Minister Bill English, in an interview with Leighton Smith, declared that drugs should be illegal because they're illegal.

"The fact that these drugs are still regarded as illegal tells you that as a society we have considered the harm to be great enough to make them illegal."

English was secure in the knowledge that he was with an interviewer who was not likely to challenge his logical fallacies. But it was notable that not only was even Leighton aware of the symposium, but that the deeply foreign issue of drug-checking at music festivals had come to his attention. The media strategy was working.


The day's big strategic flourish was up next.

I knew that the issue of the Drug Foundation magazine Matters of Substance containing my drug-checking story was to be timed for the symposium, but there weren't any copies around. There was a reason for that.

The new issue contains the New Zealand Drug Foundation's model drug policy. As the foundation's policy and advocacy lead Kali Mercier was explaining the policy, The Spinoff published a sponsored post by Ross Bell about its aims and contents, under the title Our politicians won’t do it, so the Drug Foundation did: A model drug law for New Zealand.

The policy calls for the decriminalisation of all drugs, with a nod to Portugal and the Law Commission. Key passage from the Spinoff post:

Even though we convict thousands of people each year for using drugs, we still have some of the highest use rates in the world. Our laws prevent people accessing help when they need it, and they leave thousands every year with a criminal record that damages their future.

It’s a simple fix. We need to repeal the Misuse of Drugs Act and replace it with a new Act that treats drug use as a health issue, not a criminal issue. We need to invest in the potential of our young people instead of burdening their future. We need to equip police to better prevent crime. We need to empower our communities to look after those with drug use disorders.

Under our proposal, commercial supply and trafficking of drugs would still be punished, but people who are caught with drugs for their own use would not face criminal penalties. Why? Because the vast majority of people who use drugs do so without causing harm to themselves or others. Prosecuting them can have a far-reaching negative impact on their lives but has limited or no effect on their drug use.

The minority who do struggle with their drug use need support, compassion and access to treatment. Fear of criminal punishment does not stop people using drugs. In fact, it can make them use more heavily. Offering treatment instead is not only more humane, it actually works.

Changing our drug law is the next step we should take to free ourselves from the harm of conviction, of shame, of discrimination, of stigmatisation. And we want to get this done by 2020. People are ready for this. They want solutions.

 As Mercier concluded, printed copies of both the policy itself and the new issue of Matters of Substance were handed out.

The policy is bold and thoughtful – and also not immune to a critique itself.   The highlight of series of somewhat rushed previews of day two that concluded the day was a caution from Marianne Jauncey, medical director of Sydney's Uniting Medically Supervised Injecting Centre, about the health referral model.

"Do we really want to refer everyone with an E or a joint to someone like me?" she asked.

This is a very important point. Treating all drug use as something that must have a health intervention is a waste of resources. The foundation has a reasonable response, which is that the policy would require either one, two or three formal police cautions (the number depends on the deemed harmfulness of the drug) a drug user would be referrred to an intervention session in which further assessment and treatment may be recommended. Users of the less harmful drugs would be extremely unlikely (or unlucky) to to receive three cautions.


At the "cocktail function" after the day's proceedings (actually, whatever mid-shelf wine and beer Parliament's contracted caterers care to provide) I took the chance to get around and talk to a few people.

That included these wahine from the "Don't Meth Around" crew assembled by Liz and Dennis Makalio, in Porirua, where the community is providing the support and resources for meth users in trouble that the state is not.


It turns out that they've already been networking with the amazing Tricia Walsh, who transcended her own life of abuse, drugs and crime, got a social work degree and now works with East Coast gang whanau. (If you want to know more about Tricia, my interview with her is in this Saturday's Herald Weekend magazine, ahead of Eugene Carnachan's moving documentary Ngārara - Addiction Recovery on Māori Television next Monday.)

I bumped into Drug Foundation chair Tuari Potiki and observed to him that the symposium seemed to be taking place at a special time.

"It feels like it," he agreed. "There's been a lot of noise, a lot of media coverage. Optimistically, I think we've reached that tipping point and people are talking about how and when."

Hearing from McLellan and Holcomb was significant, he said.

"They both have track records in accomplishing significant things that you can look at and see. It's not about a theory, it's not 'wouldn't it be nice', they’ve done the hard yards and worked through the difficult issues and come out the other side."

McLellan herself was nearby talking to some young women.

"There'll be bumps along the road," she said of the legalisation process. "And as we move to full legalisation, where I can walk down the main street in Edmonton Aberta and buy my wine going home on a Friday night, and a block away buy my cannabis if I'm so inclined, that's going to come as a shock to a lot of people. We're going to have to work through that as a society. We're going to have to deal with the mistakes and the surprises. But I think we can do that.

"We have to be thoughtful, intelligent, nimble people. Which I think Canadians – and New Zealanders – are."

And those artisanal growers?

 "A lot of the activist community, who have been breaking the law for years and are passionate about cannabis – they are very concerned about Big Marijuana. My position on this – I've been quoted extensively in the business pages of national newspapers – is that I do not believe a criminal conviction for possession should exclude someone from being able to come in to the system as a legal grower.

"I do not think that kind of conviction should exclude what we call in our report artisanal or craft growers who have an expertise that the system will actually need.

"A number of indigenous communities in Canada see growing as licensed producers as a sustainable economic opportunity. And you don't want people in those communities automatically excluded because they've run afoul of the law."

Ross Bell himself was gliding around the room, strategic as ever.

"Everything we do is deliberate," he said. "The timing [of the symposium] is deliberate – we're close to the election. Getting the right people here at the time, all those things.

"Right now, we're all feeling very buzzed. We've launched the model drug law, we've heard how countries overseas are doing it, there's great media coverage … But what's going to happen next week? What's going to be the thing that buzzes the country next week or the week after?

"The momentum we feel we've got could be lost very quickly. Not just for the Drug Foundation but everyone who wants reform. We have to keep our foot down on this."


I'd discovered earlier in the day that I'd be able to attend my first proper Wellington Back Benches, along with a few other people from the symposium. I messaged Charlotte Ryan to say she could vox pop me if she liked.

Now I'm wondering if that was a good idea. The Backbencher is bedlam and as the recording starts a drunk young guy next to me is bawling back every word Charlotte and Wallace say. (I later discover that he has a running grudge about being vox popped in Cuba Street two weeks ago. He needs an intervention, frankly.)

I consider seeing if I can squeeze on to the front table Bell has arranged for the symposium speakers, but it's way too bright up there. I find my friends Helen and Chelfyn Baxter, who haven't been at the symposium but have been working with Odyssey House on educational material about alcohol and drugs under the Did You Know? banner.

Suddenly there's a commotion. Charlotte has come looking for me with a camera in tow – and I'm quite fervently thinking that perhaps I shouldn't have tarried to exchange pleasantries with the cannabis activists on the way over to the pub. Or at least, tarried a bit less. I feel like I'm babbling into the mic but apparently it's okay.

But the fun's not over. Shortly after the recording, Sean Plunket, the new comms chief for The Opportunities Party, hoves into view and proceeds to deliver me an eloquent and impassioned briefing. The story is that that a policy agreement with the Māori Party is on the cards. There have been meetings with Tuku Morgan and it's looking promising.

So the Māori Party, which has limited resources for policy development, would take a look at TOP's policies and choose which ones it wants to campaign on. Including, presumably, TOP's cannabis policy.

"If we get over five per cent and they get three or four, you know what that means?" Sean raves. "No one has to deal with Winston any more!"

I introduce Sean to Helen and Chelfyn, who he doesn't know, but who have been doing animation work for TOP. I'd say it's like three years ago when half my friends in Auckland seemed to be working for the Internet Party but that would be a bit harsh. Let's just say TOP has a much higher profile in Wellington than Auckland.

As the crowd drifts away, I sit down at the speakers' table. They're impressed by the noisy democracy they've witnessed, not least by the fact that every MP on the panel has owned up to having used cannabis. Ross Bell is sitting with Kathryn Leafe of the NZ Needle Exchange Programme and we talk for a bit about what's happening in Auckland with the delivery of new Hep C anti-virals.

Gary Chiles of Norml is sitting nearby. I like Gary, so I sit down for a yarn. He comes along every week – much as he used to come along to Media7 every week when he lived in Auckland. He likes the public square, basically. It's admirable. But I'm tiring and, after raiding the platter Shane Le Brun has bought for the table, I'm off to rest up for a new day. One that presumably won't start with a wake-up from the Armed Offenders Squad.


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. There will be a report on day two of the symposium presently. Hopefully it won't be quite so long.

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