Hard News by Russell Brown

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Hard News: One big day at the drug symposium

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  • Russell Brown,


    Shane Le Brun and Hep C generics advocate Hazel Heal.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 22850 posts Report

  • Russell Brown,


    Hazel again, this time with Daniel, who's here from Myanmar on a union scholarship. He seems a very bright young man.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 22850 posts Report

  • Hilary Stace,

    Did anyone mention Helen Kelly?

    Wgtn • Since Jun 2008 • 3229 posts Report

  • Shane Le Brun, in reply to Hilary Stace,

    I did in private, but that's another story.....

    Since Mar 2015 • 47 posts Report

  • Chris Waugh,

    I saw you on Backbenches, Russell, and you seemed caught in the headlights. I think the Backbenches format makes vox pops difficult, especially given how eager the hosts are to share their opinions. What really didn't help with your vox pop was the microphone constantly being pulled away. Combine that with background noise of various kinds, and I think an optimistic estimate would be that us, the viewers at home, got to hear about half of what you had to say.

    Wellington • Since Jan 2007 • 2401 posts Report

  • Russell Brown,

    Holy shit. Clearly, it’s one thing to attract media attention to drug policy issues – quite another to have the media actually approach them in an informed and accurate way.

    First, the Herald: NZ should wait and see on cannabis legalisation

    Opening paragraph:

    When journalists asked Bill English last week if he had any plans to legalise cannabis, the answer would have surprised no one. The Prime Minister replied: “In New Zealand we have always taken the view that some of these drugs cause so much harm that they should be illegal."

    Except that’s not what English said. The Herald’s NZME sibling Newstalk ZB actually quoted him saying this, which is rather different:

    “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.”

    Good start!

    Moving on …

    Associate health minister Peter Dunne has been emboldened by this worldwide trend to suggest decriminalising cannabis here. Dunne would follow the Portuguese model and allow cannabis sellers, along with other drug manufacturers, to submit their products for testing before sale.

    That is not what the Portuguese model does. It’s nothing like the Portugese model, which doesn’t allow legalised sale at all, let alone operate a licensing system. Good grief.

    Dunne was shut down instantly by English but has also failed to win much wider political support, presumably because party leaders know a minefield when they see one. New Zealand has already flirted with legalising synthetic cannabis in 2013, with disastrous results. Sellers took advantage of interim approval under the Psychoactive Substances Act to sell dangerous drugs such as Kronic to teenagers at corner dairies. The public outcry put an end to this country’s short-lived plans for a legal market in soft drugs.

    This is the bloody opposite of what the PSA did, which was take synthetic cannabis products out of dairies – as the New Zealand Herald website reported in at least nine news stories in 2013 (I’d link to them individually, but the Herald’s site upgrade has broken all its internal search links).

    In that same year, a Herald editorial declared that the Act “can’t come soon enough” – because it would get these drugs out of dairies.

    Perhaps editorial writers should read their own paper. Or at least hurry up and get that search function fixed.

    Also, just for the sake of completeness, Peter Dunne banned Kronic in 2011, two years before the act was passed.

    Then …

    The experience should make us wary about overseas claims for legalisation. For instance teen cannabis use in Colorado may have fallen but that flies in the face of our legal highs debacle and human nature in general. If an illegal substance is made legal, usually more people will want to try it, as they no longer fear the social stigma or a criminal conviction.

    Because commonsense reckons are always more important than actual data …

    As to the premise of the editorial – well, yes, it’s clear already that we’re going to be looking closely at the Canadian process. But should we be talking about this stuff now? Yes, of course we should.

    Now, moving on to The Listener with Cultivating voters on relaxing NZ’s drug laws

    The New Zealand police tacitly acknowledge this with an unofficial policy of not prosecuting for possession of modest amounts of cannabis. This is sensible: first, in not penalising people who do no harm and, second, in avoiding criminalising the young whose futures are blighted by a drug conviction. Thus we have de facto decriminalisation, and it’s heartening to see political consensus building towards making this official.

    There is, in some respects, a de facto decriminalisation going on, and has been for about a decade – largely because of a much broader use of avenues like pre-charge warnings, so people are arrested, but not eventually charged. Sometimes.

    But more than a thousand people were prosecuted for simple cannabis possession in 2015 (and about 1600 for mostly small-scale growing). And that burden did not fall evenly: those prosecuted were disproportionately young and brown. The greater use of police discretion is welcome, but it is not a balm for a lack of political courage. How long are we supposed to go on using the rationalisation that we don’t need to revisit the law because the police probably won’t enforce it?

    Moreover, that kind of discretion rarely leads to to any kind of social or medical intervention –– which is the very thing the editorial writer wants to see.

    What’s starkly absent from reform platforms here is robust planning for how to protect the young after decriminalisation. It’s beyond scientific dispute that cannabis can retard brain development, and it remains a risk up to the age of 25 or 26, when most people’s prefrontal cortex reaches maturity.

    Pro-reform parties intone worthily about information and education, but unless liberalisation is coupled with effective deterrents to and penalties for the supply of cannabis to anyone under 25, decriminalisation will be guaranteed to increase harm.

    Except the research from every one of the legalising states is that youth use has not increased. And as Anne McLellan pointed out, if you continue to make it illegal for people who are in every other respect adults, and who are most likely to be cannabis users in the black market, your policy won’t fly.

    Yes, the human brain isn’t fully developed until the age of about 25, and heavy use may interfere with brain development (although the risk does not approach that of heavy use under 18 years). But the same thing is true of alcohol. Does the Listener plan to campaign for a drinking age of 25? (Or 20, as per The Opportunities Party, whose policy is called cynical and irresponsible in the editorial?)

    Next …

    Top’s decriminalisation pledge came after it researched issues that might engage young voters. By implication, it appears happy to give the young better access to a drug that does them provable harm just for their votes.

    This is ridiculous. Decriminalisation does not provide “better access",. It simply keeps end-users out of the courts and improves access to health support. And why is it so terrible for a political party to focus on a policy that concerns younger voters?

    Also, decriminalisation is not TOP’s policy.

    The party has now topped even this level of cynicism by vowing to raise the drinking age to 20. Thus alcohol – which, if used moderately, does not cause harm – would be further restricted under Top, whereas cannabis, which if used even moderately by the young does cause harm, will be made more available to them.

    Oh, wait, where’s that link about the impact of alcohol on young brains? Oh yes – here.

    Peter Dunne now advocates we follow Portugal’s state-controlled, medically supervised system with respect to the less-harmful drugs. This is wise counsel, but as the minister who presided over our disastrous experiment with so-called legal highs – the oft-dangerous and increasingly potent synthetic drugs of ever-morphing formulation – he is a poor opinion leader. Under the regime he designed – since heavily modified – more young people used drugs than before, reassured that as synthetics were now legal, they were safer.

    Synthetic cannabinoid products were sold legally for years before the PSA, and their “ever-morphing formulation” is a consequence of the fact that we kept banning them, so new ones appeared. There is no evidence at all that “more young people used drugs than before” – that’s just a made-up fact.

    And remember, a key provision of the PSA was that it was an offence to sell such products to people under 18, and for those people to possess them. That was not the case before. The PSA had its issues, and I’ve written about them at length, but it made it harder, not easier, for teenagers to get these drugs.

    Even the factually rigorous Drug Foundation can skew debate, when it labours the harm-minimisation message at the expense of highlighting the ineradicable harm of drug use. It tested a variety of black-market drugs and found about a third contained extraneous or risky substances or were not what suppliers had claimed. Although useful for users, this exercise risked conveying the message that drugs not “cut” or mislabelled are safe. For young people, they are not.

    Sigh … the Drug Foundation did not test any drugs. It did, along with NZ Needle Exchange, help Know Your Stuff do so so more accurately by buying a portable spectrometer.

    The number of people who buy drugs because there will be a harm-reduction tent at the party they’re going to is is approximately zero. But using such a service, as Wendy Allison observed, makes young people less likely to take the drugs they’ve bought.

    I’ve seen the Know Your Stuff work in action. It does not tell anyone that drugs are safe. It tells people that drugs carry a risk, and if the holder is determined to take the drugs, advises cautious dosing and to watch for any danger signs.

    To which imperative should we pay more attention? The one that says it’s worthwhile to prevent people taking things that might kill them? Or the belief that the only permissible intervention is the one that says all drugs are bad and you must not take them ever at all?

    I know some emergency doctors who could answer that one.

    And the conclusion:

    There’s growing evidence that the only way to ensure the safety of recreational drugs is to nationalise their manufacture and supply. It’s unlikely that either the public or Parliament is ready for this, even though it would give the state the framework with which to keep far more young people safe from the impairment of drugs until they’re old enough to make smart choices.

    There’s not really “growing evidence” for that at all. The only country going down that route is Uruguay, and only with cannabis. Uruguay also has a national monopoly on the production of alcohol, so it had a head start, but it’s not looking like a model that many countries will adopt.

    For the parties advocating the halfway house of decriminalisation, their continued use of drug liberalisation as a vote-lure for the young remains irresponsible and cynical.

    Argh. The three parties the editorial slates – TOP, the Greens and United Future –– don’t propose “the halfway house of decriminalisation”. They propose legal, state-regulated sale. Much as half of the Listener’s deeply confused editorial does.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 22850 posts Report

  • Ross Bell,

    Thanks for fact checking the Herald and Listener editorials. I simply didn’t have the energy. The Listener one was just offensive when it claimed the foundation downplays or ignores drug harm.

    Wellington, NZ • Since Nov 2006 • 175 posts Report

  • Russell Brown, in reply to Ross Bell,

    Thanks for fact checking the Herald and Listener editorials. I simply didn’t have the energy. The Listener one was just offensive when it claimed the foundation downplays or ignores drug harm.

    That was outrageous. It's a terrible, incoherent editorial.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 22850 posts Report

  • Ross Bell,

    Jane Clifton wrote some terribly ill-informed and incoherent Listener editorials on the PSA… I suspect she’s the author of that one.

    Wellington, NZ • Since Nov 2006 • 175 posts Report

  • Zach Bagnall,


    For instance *facts from study of outcomes following legalization in CO* but that flies in the face of *waves hands in the air*. Checkmate!

    Colorado • Since Nov 2006 • 121 posts Report

  • WH,

    Maybe there's some context missing, but it's disappointing to see a Labour MP quoted saying:

    "Decriminalisation is the worst of all worlds, probably worse than what we have now," said Labour's David Clark.

    Whatever your views happen to be, the Misuse of Drugs Act covers many substances that are known to cause mental illness and other long term health problems. That's clearly what Bill English was trying to say and it's far from clear that legalisation is the best option.

    "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)

    Don't overlook that other category of affected individuals: those who will be introduced to drugs because of the kinds of changes under discussion.

    I thought that the Listener's recent editorial was sensible enough. This is from the Drug Foundation's model law you've linked to:

    Joel 34y is having trouble with his meth use and feels like his life is spiralling out of control. He’s caught by Police with a small amount on his person. He’s given a caution, and because meth is a Class A drug, he’s sent to a brief intervention session the next day with a local health NGO. They recommend he seeks treatment and suggest a range of options. He decides to see a counsellor to help him address some of the underlying issues leading to his dependency on meth. He also joins a support group and is able to dramatically reduce his meth use.

    I acknowledge that there's scope for reform but that's pretty optimistic stuff. The people who freely deal crystal meth knowingly sell human suffering and probably deserve to be treated accordingly.

    Since Nov 2006 • 797 posts Report

  • Russell Brown, in reply to WH,

    I acknowledge there’s scope for reform but that’s pretty optimistic stuff. The people who freely deal crystal meth knowingly sell human suffering.

    In the passage you quote, Joel is not dealing crystal meth. He’s a meth user who needs a word about getting off it, so let’s do that rather than criminalising him.

    Supplying meth would remain an offence. But I think there’s scope for flexibility there too – it doesn’t necessarily make sense to prosecute low-level “social dealers”, people who flick on a little to their friends to support their own habit. I know that some police in Auckland are already taking that approach: they talk to these guys.

    Whatever your views happen to be, the Misuse of Drugs Act covers many substances that are known to cause mental illness and other long term health problems. That’s clearly what Bill English was trying to say and legalisation may not be the best option.

    Would you agree that it also makes sense not to subject the people the people who suffer such harms to the further harm of being dragged through the courts? That’s literally what Bill English was opposing in that interview.

    And you might want to read the post again for the context of the David Clark “quote” :-)

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 22850 posts Report

  • WH, in reply to Russell Brown,

    I understand that the Joel case study relates to personal use.

    While I take your point about social supply, addictive drugs don't get to social suppliers through lack of planning on the part of higher ups. People can be so very deliberately cruel where there's money to be made.

    Would you agree that it also makes sense not to subject the people the people who suffer such harms to the further harm of being dragged through the courts?

    I agree that there's no point in sending people to prison for recreational drug use. There's clearly scope for change but I'm wary of letting this particular genie out of the bottle. The sense that we're merely doing away with outdated attitudes and constraints poses some risk, I think.

    I hope that any reforms ultimately offered are tough with respect to addictive drugs and that we fully provide for those who become addicted and for those who develop other health problems.

    Since Nov 2006 • 797 posts Report

  • WH,

    Also, as you mentioned, I owe Labour's David Clark an apology:

    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.

    My love affair with the ACT Party looks set to continue.

    Since Nov 2006 • 797 posts Report

  • Shane Le Brun,

    In my opinion Cannabis is first cab off the ranks, its been around for thousands of years (like alcohol) yet has a better safety profile. Personally anything that has a better safety profile than alcohol should be legal. Being late to the party means we can control it much better, just as Canada is putting very strict controls on legal cannabis, (so much so that the legalization crowd like Marc and Jodie Emery are complaining that its not legalization) the worst thing is our binge culture, what ever happens the greatest risk from those class C drugs that could be legalized (even Peter Dunne is for it!) is mixing of substances.

    I have communicated to some of the free the leaf crowd what the drug foundation policy around the potential industry means, once I explained that it avoids big business, and allows previously criminalized people to go legal, (the "OG" growers) they were quite smitten.

    Since Mar 2015 • 47 posts Report

  • Ian Dalziel,

    But the fun’s not over. Shortly after the recording, Sean Plunket, the new comms chief for The Opportunities Party

    There goes their credibility in my universe....

    Christchurch • Since Dec 2006 • 7953 posts Report

  • Joe Wylie, in reply to Ian Dalziel,

    Sean Plunket

    ...There goes their credibility in my universe....

    As long as your cat's microchipped those huas can't touch you.

    flat earth • Since Jan 2007 • 4593 posts Report

  • Jason Kemp,

    Thanks to you Russell for taking the time to wade through to find the useful content here. Hopefully more of this will get decoded before the election.

    I heard the RNZ interview on Sunday that seemed very hopeful that change is now possible. Professors Ann Fordham and Fiona Measham

    "They tell Wallace what needs to change and why Portugal is a role model. "

    Also in other news I recently watched the Ken Burns documentary on Prohibition. It made the point that during prohibition it was easier to get a drink than before then and even more fascinating that the whole prohibition so influenced a generation in their attitudes to the law and the whole social dynamic. Not a perfect parallel but close enough to repay some attention by policy makers and anyone interested in law reform.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 368 posts Report

  • Rob Stowell,

    The most shocking thing is how the editorial wafflers and political heavies (yes, Mr Little, that's you, too, along with Simon English) are so out of step with not just NZ popular opinion but also worldwide trends. They all seem terrified a tiny waft of smoke will drift their way and bing! their eyes will cross and their mojos wilt. It's just too daft: even if they can't lead, they're supposed to be at least moderately up with the crowd, not dragging a chain way down the back.
    No, it's not 'the biggest issue facing NZ." But it is possible to show leadership on small things, too. And sometimes that matters way more than it's calculated to.

    Whakaraupo • Since Nov 2006 • 2120 posts Report

  • Russell Brown, in reply to Rob Stowell,

    No, it’s not ’the biggest issue facing NZ.” But it is possible to show leadership on small things, too. And sometimes that matters way more than it’s calculated to.

    Thing is, if you're Māori, it might be a really big issue.

    That was the key topic on Day 2.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 22850 posts Report

  • Ross Bell, in reply to Russell Brown,

    Dunne has a response to NZ Herald and Listener:

    Wellington, NZ • Since Nov 2006 • 175 posts Report

  • Rob Stowell, in reply to Ross Bell,

    "here are the relevant facts, uncomfortable and all as they may be for the purveyors of this ignorance and stupidity." Nice. Mr Dunne gets his mojo back?

    Whakaraupo • Since Nov 2006 • 2120 posts Report

  • Rob Stowell,

    ... or at least has a go at those who might dare to opine he has enabled drug taking. the other bs in those editorials he seems not so bothered with.

    Whakaraupo • Since Nov 2006 • 2120 posts Report

  • Kumara Republic, in reply to Russell Brown,

    Thing is, if you're Māori, it might be a really big issue.

    That was the key topic on Day 2.

    Sadly it's just the same with people of colour targeted by America's War on Drugs.

    The southernmost capital … • Since Nov 2006 • 5446 posts Report

  • Ross Bell,

    Lloyd Burr on Newshub website makes the same error as herald/listener in his review of political parties. Aren't there rules about journalists getting basic facts/history correct?

    Wellington, NZ • Since Nov 2006 • 175 posts Report

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