Thursday, April 21, 2016

Trade Unionists, Police Association Presidents, And Retirees - The New Face Of Drug Law Reform In New Zealand

With every grand and sweeping change to the way we do things that's been the result of long, drawn-out and arduous efforts for change ... there comes a tipping point. Ordinarily, it occurs when sufficient numbers of Parliamentarians have been convinced on an issue to cast their votes in favour of changing the law. If we ever get Euthanasia law-reform in this country, it will probably take place exactly like that.

But other issues and reform-efforts play out differently.

There are some areas of what you might call 'much-needed sanity injection' in our politics where main-party MPs fear to tread.

Cannabis law reform - whether for medicinal use only, general and widespread decriminalization, or full-blown legalization - is the most prominent of these questions in modern times.

Sure, various Opposition MPs such as the departing Phil Goff (that's him there in the lovely Trace Hodgson illustration, painting with all the colours of the wind as a Young Labourite) might have made rather more than vague murmurings about their intent to change the law back when they were much further down the totem-pole ... but even despite the Greens' gallant (if legislatively flawed) attempts at putting forward Private Members' Bills on the subject from time to time, no serious progress seems likely from the Parliamentary end of the political spectrum.

This is, obviously, because what you might term to be the "establishment" political parties of Labour and National are, in the main, seriously spooked about the prospect of something akin to the Family First- and moral conservative rentarage brigade-led 'mass' protests which accompanied something like the passage of the Civil Unions act in 2004. This helped to galvanize groups like the Exclusive Brethren to meddle in our politics in a big way, and there is presumably no screaming desire to overturn the applecart with yet another piece of social-progressive reform in Labour - while many in National, by contrast, are still stuck either being Trojan tobacco lobbyists, or daily re-watching Reefer Madness.

So it's no go from Parliament, because various parties and actors who'd otherwise be potentially at least not-opposed to change are genuinely afeared of the effect upon their already apparently shriveling constituencies.

That's a shame.

But what if something changed? What if, all of a sudden, the people clamouring for cannabis law reform were no longer half-baked twentysomethings, the occasional Gold Card-laden hippy, and Don Brash when he's in a principled-libertarian mood.

(Pictured: Don Brash in a principled-libertarian mood)

What if bastions of what you might term key 'establishment-supporting' demographics started to change their tune.

Because that's exactly what's happening today.

This sea-change in New Zealand Politics started, inarguably, with Helen Kelly. The exact details, hows whys and wherefores don't need to be gone into here. But suffice to say through her personal crusade, attitudes began to shift.

It's one thing to dismiss cannabis law reform as a semi-literal pipe-dream of over-educated and under-realistic University Students having animated discussions in the local equivalent of Albert Park.

It's quite another to tell somebody who's obviously had (and still has, remarkably) their life together and is a serious and sober public figure that their thinking is in fantasist-territory error. Particularly when they're in a near-moribund state from a terminal illness and are acting as living proof of the utility of the drug in question.

All of a sudden, the issue couldn't be dismissed so easily - and not least because Kelly did her level best to keep it not only 'on the agenda' of public affairs, but talked about in serious rather than supercilious terms by a not insignificant number of journalists and other opinion-shapers.

The 'reform' side of the cannabis debate now had its relatable, respectable, downright reasonable 'human face'.

Widespread incredulity as to the severely disproportionate original sentence of Kerry Van Gaalen up in Northland also helped to galvanize the issue. People were beginning to get a closer look at elements of our system that are demonstrably causing harm through not being fit for purpose.

Then, other things started to change.

I recall reading with frank amazement quotes from Police Association President Greg O'Connor talking about harm-minimization and the potential implications of full-legalization here in New Zealand. While the Police Association is presently at pains to downplay the idea that they might potentially be in support of drug law reform, it was rather telling that their new position is to actually look at the issue on its own merits and investigate it properly rather than simply dismissing any and all law reform efforts out of hand. It would even appear he's going off on fact-finding missions surrounding the subject - first, last year to Colorado; and second, this year to Portugal.

In any case, it's huge progress that one of our top cops - and the de facto mouthpiece for police across the land - feels comfortable enough with the issue to come out with something enlightened like "We should balance the damage that is likely from the inevitable short-term increase in the amount of drug use from legalisation of drugs against the damage done to society by the same drugs being illegal and supply and quality being left in the hands of unregulated criminals."

Rational, forward-thinking policing policy. Who'd have thought it.

All things considered, many policemen are probably much more keen to be fighting and solving "serious" crime, rather than reading their rights to early 20somethings caught red-embered with a spliff and a fifty-bag.

But it's the next group presently lobbying for change that really caught my eye. An entire GreyPower branch have unanimously agreed to join the fight and start lobbying Parliamentarians not just for medical law reform ... but for a fundamental shift to a position wherein the state views growing your own 'medication' no more severely than it does a pensioner planting broccoli.

Seriously. That's how they phrased it. And while I've never heard of smoking cannabis referred to as "tokies" before, that's quite frankly adorable.

Now while it might seem a little curious that members affiliated with a pressure-group that's more customarily thought of as representing some of the more conservative (age) demographics are evidently starting to line up for change ... this really should come as no surprise. You see quite a few things as you age - and once you hit your Gold Card years, odds are you'll have seen far more than most. The specific reasoning cited by the GreyPower branch in question is quite simple -and chimes in most strongly with Helen Kelly's own story and crusade efforts.

They've seen numerous people with serious illnesses suffer needlessly as the direct result of the officially sanctioned and presently available 'legal' medications being quite frequently horrendous. They're not happy about it. And in many cases, it's evidently been quite a strikingly personal process engaging with the issue and speculating what we might do differently.

I'm also not too surprised that older New Zealanders are starting to very publicly come out in favour of change for one other reason - the result of my experiences with New Zealand First. I still remember during the height of the 'legal highs' debacle, a number of the little old ladies at one of the NZF branches I was chairing at the time spontaneously propound that the legalization of cannabis represented a logical step forward that would have the additional and intrinsic benefit of largely extinguishing the then-flourishing consumer demand for synthetic alternatives. As one venerable moonsilver-haired woman put it ... it seemed a curious thing indeed that the government had no problem putting abject poison onto our streets, yet were so reluctant and recalcitrant to even consider legalizing the vastly 'lesser evil'.

But if the elderly demographic is one of the more remarkable newfound allies to the cause, it's also arguably the most integral.

Elderly voters, you may remember, win elections and win policy battles. They tend to have far higher turnouts than the younger demographics more customarily associated with advocating for change, and it is my belief that the 'Establishment' political parties have a certain sense of Fear of older voters in train. How else to explain National's curious reluctance to moot raising the retirement age, and Labour's wild backpeddling over the exact same issue as soon as Andrew Little ascended to the leadership. Older readers will also remember a certain W. Peters making considerable hay out of the pension surtax debacle almost a generation ago in the early-90s.

So with several key support demographics evidently slowly aligning on-side, and growing sympathy for the cause of cannabis law reform as the result of both domestic figures and foreign experiments out amongst the general population  ... the only thing seriously missing (other than a critical mass of momentum) is the requisite numbers of politicians on-side to actually put forward some form of legislative enactment.

There are two ways that this could be done - a Binding Referendum like we just had on the flag, or a simple legislative proposal in the form of a bill. I suspect that the former may have a better chance of making its way through Parliament, as it allows any risk-averse political persons and entities to distance themselves from the result by claiming our new law is the 'democratic will of the people' rather than 'intrusive social engineering' (or whatever Family First's latest buzzword-bouquet is).

Regrettably, we are still some distance away from the 'tipping point' of popular support and thus political will which could make either of these things a reality. But considering both of those political bell-weathers Winston Peters and Peter Dunne have recently made moves on the issue (with Peters openly campaigning on the possibility of cannabis legalization delivered via referendum during the Northland By-Election last year, and Dunne deciding to descend from his Ivory Ministry Tower to make vague noises in support of some form of eventual change), there is evidently capacious room for hope that our political classes are finally getting the message.

In any case, where Parliament fails to exercise moral leadership, it falls upon the people to take the initiative.

What we appear to be witnessing gradual and growing movement of support from diverse corners of the electorate, all converging on a singular (if somewhat hazy and ill-specified) goal.

Better drug-laws around cannabis that help rather than harm society.

We haven't reached the tipping point yet - but we're not far off it.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

The Trouble With Cannabis Is That It Can Induce Psychosis In Some People Who Haven't Taken It

I remember the synthetic cannabinoids debate. I remember it well. But more important than that, I also remember the nature of the substance then being debated - and how it differed, markedly and materially from the drug-law reform being proposed today.

Inveterate Herald political curmudgeon John Roughan does not. On any meaningful score, and in any meaningful sense - he is ignorant. In fact, judging by the tone and tenor of the article which appeared under his name in yesterday's Weekend Herald, it would appear manifestly apparent that Roughan considers ignorance to be amongst the highest of virtues.

Perhaps he is right. Perhaps never having dabbled with psychoactive substances in one's youth makes the armchair in a writer's ivory tower sitting room an altogether more comfortable position from which to sit in supposed 'impartial' judgement upon the progressive law reform proposals of others.

I wouldn't know. I have been spared the luxuries of existing 'above the fray', as it were.

As a young man, many of my best friends were drug users. A goodly portion were, what you might say, "drug dependent". For a variety of conditions - whether physiological or psychiatric - these people turned to pharmacopia in order to cope with the needs and demands of their day-to-day existence.

Some people used anti-depressants. Others, stimulant-drugs prescribed for their ADHD. Still further luminaries turned to more illicit substances in order to cope with what ailed them, and some indeed were simply in pursuit of a buzz or an 'enhanced' approach to recreation.

Many of them used cannabis. But not all. For various reasons, a few of us dipped into the horrid half-world of the synthetic.

And yes, part of the reason was that it was legal and available - but it wasn't exactly by choice. Instead, it was almost invariably because real cannabis *wasn't* legal and *wasn't* available that the far less desirable alternative worked its way onto peoples' radar.

But "legal highs" proved to be a very, very different family of drugs indeed to regular old cannabis, and acres of user-testimony (which we might almost term 'survivor stories' considering the serious ill-effects of some of the latter releases) serves to confirm that these were not good substances. In fact, having seen up close and personal what they did to one of my closest friends and others ... I would have absolutely zero compunction saying that methamphetamine appears relatively less harmful by comparison.

So when Roughan erroneously attempts to claim that the insane irrationality of the synthetic cannabinoid experiment vitiates the sanity and rationality of serious attempts to reform our laws against medicinal cannabis or decriminalization more generally ... this makes exactly as much sense as stating that because methylated spirits ought not be sold in bars for human consumption because of their patently poisonous effects, regular beer and whiskey should not be vended either.

In other words, it's a completely nonsensical position.

Like should be compared with like - and even when compared with unlike (as Roughan does by raising alcohol prohibition), the actual facts of the situation - rather than mere rhetorical blustering in service of an agenda - ought to be what's taken into consideration.

This is why it's damned curious that Roughan can in the same breath decry prohibition for alcohol, claim that it doesn't work and shouldn't have happened ... apparently because he, personally enjoys it (and really, what is non-medicinal drug-use for many people other than "pleasant in itself"). And yet simultaneously state that the continued prohibition for cannabis is somehow entirely different in substance rather than just substance (ahem) from that which has gone before.

It's a fact-free spin-zone perspective designed to bolster and support his own personal prejudices. And we can prove that not only via recourse to how he chooses to describe his own enjoyment of alcohol perpendicular to his mischaracterization of cannabis ... but also by taking a look at the substance behind his rhetorical stabs at the much-maligned "health regulators" on the issue of how prohibition has played out for synthetic cannabis.

Roughan claims that "years have passed and we don't see or hear anything about" an "underground" market in synthetic cannabinoids. In answer to that, here's a link to an NZ Police press release from just four days ago about a series of raids on houses involved in the synthetic cannabinoid trade. Here's another piece from last month which features a police raid in Canterbury netting a whole kilogram of the stuff.

Now this is not to argue that taking synthetic cannabinoids off the shelves was a bad idea. With people still evidently being seriously hospitalized on a reasonably regular basis through synthetic cannabis use, there's clearly a strong argument that restricting the availability of that substance had some clear merit to it in the name of harm minimization. Instead, it is to simply point out that Roughan hasn't bothered to let facts of any stripe burden him as he reaches for a Talkback-grade personal opinion on issues which he has no problem admitting he's fairly utterly ignorant about.

And in any case, if Roughan's comparison between synthetic and natural cannabis were to hold any water, we'd be expecting to see a similar raft of regular and ongoing potentially life-threatening hospitalizations from simple natural cannabis usage. We don't, and never have done. Although interestingly, Roughan's own preferred drug of choice, alcohol, continues to stock emergency-rooms and police cells in staggering numbers which dwarf in scale the harms wrought by cannabis or even synthetics.

I wonder why he doesn't mention that.

What Roughan's column represents is the comfortable and easy prejudices of a section of the National-voting middle class come out to play. It is not in any way, shape or form, a substantive analysis - and is interesting only for the breathtaking breadth of willful ignorance which some attempted-opinion-shapers in this country intentionally cling to when it comes to upsetting the apple-cart on a status quo that demonstrably isn't working.

Whenever a new idea whose time has come appears to be slouching toward Bethlehem for impending immanentization, there will always be armchair critics. Men whose lack of imagination is inflamed and anguished at having to envision a world where their own personal prejudices are not the dominant force in the legislative-political cosmos.

As the momentum for change grows, so too do their howls of discontent voiced through the popular media and presses. And that is a sad thing, indeed - for the increased harmonics of their oft-impressively shrill tones can occasionally even succeed in discolouring or, worse, outright destabilizing the course and progress of the rational and reasonable debate taking place around them.

It is clear now that one of the arguments which will be deployed in the immediate future to oppose sensible reform of our cannabis laws, will be the Government's previous insensible experimentation with synthetic highs.

But the New Zealand Public will not be fooled.

The most accurate line in Roughan's column was also its conclusion - that it's "none of [his] business".

As applies the eventual course and outcome of this debate ... I can hardly say I disagree.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Life After Winston Part Three: Game of Jones

Two years after he quit Parliament to become New Zealand’s “Ambassador for Pacific Economic Development”, Shane Jones is rumoured to be plotting a comeback. This time, as the Member for Whangarei. TDB readers may recall our post in June last year ‘Life After Winston - On The Future Leadership of NZ First’. In it, we cast some light on Shane Jones’ relationship with Winston Peters and NZ First. Now we reveal new information about the back-room political manoeuvring that is going on in Whangarei.
Newshub’s Lloyd Burr broke the Whangarei story on 10 March. The timing could not have been better. Prime Minister John Key and Winston Peters were in town to mark the start of work on the Hundertwasser Art Centre. He ambushed both. Could National lose Whangarei to Shane Jones? “That’s not likely to happen in my view,” Key said tersely. Peters was less direct, though visibly more relaxed: “I'm not able to talk to anybody in the diplomatic core on a political matter.”  

Of course the man himself would not comment. So who, or what, is behind the sudden media interest about a Jones candidacy? To the best of our knowledge, Shane Jones is not and has never been a member of New Zealand First. It makes sense, then, that Jones’ biggest supporters are outside of the party.
TDB can reveal that the push for Jones to stand in Whangarei is linked to the “Grow Northland Rail” campaign and members of the Rail and Maritime Transport Union. The alliance between rail interests and NZ First goes back to 2012 and former NZ First MP Brendan Horan, who established a close working relationship with a Whangarei-based RMTU organiser during his campaign to highlight rail safety and advocate for key infrastructural improvements and line reopenings. The same organiser is behind an informal campaign to ‘draft’ Shane Jones and unseat National MP Dr. Shane Reti. Said organizer also sent us the below-reproduced image in the hopes that we'd be able to help the cause by sharing it far and wide.

We understand he has even approached figures in NZ First, Labour and the Greens to discuss the possibility of an electoral pact that would give Jones a clear run. This would theoretically involve both Labour and the Greens standing aside in Whangarei with the goal of affording as many of their combined total of ten thousand votes to Jones as possible. 

Winston Peters’ ethical opposition to such backroom deals makes it unlikely, however. It nevertheless demonstrates that Jones has an identifiable support base independent of the Party and that his potential candidacy in Whangarei should be taken seriously. But let’s remember that as well as being a friend to the unions, Jones is also a friend to the National Party.

Last year, we received information that a senior National Party operative was openly discussing the implications of a Shane Jones-led NZ First. Jones, they reasoned, would be easier to control than Winston - or Ron Mark, for that matter. He had, after all, already demonstrated a capacious willingness to cripple Labour by abandoning his old party in the run-up to the 2014 Election in exchange for a bespoke-fit personally created sinecure position gifted to him by the National Party. NZ First would therefore potentially be transformed almost overnight into an obsequious Nat coalition partner a la ACT or United Future – devoid of principle, and concerned only with having a “seat at the table” in much the same way as the Maori Party.

In other words, some in National have already made the tangible calculation that those self-same mercenary proclivities they took advantage of with regard to Jones two years ago are still in evidence today - meaning that he could well be bought off (again). Worse, if National - or factions thereof - were to assist Jones in his rise to power in either the Whangarei constituency or New Zealand First's internal politics, they might well consider Jones to be already 'bought and paid for' by the time the presumptive 2020 coalition/confidence & supply negotiations rolled around.

However, if Jones is serious about his leadership aspirations (rather than merely returning from the Pacific as an electorate or list MP in perpetuity), then there is one other crucial group whose opinion must be considered: the NZ First Parliamentary Caucus he'd presumably be climbing over the backs of in pursuit of first the Deputy Leadership, before eventually going for the top job. Despite the potency of a potential Winston endorsement, Jones would still need to command the support of at least a bare majority of his presumptive Parliamentary colleagues if an internal election for the Deputy Leadership and/or Leadership were to be held.

In this, Jones would face something of an uphill fight. Many in NZ First's Caucus are strongly loyal to current Deputy Leader Ron Mark - as was seen during the ouster of former Deputy Leader Tracey Martin in June of last year.

This makes Martin a potent potential ally for Jones. She has at least one or two supporters left in Caucus who would presumably vote with her if she so requested, as well as other assets to draw upon within the Party and its governing infrastructure more broadly that could be helpful with bringing Jones 'inside the tent'. She would also have several things to gain from helping Jones, including a potential shot at something she'd have difficulty doing herself - deposing and heading off the leadership ambitions of the man whom she feels "usurped" her Deputy Leadership position; while also affording her a shot at being given back her 'old job' as Deputy once Jones took the Leadership.

This logic is sufficiently self-evident that we are given to understand at least one of the camps previously named in this piece has already extended feelers to Martin with a view towards sounding out her potential support for such a maneuver. 

As well as Martin, there is another senior party figure in Wellington whom we believe is supportive of Jones. In our June post we reported that Director of Operations Api Dawson had approached Jones about the possibility of defecting to NZ First as early as 2012. Dawson has previously been close to Ron Mark, but is also a pragmatist who has his eye on government.

So, all things considered -while the RMTU's efforts at liasing with New Zealand First in order to get Northland rail back on track are to be commended ... we would warn our comrades up north to think very carefully about what wagons are potentially hitched to that particular engine of change.