Russell Brown's HARD NEWS

5th March 1999

Copyright © 1999 Russell Brown

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these are strange times. Strange enough to occasion another epic-length Hard News. Make sure you're sitting comfortably and we'll begin.

Anyway, the New Zealand Herald takes a poll in the wake of the whole Saatchi's Tourism Dinner farrago and finds that two thirds of respondents thought the Prime Minister lied about it - or, at least didn't tell the whole truth.

Nonetheless, the same punters also picked Shipley as their preferred Prime Minter. At 24-odd percent she's edged ahead of Helan Clark and National is only just behind Labour in the party standings. To National, this is a ringing endorsement of this year's spin campaign.

Not that they need much encouragement. This is a government putting every ounce of its energy into its own preservation. It'll do anything to manipulate opinion -- including messing with the law. So the "home invasion" legislation, inherent contradictions and all, goes to Parliament. And the Prime Minister, who knows a one-way bet when she sees it, gets Tough on Drugs.

Shipley's major announcement his week was the reclassifying of Ecstasy from class B to Class A - putting it alongside heroin, cocaine and LSD. The whole thing was an exercise in spin deliberately structured to put the Labour Party - and Helen Clark in particular -on the spot.

Shipley stands up and announces it - and Labour can either prostrate itself to this redneck idiocy or be depicted as being - horrors - Soft on Drugs. There can be no half measure, no debate, no flicker of intelligence permitted.

Roger Sowry's slimy little press release, released the night before the Prime Minister's statement, but after she'd made it known she'd be making it, is a particularly nasty work of spin. In fact, apart from spin it has no content whatsoever.

"Helen Clark has never criticised the insidious drug culture which wrecks thousands of New Zealand families every year," is its opening sentence. Ah. So she's immediately hung for what she hasn't said.

"There are a lot of intellectuals out there," that is, uppity feminist common-room types like Helen Clark and her mates, "Who think cannabis and designer drugs do not harm young people. Well, they should know better," Sowry says.

Yeah. Bloody intellectuals. Round the buggers up. Well, it worked for Pol Pot, didn't it? But the Prime Minister had better lose those new glasses, or people might think she's one. Not, I might add, that there's much danger of that.

"The thousands of disadvantaged families seen by social services and the justice system have multiple problems," Sowry continues. "Almost always one of these is drug or alcohol abuse. I'm stunned that Labour is prepared to risk childrens' lives, by not supporting this tough plan the Prime Minister Jenny Shipley has outlined."

My God, that bitch Helen Clark is risking the lives of little children! Living in bad, overcrowded housing and getting meningitis isn't too good for them either, but that's not the issue right now. So shut up.

The clincher comes at the end: "Helen Clark should stop knocking the police and support all efforts to prevent drug abuse and catch the people responsible for destroying New Zealand families."

That's the final straw, isn't it? Helen Clark has been knocking the police. So that's families, young people, children and our boys in blue that she's against. She should be put away herself. Thank goodness Jenny Shipley know what's right.

None of this, of course, has much to do with what Clark actually did say when approached by reporters the day before Shipley's statement. It was never meant to. For the record, what she said was: "There needs to be a co-ordinated solution to New Zealand's growing drug problem. Increasing sentences for dealing in drugs will have little effect when police and health services are being steadily eroded."

It actually bothers me intensely that my taxes are paying for John Goulter, or one of the other half dozen morally neutered press flacks with which Shipley has surrounded herself, to come up with poisonous crap like Sowry's press release.

At least Wyatt Creech managed to stay on topic with his contribution to the barrage. "We have a chance to act now to stop Ecstasy from becoming an established part of New Zealand culture," he says in his statement.

Reality: LSD is the second most popular illicit recreational drug in New Zealand, after marijuana. We have the fourth highest per capita consumption of LSD in the world. I guess you could call that a cultural characteristic. And LSD was, of course, a Class A drug almost before anyone had heard of it.

Shipley was in full-on lecture mode in her own statement, declaring that, "it is important that young people get a clear message that this is a dangerous drug, not something they can use for fun." Alcohol's a dangerous drug as well, but you don't get life imprisonment for supplying it - although you might get a knighthood if you play your cards right.

That phrase "not something they can use for fun" has a particular resonance. Trouble is, if drugs like Ecstasy weren't any fun, no one would spend any money on them. "For fun" is precisely why people take them.

The unnerving thing is that this week's knee-jerk is apparently the leading edge of the government's National Drug Strategy. We should all be worried about this, given the government's turn for the tabloid and Shipley's eagerness to point out that she's taken advice from FBI boss Louis Freeh, who told her decriminalisation of marijuana was a path to destruction.

She obviously thought he was telling the truth, but, then she and people around her have had a bit of trouble with that lately. Perhaps I can help.

Let's take the example of one of Mr Freeh's comrades in arms, the Whitehouse drugs policy adviser, General Barry McCaffrey, who claimed last August that prisons in the Netherlands were bursting at the seams because of its liberal drugs policy, coffee shops and free heroin programmes.

The United States' preventive approach, in contrast, was a roaring success, McCaffrey told Reuters in an interview.

Reality: The rate of incarceration in the Netherlands is 73 people out of every 100,000. In the US, it's 545. The Netherlands spends about $50 per capita annually on drug enforcement. The US spends $160.

A 1996 study in the Netherlands found that 18% of high school seniors had used marijuana in the past month. This is in a country where cannabis has been effectively decriminalised for years. In a similar study in the US, the rate was one third higher. 30% of the Dutch kids had tried pot at some time in their lives. 38% of the American kids had.

After two decades of America's War on Drugs, THERE ARE THREE TIMES AS MANY HEROIN ADDICTS PER HEAD OF POPULATION IN THE US AS THERE ARE IN THE NETHERLANDS, which prescribes free heroin to addicts.

And it's not just the Netherlands. Switzerland started offering addicts heroin on prescription four years ago, with psychotherapy and advice on returning to work. Since then, addict crime has fallen by two-thirds, illegal drug use has dropped and almost one third of those in the scheme have returned to work.

The Swiss researchers found that at the beginning of the program, 59% of the participants' income derived from illegal activities. By the end of the study, that figure was only 10%. Isn't it interesting what happens when you treat addicts like sick people?

But you want to know the reality here in New Zealand? Depending on where you live, you can wait six months to get on a methadone programme to try and get off heroin. You can beg and plead - and I know one person who did, in Dunedin - and they'll turn you away. For all the stupid chest-beating about getting tough on drugs, you can't go and get treatment for addiction.

Unless, of course, you get busted or commit a crime to get drug money. Then if you're lucky the judge might just order that you be offered a methadone programme.

Why is that? Partly because Health Funding Authority's five year purchasing strategy contains a zero funding increase for alcohol and drug treatment services over the next five years. If there's such a fucking crisis on the streets, wouldn't it be wise to do something about it?

Yet, in a National Radio interview recently, Shipley actually had the nerve to highlight methadone programmes as an example of what the government's doing for the victims of drug abuse.

Shipley's been banging on lately about bringing New Zealanders "security". Well, a 1994 study conducted by Rand Corporation for the Office of National Drug Control Policy and the United States Army, found that law enforcement costs 15 times as much as treatment to achieve the same reduction in "societal costs". She might like to study it.

The Americans never actually pay any attention to the surveys they commission, of course. They just keep on throwing money at the War on Drugs - more than $32 billion annually - or 13 times what it was when Ronald Reagan took office.

Along the way there have been some hideous abuses of human rights. Billions of dollars worth of assets have been seized since --in a large majority of cases charges aren't even filed. There are plenty of documented cases where US citizens were wrongly charged - and still lost their homes and belongings. And what happens to such seized goods in the Land of the Free? Are they sold to fund treatment programmes? Nope. The cops get them to play with.

It gets worse. Last year the Los Angeles Times reported the story of the undercover policewoman who approached a 16 year-old recovering heroin addict and offered him smack, restarting his addiction so he could be used to make drug buys as part of a string operation.

Another schoolkid in LA was caught with half an ounce of speed in January last year. The Orange County police said they'd prosecute him unless he agreed to become a police informant. The drug gang he was sent into tortured and killed him before raping and shooting his girlfriend and leaving her for dead. I suppose the cops found another kid to do the job after that.

These are the people from whom we are choosing to take advice.

I know those are extreme cases, and I'm not suggesting such grotesque abuses happen here. I actually think the police here take a more sensible view of these things than the politicians. But they are exactly what happens when you pursue the big lie that is the War on Drugs.

That didn't stop education minister Nick Smith declaring that we had to fight and win a "War on Drugs" in a newspaper column this week. We wouldn't want to become like Australia, where a "starter pack" of heroin was the most popular illicit drug in schools, costing less than a joint of marijuana, he said.

If you actually check the figures, that's nonsense of course. A New South Wales government study in September last year found that 40% of male high school students had used marijuana and only five per cent had tried heroin.

That's still frighteningly high - higher than in any of the European countries with liberal drug regimes. But heroin in New South Wales has historically been highly available relative to marijuana. At one point it threatened to drive dope out, because the people who sold heroin were happy to pay off the police, and the dope growers, with their easy-meat smelly, bulky, low-margin product, were not. Guess who got busted.

The Australians, by the way, ran a huge campaign in 1987 called ...'The War on Drugs'. Worked really well, didn't it?

Anyway, by virtue of fact that I seem to be the only journalist in the country capable of spending an hour or two on research, I was at risk of becoming a canned expert on E this week. I was happy enough to bat the issues around with Kim Hill and Inspector Cam Donald, the country's top drug cop - who seems like a decent guy - but Bob McNeil at 3 News never got his call returned.

TV news reporters are so research-averse it's amazing. If they can't find a talking head to say something, it doesn't get said. And it was eminently predictable that McNeil was going to wind up outside 340 K' Road, the club where 27 year-old Ngaire O'Neill became our first and only celebrity Ecstasy death.

"We now know how Ngaire O'Neill died," said Bob. "What we don't know is how long young people will continue to dice with death on the dancefloor." Nice alliteration, Bob. But wouldn't it have been nice to actually explain to people how she did die?

Ngaire O'Neill took some E on a night out. She didn't tell her friends, so there was no one looking out for her. Maybe she didn't like how she felt, she got too hot in the nightclub. She panicked, and started guzzling water. And that's what killed her. She drank too much water, her blood became too dilute, her brain swelled and she died. If she'd told someone, if she'd even just drunk Powerade instead of water, she'd still be alive.

People do die after taking Ecstasy. In the UK, between five and 10 people die a year - or about one every 6.8 million doses. They die of so-called dry-drowning like Ngaire O'Neill, or of heatstroke in crowded nightclubs - both of which should be regarded as preventable. A very, very few people have a so-called "idiosyncratic reaction" to Ecstasy, and suffer liver or heart failure - it's incredibly rare. In 11 years of E in New Zealand, we haven't had one of those yet.

To put those numbers in perspective, almost one hundred times more people die after taking paracetamol in Britain than Ecstasy. Many of those are overdoses, either deliberate or accidental. But some of them are, just like Ecstasy, idiosyncratic reactions.

That's not to say that Ecstasy is harmless, or that we should stop taking paracetamol. The jury's back in on long-term E use and it doesn't look good. Apart from the suspicion of liver damage, long-term heavy users can suffer emotional problems.

Nobody should feel bound to take Ecstasy or any other drug, including the legal ones. If you don't want to, don't. You don't need it. If you do, get it right. Be with friends. Be safe. Take fluids but not too much - about a litre an hour, max. Electrolyte drinks like Powerade are good, because they replace essential salts.

Most people who take Ecstasy have a good time, a few have a bad time and some have a life-changing emotional experience. Ecstasy, unlike certain other drugs, is not associated with violence or crime. People on Ecstasy tend to be friendly and caring, if a little goofy on it. In the UK, it's widely accepted that the late-80s E boom helped defuse a culture of football violence that was becoming critical.

One thing that particularly concerns me about this week's stunt is that the reclassification of E is will make it legally safer to possess and sell so-called "E" that is in fact a lesser - but vastly more dangerous - drug, like ketamine. As Milton Freidman likes to point out, zealous enforcement of drugs laws often tends to produce a cure that's worse than the disease.

None of this is really of much interest to the government, which sees only electoral advantage in it. They claim repeatedly to be "helping" young people, but it looks more like exploitation to me.

Would that announcement have happened this week if not for the headline-grabbing - but distinctly aberrant - Ecstasy incident at Mangere High School last week? Would it have happened if the government wasn't seeking to crawl out of a public relations problem? Would it happen if it weren't a perceived vulnerability in the Labour Party? Would it happen if there weren't any votes in it? For the second week in a row, I think you know the answer


    ==  ==      Russell Brown
  [ @ / @  ]                      
     /        ________________________________________
    (_)         "The views expressed on this programme
    ____)       are bloody good ones." Fred Dagg, 197?

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