Hard News by Russell Brown



Tomorrow, I will be 60 years old. It’s the impossibly distant age at which people used to retire with a pension and a mortgage-free house. It's okay. I've been thinking of myself as basically there for a while now – and the same thing appears to be happening to some of my dearest friends.

Technically, you could make a case for us as both boomers and Gen Xers, but we're not quite either. We’re a generation that grew up with the state providing. I still have a faint mental image of crates of school milk arriving to sit warming in the sun – the last year of the scheme, 1967, was my first year at school.

But we’re also the generation that saw the guarantee of national prosperity dissolved – I turned 11 in 1973, the year of the first oil crisis and of Britain joining the EU. Carless days followed in 1979, then in 1982 the government imposed a freeze on every wage and price in the national economy. The wheels had well and truly fallen off by time we saw it all dismantled in 1984, when I turned 22.

I have always been grateful to have received a great New Zealand liberal education, albeit one in which te ao Māori was all but invisible. John Key, who sat in the same classrooms and jogged across the same rugby fields I did, might feel the same. We did social studies with our groovy boomer teachers. The school found room for Robin Duff, New Zealand’s first out gay teacher, and the acerbic lesbian activist Jude Rankin, and was among the first to abandon corporal punishment. Blowhards would doubtless deem it “woke” these days, but it really wasn’t. It was just sensible.

The school is also where I met Fiona, who turned 60 herself in May. And now here we are, two punk rock kids in their sixties, with a house and an ongoing conversation. We never did get married and I expect we won’t. We were a generation that often didn’t – some of our oldest friends are still together, unwed. Forgive us if we were a little shocked when our children got married at 24 and women took their husbands’ names again.

Our parenthood, mine and Fiona’s, has gone on longer that most people’s. Our two autistic sons still live with us. I hope that won’t be the case forever, but it makes us a tight crew. It’s been extremely challenging at times, but I’ve been changed in profound and positive ways by the experience. My sons have helped me to understand how we’re all different. They’ve made me more tolerant, a better person and a better journalist. I love and admire them.

The journalism, the job of my life, has changed a bit. In 1981, the year I began as a cadet at the Christchurch Star, the old hot metal print process had just given way to a new computerised system, whose fridge-sized beige boxes supplanted the linotype machines. We still used typewriters in the newsroom and the print workers were trained to retype our words from the copy sheets.

It was only three years later that I was using a computer to typeset a magazine. I’ve written for AudioCulture about becoming deputy editor of Rip It Up at the beginning of 1983, and how in the journey north to the new job, “I went from being bored, frustrated and not entirely fitting in with the newsroom, to a life right in the middle of the culture I was defining myself by.” I was never quite normal after that.

What Rip It Up also did was give me a huge space to work out who I was and to teach me how to interview. Charisma is a real  thing. And I was exposed to people – Malcolm McLaren, Nico, Nick Cave – who had it in spades. My education was completed over five years in Britain, where I lived in squats, worked in record shops, wrote for the music papers and generally had a whole lot of fun on my own cognisance. There’s a photograph of me at Glastonbury in 1987 – happy, high, scouting for mischief – that I like to think captures something that’s still there.

Fiona and I will be dining at Cazador tomorrow, where I’ll ask them to open the bottle of Stonyridge Larose 2006 I started keeping 14 years ago, when 60 seemed an impossibly long way away. I’ve put off the big party until September, when the air might be a bit clearer and when my broken shoulder has healed (I was knocked off my bike last month – it’s been a year). But we’ll do it.

I still like a party and, even if I don’t get out quite as much as I used to, I have gone on liking a party and a dance well beyond the age at which some folk believe that sort of thing should be put away. When a noise control officer turned up (with four police officers!) to remove the sound system from another 60th birthday party earlier this year, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of munted, greying satisfaction.

I feel tired lately, but that’s hard to disentangle from the things that are making us all tired in this moment in history. I can’t see how I’ll ever return to the mad productivity of the heyday of Public Address, or of the original radio version of this blog, which began on 95bFM in 1991. I don’t really want to, to be honest. It wouldn’t be good for my blood pressure. Some days I think I should go and get that ADHD diagnosis, other days I think I already have an understanding of my own difference.

I have other duties now, too – Mum and I are the only survivors from the household I grew up in and it’s time to pay back on the security I grew up with, the security that let me feel able to take risks when I got older. I’ve been doing a job recently that has impressed on me the toll that childhood trauma takes on many of us and I’m deeply grateful to have been safe, warm and well fed. The fact that Mum is only 22 years older than me makes me ponder mortality.

So it’s back to work next week – or at least an end to politely declining offers of it. The ACC support since my injury is expiring soon and I’ll need to scale up again. One day I’ll stop working, or at least not have to work so much. I have an idea of being the venerable sort who contributes a lyrical weekly column somewhere, if only to demonstrate that it's possible to do so without being a scared old fool.

I don't want to be like those fools you'll read in the paper tomorrow. I'd strive to be Monte Holcroft or Des Dubbelt or Rangi Walker. Liberal, philosophical and kind – especially to people younger than me who are just beginning their journey.

When I first washed up in Auckland all those years ago, people who were a little older than me showed me the ropes, took me places and were interested in what I was about. I’ve never forgotten that. I’ve had my turn as a cool kid – I think I got more than one bite, to be honest – and I’ll never resent someone bright and interesting having their turn.

Who knows? Perhaps I'll get another bite, draw a crowd again, and speak for whoever we've all become. Party at mine, you might say.


Closing off a complaint

You might recall that on April 19 and 20 this year, RNZ published and broadcast a series of reports – beginning with this one – that claimed the government had not followed Ministry of Health advice to end the MIQ system in November 2021.

The coverage was based on a misleading interpretation of an internal memo, which assuredly did not call for MIQ to be ended in November, and it repeatedly omitted key events and details in pursuing its case.

I was critical of this reporting on social media and was eventually approached by RNZ to submit a complaint via its formal complaints process. As my subsequent letter indicates, I wasn't wild about the required format, but I did my best.

RNZ's response missed the formal 20-day deadline and no extension was requested, but it did eventually arrive. The response was confusing, didn't seem to reflect the actual nature of the memo and made some strange claims, including that the memo meant MIQ was in breach of the law from the date the memo was sent.

I was advised to take to the complaint to the Media Council if I was not satisified with this response. But by that time I was very busy with work – and then I was knocked off my bike and I was injured and not in any position to write up a fresh complaint to the Media Council.

But I do want to close off this thing, so I've decided to just publish the complaint and the response here. I know there are other complaints, probably considerably more adept than mine, whose authors have been in a position to forward them to the Media Council and possibly the Broadcasting Standards Authority too.

The Complaint

To whom it may concern:

I was invited by John Edens to submit my critcisms of the reporting and interviews conducted by RNZ on April 19 and 20 2022 and following days regarding the reporting of the  internal memo about the future of the MIQ system circulated among Ministry of Health officials last November. I had expressed these criticisms on social media and had not intended to formally complain about a breach of broadcasting standards.

My preference would still be for this to simply be an editorial complaint,  but the format of RNZ’s complaints process obliges me to refer to standards. I have some difficulty separating the the audio and text in question – the reporting was clearly of a piece – and have consequently submitted this same complaint with reference to the BSA standards of accuracy and balance and the Media Council standard of Accuracy, fairness and balance.

The memo in itself was newsworthy and what I gather were the ministry’s attempts to frustrate its release under OIA are lamentable. But RNZ’s reporting of the memo’s contents was misleading and inaccurate.

An initial report by Katie Todd on April 19 referred to “the revelation that the director-general and the director of health had signed off on advice to phase out MIQ in November last year” and implied that 40,000 inbound travellers might have been spared MIQ had the government accepted this advice. This would appear to be number of border entries between November 12, the date of the memo, and March 1, the date when the phase-out of MIQ began.

This is simply not what the memo says. No sensible reading of it could take the meaning that the ministry’s advice was for the instant end of MIQ. There was, apart from anything else, no system to replace it as the primary means of border control. The Revised Public Health Risk Assessment the officials recommend did not exist. The memo explicitly recognises this and includes a list of nine “policy and implementations and recommendations that need to be worked through”. It further recommends that the Ministry of Health be asked to coordinate with other Crown agencies to develop policy, clarify legal implications and develop “a detailed transitional plan” for Cabinet.

What the report does not say is that on November 24, the government did in fact publicly announce the phasing out of MIQ from January 16, 2022. This is an extraordinary omisssion. The announcement came only two days after the receipt of the formal advice from Dr Bloomfield to Minister Hipkins – which is logically the first opportunity the government would have had to respond to the advice. RNZ itself reported the news on the same day, under the headline ‘Covid-19: Major MIQ changes from early next year’.

The formal advice was even clearer that the officials were not proposing an immediate end to MIQ.  It said the ministry sought legal and public heath advice on a "considered transition" away from MIQ as the border default – and at the same time, reaffirmed the legal basis for MIQ to continue.

The report also neglects to mention that the original January 16 phase-out was postponed on December 24 in response to the threat of the Omicron variant. This, too, was a public announcement and the decision to postpone was made with the overwhelming support of Parliamentary parties.

The effect of the report was to give a highly misleading account of the chain of events.

A report the following day on Morning Report was even worse. It claimed that: “Up to 40,000 people could have skipped MIQ from November last year if the Government had followed top health advice.” Again, there is no evidence at all that the officials recommended ending MIQ that month. They clearly and explicitly did not. There is also no evidence that the government did not follow the advice, as the script for the piece claims. Indeed, in naming a phase-out date only two days after Minister Hipkins received the advice from Dr Bloomfield, it seems to have acted with some alacrity.

There was some attempt at balance later in the programme with an interview with the Deputy Prime Minister. But the introduction to the interview again stated the nonsensical “40,000 New Zealanders” figure, a number which cannot be arrived at by any reasonable reading of the source memo. The text accompanying the interview on RNZ’s website said that “The Acting Prime Minister says Omicron held up an end to MIQ recommended last year.” It did not need to be up to the DPM to say so: the postponement and the reasons for it were both public. Again, RNZ itself reported on them.

The same, false claim that “Up to 40,000 people could have skipped MIQ from November last year if the government had paid attention to top health officials” appears in another RNZ report by Tessa Guest on the same day. Like the previous reports, this one omitted any mention of the the November announcement or the December postponement. Instead, it simply says “the system wasn't abandoned until almost four months later, causing stress for thousands of New Zealanders vying to come home for summer.”

Another report by Katie Todd that evening focused on the plight of pregnant women who had been unable to get MIQ places in December and claimed that “an internal Ministry of Health memo from November, revealed yesterday by RNZ, that shows the Director General of Health and Director of Public Health agreed it was time to shift to home isolation.” Again, the memo, which at that point had not been received by the government, did not propose ending MIQ in November.

This is not a failure by one reporter, it is an editorial failure on the part of RNZ. The reporting of this memo misstated its meaning, did not include key lines from the memo which would have made its meaning clear and omitted key events in the public timeline. It was inaccurate and misleading.


Russell Brown

The Response

Tēnā koe Russell

I write in response to your formal complaint regarding the following items:

https://www.rnz.co.nz/news/national/465510/miq-not-justified-beyond-november-health- officials-told-govt-last-year

https://www.rnz.co.nz/national/programmes/checkpoint/audio/2018838691/top-doctors- signed-off-advice-on-ending-miq-in-november

https://www.rnz.co.nz/national/programmes/morningreport/audio/2018838769/miq-ending- delay-justified-grant-robertson

https://www.rnz.co.nz/national/programmes/morningreport/audio/2018838761/covid-19-miq- returnees-want-compensation

https://www.rnz.co.nz/news/political/465597/miq-assessment-adds-insult-to-injury-for- women-forced-to-give-birth-abroad

which were published on April 19 and 20, 2022.

RNZ has received more than one complaint regarding our coverage of the changes to the government's Managed Isolation Quarantine (MIQ) policies and this reply addresses all the standards issues which have been raised in those complaints.

At the outset, RNZ achnowledges that you were concerned about aspects of these stories but cannot agree with the gist of the complaints received. The coverage of the story which broke on April 19 followed that of the classic news cycle of a significant story. Not every element of every perspective was contained in the first story which ran on Checkpoint on April 19 and published on our website. This was partly because the Ministry of Health (MoH) had not responded by the deadline requested of them, but once their material was provided it was included in an update to the online story on the same day. Once reaction had been received from the New Zealand government via statements from Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins, that material was covered on April 19 and statements from the acting Prime Minister Grant Robertson were covered the following day.

The Genesis of the story

In response to an OIA request sometime earlier, the MoH refused to release an internal memo to the MoH Director General, Dr Ashley Bloomfield from the Director of Public Health, Dr Caroline McElnay.

The gist of this memo was that it sought Dr Bloomfield's agreement to an updated Public Health Risk Assessment that considered the risk posed by international arrivals transmitting Covid-19 was no longer higher than the domestic transmission risk of Covid 19. The reason this is so important is that the imposition of MIQ restraints could no longer be justified under the Public Health Response Act and was, on the face of it, breaking the law to allow MIQ facilities to continue operating. Dr Bloomfield agreed with this assessment on November 15 and further agreed that the effect of this new assessment would be that managed isolation for returnees would no longer be justified on public health grounds as the default for people travelling to New Zealand. The memo posited that a period of home isolation was considered a more proportionate management measure to which Dr Bloomfield also agreed. The memo also called for advice to be given to government and Dr Bloomfield agreed to this course of action.

At that stage, RNZ was somewhat blindsided as the further advice to the Minister Chris Hipkins on 22 November was not included in the OIA release, when the MoH had been asked to provide "...any correspondence between the Ministry of Health and the Prime Minister's Office and the office of Chris Hipkins that discusses allowing international arrivals to return to self isolate in the community prior to Christmas". Had RNZ had the benefit of receiving a copy of the November 22 advice to the Minister then that further information could have been included in the articles but that information was not supplied.

The Articles

The first article:

https://www.rnz.co.nz/news/national/465510/miq-not-justified-beyond-november-health- officials-told-govt-last-year

began with a headline “MIQ not justified beyond November, health officials told government last year” was published on April 19. It states that top health officials agreed in November last year that managed isolation quarantine (MIQ) was “no longer justified" for most returnees according to a document the MoH tried to keep secret. The MoH refused to release the document and only released it after an appeal to the ombudsman by requestees. The article goes on to outline how Dr McElnay wrote to Dr Bloomfield and agreement was reached that the risk posed by international arrivals is no longer higher than that of domestic transmission risk of Covid-19. Dr Bloomfield concurred and agreed to brief Mr Hipkins, but that briefing was not supplied as a part of the original OIA response from the MoH. The article then noted that the government might need to speed up its then plan for a phased easing of border restrictions in the first quarter of 2022 and provided a comment from Waikato law professor Al Gillespie noting that the Public Health Response Act requires responses to be proportionate and suggesting that the government had a question to answer as to why they continued with a such a disproportionate response. This is followed by comments from Martin Newell from Grounded Kiwis.

The article then gave quite some space to the the statement issued by Covid-19 response Minister Chris Hipkins who outlined that the public health risk at the border had changed but there was still a need to transition from managed isolation to a new approach and had to be considered and managed alongside implementation of the Covid-19 protection framework and “Reconnecting New Zealand”. He noted that the timing of the border reopening allowed "us the chance to get our vaccination and booster rates up and that he had a huge impact on our management of the current Omicrcon outbreak." This was followed by supportive comments from epidemiologist Michael Baker and a MoH statement received also was quoted at length in the article, noting that they MIQ system played an important role during December and January 2022 and managing the arrival of increasing number of border cases with Omicron, thereby delaying community transmission and allowing vaccination levels to increase in the population.

The MoH also noted that the transition from managed isolation needed to be managed carefully and safely for a period of time to minimise the impact on the health system, vulnerable communities and allow for increased support available for people isolating at home.

RNZ notes that everything recorded in this article was factual and accurate and given the range of opinions canvassed and statements published, no questions of balance arise on this occasion. While some complainants have made different inferences from what was published in this article, they remain clearly that, i.e. inferences and not implications which might have been contained in the wording of what was published.

RNZ notes that the second item published on our website on April 19 was the text accompanying the audio of the item which was broadcast on the Checkpoint programme:

https://www.rnz.co.nz/national/programmes/checkpoint/audio/2018838691/top-doctors- signed-off-advice-on-ending-miq-in-november

That article recorded that the Covid Minister’s office noted that the memo received by the Minister's office on November 16, 2021, indicating that MIQ should be ended as it was no longer justified was followed on November 23 by further ministry advice that it had sought from Professor Anthony Blakely and Professor Philip Hill who having reviewed initial advice provided the professional and independent opinion. The Minister noted that the initial memo of November 16 was not “the final advice on this topic".

Readers and listeners would have therefore been aware that the story was a developing one and there were further perspectives bearing on the advice by Ministry officials that managed MIQ facilities could no longer be justified for most returnees. The acting Prime Minister was interviewed on Morning Report the following day on April 20 and provided comment on criticism that the government had waited until February to ditch MIQ isolation even though it had been flagged to government in November 2021 that it was no longer justified, see:

https://www.rnz.co.nz/national/programmes/morningreport/audio/2018838769/miq-ending- delay-justified-grant-robertson

It was reported in the April 20 story on our website that Mr Robertson stated that the "government-held back when the new variants spread wildly overseas” and that a “delayed end to MIQ bought time to lift vaccination rates”. A link to the full audio of that interview is available in that story as well. Again no issues of balance arise as the government was able to put its perspective on what had been significant advice it received in November 2021. A number of articles referred to the fact that it took 31⁄2 months, almost 40,000 MIQ stays and seven voucher lotteries before incoming travellers could enter freely. These were measures imposed between the government being advised that MIQ facilities could be no longer justified under the law up to the point when incoming travellers could enter the country freely and enter self-isolation.

RNZ observes that while the spread of Omicron was cited as a reason to delay the cessation of MIQ facilites, there is no published record of the MoH conducting a fresh Public Health Risk Assessment to indicate that contiuned operation of MIQ’s could be justified as a proportionate reponse under the Public Health Response Act.

It was clear from the range of coverage provided by RNZ that the MoH recognised in November 2021 that MIQ’s could no longer be justified and were on the face of it breaking the law, that the MoH did not recommend an immediate cessation of MIQ facilities but did recommend that a transition to self isolation as the "default" mechanism required management and some coordination with other ministries. RNZ has not denied that, indeed we reported that, but also pointed out that in the time it took from the receipt of the initial advice that the imposition of MIQ facilities was on the face of it ultra vires of the Public Health Response Act, that up to a further 40,000 MIQ stays had occurred, seven voucher lotteries had been conducted and some 14 weeks had elapsed. We also covered the fact that there had been an Omicron outbreak by dint of comments from the Covid 19 response Mr Chris Hipkins, and comments by Grant Robertson.

RNZ also covered the perspectives of a pregnant woman who had to give birth overseas because she could not get home in time and others, such as Grounded Kiwis and another gentleman who could not get home as an example of those that Grounded Kiwis represented. It is entirely legitimate to include the comments and opinions of those affected by a government policy when reporting a government policy.

For some, this coverage appears critical of the government policy of the day bearing on how the change to the MIQ policy was implemented. As noted, that is the nature of news reporting which details events that have occurred and the government's approach to such events. None of this amounts to a breach of the balance standard which calls for a range of perspectives to be reported over the period of current interest in a topic, and there is nothing which RNZ has reported which was inaccurate. For these reasons, RNZ could not take any of the complaints further and they were not upheld.

You have a right, if you wish to exercise it, to refer the outcome of your complaint for review to the Media Council, at www.mediacouncil.org.nz. You must do so within 10 working days, otherwise the Council may not accept your referral.

It remains for me to thank you for bringing this matter to our attention and for giving us the opportunity to respond to your concerns.

Nāku, nā

George Bignell Complaints Coordinator


New Drug Harm Index, new problems

The New Zealand Drug Harm Index 2020 just made it into 2021: it was quietly posted on the Ministry of Health website before Christmas. And it contains some startling claims. Not the least of them, that cannabis is New Zealand's most harmful drug – accounting for $626 million in "community harm" every year. Would you be surprised if I told you more than a third of that was lost GST?

Well, it is: the authors of the index estimate the public purse loses $224 million a year because tax can't be paid on revenue or personal income from producing or selling cannabis. It's nearly all of the foregone tax estimated for illicit drugs in general. If only there was something we could do about that!

The authors acknowledge what you're probably thinking right now, if a little snippily:

Overall, $240.2 million is lost to the tax base through the failure to pay appropriate taxes in relation to revenues and profit generated by illegal drug trafficking. This additional revenue could only be realised either by the legalisation of illegal drugs or by the diversion of this investment into legal forms of investment. Nevertheless, it remains a genuine social harm associated with illegal drug trafficking.

It's only fair to note that (subject to some assumptions about the profitability of selling drugs) this isn't actually wrong and that foregone tax revenue appeared as a harm in the last version of the Index in 2016. It just seems more on the nose after we had a chance to fix it in 2020.

But a similiar similar level of community harm from cannabis, $250 million worth of it, is new. That's the dollar value attributed to "Harm to family and friends". Now, it is laudable that the authors are acknowledging this kind of harm from drug use and seeking to quantify it. But the means of quantifying it is, to put it mildly, questionable.

A significant component of the friends-and-family harm has been calculated not by looking a New Zealand data, but by transposing the findings of this study, which asked people in Nordic countries how much they'd be willing to pay for treatment for someone close to them – a family member or someone they knew well enough to talk to – who had a drug addiction problem. The median responses across all respondents ranged from 500 euros for a friend to 13,000 euros for a child.

The Index authors have then, I think, taken the lower figure of 500 euros and sprayed it across all use of all categories of drugs in New Zealand and added it up in $NZ. Cannabis, because it is so widely used in New Zealand, is then deemed to account for as much harm to friends and family as methamphetamine.

Further, drug use patterns in the Nordic countries and New Zealand are quite different. Notably, mortality from opioid addiction is four or five times higher in those countries, especially in Sweden, where more than half the respondents in the cited study personally knew someone who had been "treated for addiction to illegal drugs". I'm assuming the large majority of them weren't there for cannabis. Indeed, the study's authors suggest it's not very helpful to look at cannabis prevalence in understanding their results.

The Nordic countries study is worthwhile in itself and its authors make some interesting observations, including that harms reported by friends and family are lower in Denmark, where drug use is traditionally "demystified" (in comparison, say, to neo-prohibitionist Sweden). They also say this:

This shows that it is difficult to use expected harm to assess the  actual  level of  harm. It  also  suggests that an important part of the harm of drugs is  related to  fear  and  that the  fear  itself is not well founded. Finally, since  fear  is reduced by experience and closeness, the results imply that one important element in the overall cost of drug use – social fear – may fall if drug use becomes more common in a society.

They seem very conscious of the complexity of what they're measuring. That consciousness has not carried over to the use of their data by the authors of the New Zealand Drug Harm Index, who assume the exact opposite in their report:

The current measure assumed the proportion of the adult population willing to pay for treatment for friend or family was the same in New Zealand as in Norway. This assumption is conservative, as New Zealand’s adult population has a higher proportion of current people who use drugs than Norway’s.

One problem with the Index may be that it has dispensed with the pretty limited form of expert input used in 2016 in assessing the harm posed by individual drugs: "In essence," the authors assure us, "both wastewater analysis and hospital admissions provide the necessary information on a range of illicit drugs."

This may be why they've come up with some plainly ridiculous figures. The serious "personal harm" suffered by heroin users (excluding death) is reported as zero. I guess we can just close all the needle exchanges then! Of course we can't. We know people in New Zealand are still being infected with blood-borne diseases and suffering serious injection injuries and poisonings.

A Drug Harm Index that can fail to detect real, reported, literally costly harm in this way has real problems. But this exercise has been defined by its problems from the beginning. The first attempt, undertaken by Police, counted the cost of enforcement in its dollar figure for harm – meaning, absurdly, that the more harm there was, the more needed to be spent on enforcement, which would duly increase the measured amount of harm. And so on.

Responsibility for the Index was subsequently transferred to the Ministry of Health, whose attempt was better, but committed the fundamental error of conflating harms from natural and synthetic cannabis. This new version still does that to an extent, where hospital admission codings refer only to "cannabinoids". Basically, there's a problem with nearly every measure relating to cannabis.

The authors are also obliged to perform something of a fudge on hospital admissions where, say, someone gets in a fight or injures themselves while blind drunk, but is also found to have cannabis or other illicit drugs on board. Such multiple-cause admissions "were distributed equally over known factors to avoid double-counting". But alcohol harm isn't counted even where it might be the primary cause, because alcohol and tobacco are excluded from the Drug Harm Index.

I'm honestly wondering whether these indexes are worth persisting with, at least in their current form, which were established, with those eye-popping dollar values, as essentially a Police PR exercise.

Let's not deny for a second that drug use can be harmful: that harm is the very thing that drug policy should seek to address. But the Index variously overstates, understates, misattributes or omits various harms through its methodology. Until we can find a way to go out and learn about harm, especially from – crazy, I know – people who use drugs, this is nothing like a policy tool.

Until then, I think there's probably a case for calling it the Prohibition Harm Index.


Medicinal cannabis: 2022 will be a better year

The year we are about to depart has been a frustrating one for the New Zealand medicinal cannabis community.

A cluster of companies established to produce and distrubute legal cannabis products ran up against a regulatory scheme that sometimes seemed unworkable and informal growers and green fairies struggled to see a place for themselves after the narrow failure of last year's cannabis legalisation referendum. Patients faced products disappearing from the shelves or seized at the border. A strengthened sense of common cause was probably the best thing to come out of the year.

Happily, a series of recent developments – most of them just this month – means it looks like 2022 will be a better story.

A week before Christmas, Rua Bioscience got the first New Zealand-produced medicinal cannabis product, a 100mg/ml CBD oil, past the extremely onerous "minimum quality standards" administered by Medsafe – nearly two years after the Medicinal Cannabis Scheme came into effect.

Three weeks before that, NUBU Pharmaceuticals cracked another barrier in the regs – the unrealistically low microbial count required for dried flower products – by gaining approval to import and distribute an Australian whole cannabis product to be used as a tea.

Notes on preparation of such a tea and a warning that the flower, "does not meet the minimum quality standard for product intended for use by inhalation" have since been added to the page listing products that meet the minimum quality standards. The product, ANTG Eve, grown by Australian Natural Therapeutics Group, meets Australian standards for use with a vapouriser , so patients will presumably make their own decisions there.

ANTG Eve itself is an interesting strain. It's 17% CBD with negligible THC content, but unlike most other high-CBD flower, it's an indica, rather than a sativa, strain (hemp is sativa). The terpenes in indica strains theoretically produce a more calming, sedative effect, especially in the absence of THC, and patient reviews here (free registration required) suggest success with anxiety, inflammation and chronic pain. It may turn out to be most useful for child epilepsy patients – if you recall the battle that Katy Thomas had this year to import a British CBD oil that seemed to work best for her epileptic son, that was an indica product.

ANTG is also talking up work by Australian cancer researcher Dr Matt Dun with the Eve strain. Dun tested Eve – in what form it isn't clear – in vitro on leukaemia and glioma cells and says he found the high-CBD strain more  effective in killing cancer cells than high-THC strains. The cytotoxic potential of various combinations of THC and CBD has previously been demonstrated in vitro and in mouse models, especially for glioma, where treatment options are scarce and clinical evidence is limited. (That may change with a new Phase II trial at the University of Birmingham, funded by GW Pharma, which owns Sativex.)

I gather NUBU plans to keep on working on the microbial count limits – presumably aiming to demonstrate that limits intended for products like pharmaceutical powder inhalers shouldn't apply to use in vapourisers, whose tiny ovens typically run at 200º C or more.

There have been some other local developments: Rua shareholders vote on January 22 on a proposal to acquire New Zealand-based Zalm Therapeutics. The deal looks to primarily be a means to establish a relationship with current Zalm shareholder Cann Group of Australia. Rua would be able to take over Zalm's existing supply contracts with Cann Group and send its own genetics across the Tasman to be grown in Cann's indoor facility.

Does it seem ridiculous that it's still difficult for Rua to grow in New Zealand – and outdoors? Yeah, it basically is. But they've just brought on board E3C – East Coast Cannabis Company – to manage an outdoor growing trial. E3C, a grassroots grower collective, have been operating on the wrong side of the line and they've been brave being so visible and so vocal thus far, so this is a really big deal for them.

Had last year's cannabis referendum gone the way, groups like E3C would have lined up to go legit – not many people in the cannabis community actually want to be criminals – and it's great that Rua continues to offer this kind of opportunity to skilled growers.

For now, while the politicians either take fright or try and co-opt cannabis into their culture war, New Zealand Police seem to be showing herculean levels of discretion. They shouldn't have to but it's a very good thing they do.

Another of the larger ventures, Cannasouth, had a particularly difficult year, but this month finally did the $10m deal to acquire all of its cultivation subsidiary.

Finally, Helius CEO Carmen Doran published this pretty upbeat column about the year ahead, which notes "a long and hard haul" to this point, but argues that "thankfully the industry has now moved into the most important phase – delivery." It also mentions Rua – one effect of the difficulty with regulations has been to make the local cannabis industry even more collegial – and points to Helius subsidiary Hale Therapeutics completion of a pilot study aimed at developing a CBD treatment for dogs.

The second Helius-sponsored MedCann summit is set – virus willing – to go ahead in February. It looks like there'll be a fair bit to talk about.


Amid all this talk about industry, I think it's important to acknowledge the work of patient advocate Gareth Duff in getting his prescribed medications – from Tilray and Medleaf – fully funded for a year. Not by Pharmac, or even ACC (who seem to accept applications from clients, but never approve them) – but the Ministry of Social Development.

This isn't a particular beef with Pharmac: it's not constituted to fund unapproved medicines and it's possibly not worth trying to change that. But people like Gareth and Pearl Schomburg, who have found themselves far more able to manage their lives and severe, chronic conditions with a handful of cannabis products than with the punishing loads of pharmaceutical medicines they previously required, are actually saving the system a lot of money. There needs to be a much better way of supporting them.

Gareth has written about it in a long post here on Facebook.


Meanwhile, hanging over all of this is the maddeningly opaque process of amending international drug control treaties in line with 2019 World Health Organisation recommendations on reclassifying cannabis to acknowledge its medical use.

I've written an explainer about what's happening for the New Zealand Drug Foundation. Done well, this could establish a global set of rules and practices for cannabis cultivation and production. Done poorly – and some of the signs are not promising – it will be a missed opportunity to treat cannabis in a more rational fashion and will be simply ignored by more progressive countries.

Parts of the process have been relatively transparent, but since it moved on at the beginning of the year  to the International Narcotics Control Board, a UN-aligned agency that doesn't even publish minutes of its meetings, it has fallen into a black hole. NGOs, who do most of of the thinking about drug regulation, have been entirely shut out.

Researching and writing the Drug Foundation piece reminded me, not for the first time, that the international system of drug control is a strange and self-sustaining business, in which the worst actors frequently have the most control. Change comes hard.

Happy New Year!


Public Address Word of the Year 2021: Covidiot

The Public Address Word of the Year for 2021 is "Covidiot" – a word which seems to sum up a particular kind of frustration in 2021,  but which, oddly enough, is a word coined in 2020 – as a Professor of Linguistics observed in January.

That narrowly edged out "casserole", a more recently-coined insult which has spread like Omicron and was the subject of a determined social media advocacy campaign for this vote.

Next was "Spread your legs," the immortal blurt by Covid minister Chris Hipkins, which has already won Quote of the Year over at The Project.

There came "vaxxed" with the double X, which is what we almost all got in 2021.

And rounding out the Top Five is "Eftpostle", a brilliant coinage which feels like it must have appeared in 2021, when the Apostle Brian Tamaki has been more annoying than ever before – but which actually dates back to 2019. The earliest that I can find is by Twitter user @rosalea_w on April 15 of that year. It was still about Brian Tamaki though.

Here's the full Top 10

1. Covidiot

 2. Casserole

 3. Spread your legs

 4. Vaxxed

 5. Eftpostle

 6. Antivax

 7. Freedumb

 8. Delta

 9. Shot Bro

 10. Mahi


As ever, there are prizes!

One pair of the amazing NuraTrue wireless earbuds goes to Public Address reader Cushla Dillon who was the first to propose the word "freedumb". In fact, that was the first nomination altogether.

The other pair, drawn at random from everyone who voted, is Richard Kyle, who has won despite misspelling his own email address!

Thanks also to my favourite little craft brewery North End Brewing of Waikanae, who make beer with love, enterprise and and originality, some of which will be greatly enjoyed by me and our Chief Voting Form Officer Hadyn Green. Bravo!