Wednesday, 26 July 2017


The recent deaths of eight people in Auckland from using new psychoactive substances are appalling.

 

Inevitably, they have caused much speculation and comment, and a lot of that has been widely inaccurate, and off the mark.

 

At the risk of repeating some of the remarks I made a couple of weeks ago, a brief history lesson is in order. Psychoactive substances, legal highs, have been around for a very long time. Their origins internationally date back to various medical formulae developed in the 1960s as potential cures for common diseases which, although not effective in that role, were found to have a psychoactive effect, and hence created a market opportunity for those wishing to promote them as such. They first appeared in New Zealand in the 1990s but it was during the first decade of the 2000s that the explosion of legal highs on the international market, and the problems they were likely to cause, first became apparent. At that time, they were being sold freely at convenience stores up and down the country, with absolutely no regulation or control over product content, or to whom they were being sold.

 

I took the first significant step to control the spread of these substances in 2010 when I put legislation through Parliament to allow bans of up to two years to be imposed on psychoactive substances considered to be dangerous, or to contain illegal substances. Under the temporary ban regime, 43 substances and many more product combinations were banned between 2011 and 2013. But it soon became clear that the international pyschoactives industry was so extensive that we, along with most other countries, were going to have difficulty keeping ahead of the game.

 

Our 2013 Psychoactive Substances Act set up a system whereby registered manufacturers  must submit their products for testing to prove they of low risk to users, before being permitted to sell them in a highly regulated market. When the legislation was passed, there were around 4,000 convenience stores up and down the country selling more than 300 different legal high products, without any control or restriction. The day the legislation took effect, as an interim step, the 4,000 stores were immediately reduced to around 150 R18 stores only, and the product range slashed to around 41 products. That interim step was always intended to be just that and I removed it altogether a few months later, leaving no legal stores, and no products to sell. Because Parliament prohibited at the same time animal testing as a way to verify the low risk of products (a proper decision in my view), no manufacturers have subsequently applied for manufacturing licences, no new products have been submitted for testing, and none have been approved for sale.

 

However, the absence of a regulated market has had the undesirable – and as I said at the time, inevitable – consequence of driving the psychoactive market underground. What we are now seeing emerging in Auckland are completely unregulated illegal products, the precise composition and toxicity of which are not known, because they are not able to be tested, being sold on the black market. Some concoctions may have been prepared overseas and smuggled across the border, others may be local mixtures, but all are lethal. The claims being made that this awful situation is all the fault of the Psychoactive Substances Act regime, because it opened up the market, when in reality it closed it down, are palpably ignorant, and show a wilful and deliberate misunderstanding of the facts. 

 

Right now, my immediate concern is the current situation, which seems to mirror what has been happening in other countries in recent months. I have set up an emergency response team in Auckland, involving the Ministry of Health, Auckland’s District Health Boards and the Police to work together to identify the particular substances being used, have them tested, and provide appropriate treatment for affected persons.

 

In the longer term, though, we need better information about the flow of new psychoactive substances potentially coming over our borders. There are potentially hundreds more such substances yet to be released. That is why New Zealand is working with other countries to establish an early warning system by which we can share information with others on current developments. That system is likely to be in place next year.

 

And then there is the question of the Psychoactive Substances Act. The regulated market it sought to establish is still the best way forward, but the issue of animal testing has to be overcome. I have therefore asked Ministry of Health officials to review this matter to see if credible alternatives have yet been developed internationally that we can draw upon.


Now my critics say that all this is merely displacement activity – that there would be no problem with psychoactive substances if we simply legalised natural cannabis, and that my efforts are really just flapping around the edges, so I should grasp the nettle of cannabis law reform. Well, I have two responses to that. First, since 2013 I have set out consistently, more so than most politicians, a framework for reforming cannabis law, based around the Psychoactive Substances Act and Portugal’s health centred approach. The Drug Foundation has now proposed a similar approach. My second response is that, contrary to what some might naively imagine, I cannot do this by the stroke of a pen. Change requires support in Parliament, and with National and Labour staunchly opposed, that is unlikely any time soon, no matter what I might think.

 

So, in the meantime, my very strong advice to people is to stay well clear of any psychoactive substances – they are dangerous, potentially fatal, and best avoided completely.

 

  

 

 

Wednesday, 19 July 2017


Watching contemporary political developments over recent days gave me an irresistible urge to read once more Lewis Carroll’s whimsical description of the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party. The account is as delightful as ever – anarchic craziness at its most sublime with absolutely no sense or credible point to it at all.

 

In the last couple of weeks New Zealand politics has displayed all of the absurdities of the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party. And a largely sycophantic media has lapped it up – with none being prepared to point out, even sotto voce, that all these would-be parading emperors have no clothes. The whirl of the election merry-go-round has been too alluring. Yet we have seen one political party advocate a return to eugenics as the determinant of social policy; another wants to refashion our industrial relations in the mould of the strike-torn 1970s; another wants to reform social assistance to overcome the ills of almost 25 years ago; while another yearns to take New Zealand back to the divisive, overly controlled, socially restrictive Muldoon era as the new Golden Age to be aspired to. Common-sense, reason and balance have been abandoned in the reckless pursuit of style over substance, the bold and the dramatic, over the systematic and the reliable. Whatever way it is viewed, the look is firmly backwards facing, to a mythical yesterday that was never there. No-one has dared to point out this farce.

 

For the last two centuries, civilised societies have been built around the great values of the Age of Enlightenment: liberty, reason, tolerance, and scientific investigation and rigour. Trust and compromise, and the relentless scrutiny of a sceptical, yet informed, free media have been the mechanisms by which our societies have functioned, indeed flourished. Politicians have been generally held to account; their excesses exposed, and the incompetence of those around them been laid bare. All as it should be.

 

Over recent months, we have looked agog at the rise of President Trump in the United States and have sniggered at the international scorn his election and subsequent conduct have occasioned; we have scoffed at the Brexit mess in the United Kingdom that has already brought down one Prime Minister and is well on track to topple the next; and all with a quiet smugness that it could never happen here. We have puzzled why neither the commentariat nor the general public foresaw either events, and have consoled ourselves with the belief that we would be too smart to fall for the same thing here. Yet, as last weekend’s Mad Hatters’ Tea Parties and the circumstances surrounding them have shown, our optimism may have been misplaced. Of course, the abrogation of reason has always been a small factor in our politics, adhered to by a few crackpot bigots, and antediluvian politicians yearning for a better yesteryear. But, we have never taken them seriously.

 

However, all that may be changing. Our increasingly infotainment society seems to be robbing our watchdogs of their capacity to spot and expose cant when it occurs. Critical analysis is giving way to drooling obsequity. The more outlandish, sensational and vacuous a politician or policy commitment, the more likely it seems to be lapped up. And reason, dispassionate judgement, and evidence all risk becoming secondary to prejudice, populism, and trivialisation, as a consequence.

 

Now, more than ever, is the time for those of us in politics because we believe in the traditional liberal values that underpin our society to stand firm as never before. Public service and commitment to good governance remain virtues to be cherished, and evidence based policies to promote overall community and family wellbeing are as important as ever. We need to be building our society around these values, not smashing it down.

 

This is the positive backdrop against which UnitedFuture has developed its policy programme for this election, and beyond. In short, we want a better deal for future generations of New Zealanders, so that our country remains the best place to live, work and raise a family. Everyone living here should have an equal opportunity to thrive, no matter their circumstances, or where they are from. Our focus is on sustaining our environment, our families and our communities for future generations; and, ensuring that the actions we take today contribute to a better future for those who will follow us. The full details are set out on our website, www.unitedfuture.org.nz, for those who wish to peruse them further.

 

So, as the election campaign unfolds, let us focus on constructive policies to move our country forward, rather than the tawdry shyster-run side shows that appear to be looming. Political  discourse and good government are too important to be reduced to be a mere poor re-enactment of the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party.

 

        

 

 

   

  

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wednesday, 12 July 2017


Martin Luther King once observed that “Nothing in the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.”

 

I was reminded of that remark by some of the media comments that followed last week’s Drug Symposium at Parliament, especially around the suggestion our Psychoactive Substances Act might play a wider role in future drug reform. In particular, two editorial comments caught my eye as classic examples of the dangerous combination of ignorance and stupidity Martin Luther King’s remarks referred to.

 

First was an editorial in the New Zealand Herald which opined that New Zealand had “flirted with legalising synthetic cannabis in 2013, with disastrous results. Sellers … took advantage … to sell dangerous drugs such as Kronic to teenagers at corner stores.” This was followed a few days later by the Listener’s comment that “Our disastrous experiment with so-called legal highs” meant “More young people used drugs than before.” The common link in both editorials was the complete lack of anything even remotely approaching a fact to back-up the anonymous writers’ fulminations.

 

Well, here are the relevant facts, uncomfortable and all as they may be for the purveyors of this ignorance and stupidity.

 

Psychoactive substances, legal highs, were around long before the advent of the Psychoactive Substances Act. Their origins internationally date back to various medical formulae developed in the 1960s as potential cures for common diseases which, although not effective in that role, were found to have a psychoactive effect, and hence created a market opportunity for those wishing to promote them as such. In the New Zealand, the most well-known legal high was Benzopiperazine, or BZP, as it was commonly known, which first became available here in the 1990s, and was eventually banned under the Misuse of Drugs Act in 2008, well before I became the responsible Minister.

 

It was during the first decade of the 2000s that the explosion of legal highs on the international market, and the problems they were likely to cause, first became apparent. Here, they were being sold freely at convenience stores up and down the country, with absolutely no regulation or control over product content, or to whom they were being sold. What the New Zealand Herald describes as a 2013 “flirtation” was already a well-established romance long before then, with more and more products becoming freely available as the years went by.

 

I took the first significant step to control the spread of these substances and the burgeoning market in 2010 when I put legislation through Parliament to allow bans of up to two years to be imposed on psychoactive substances considered to be dangerous, or contain illegal substances. The reason for these temporary bans was simply that products were being constantly reformulated, so that a product banned today, could emerge with a different formulation tomorrow and be back on the shelves for sale. It was under this regime that Kronic and its derivatives were banned in 2011, making a nonsense of the New Zealand Herald’s ignorant claims that they were legally introduced to the market in 2013! Under the temporary ban regime, 43 substances and many more product combinations were banned between 2011 and 2013.

 

But it soon became clear that the international pyschoactives industry was so extensive that we, along with most other countries, were going to have difficulty keeping ahead of the game. Many countries effectively surrendered at that point, opting for unenforceable, pseudo-bans that took products off the shelves, and so satisfied at a superficial level public concern, but turned a blind eye to the explosion in their respective black markets that occurred as a result. They are struggling with the consequences today.

 

New Zealand’s Psychoactive Substances Act was a credible response to these cynical approaches. It shifted the onus of proof to manufacturers and suppliers to demonstrate their products were of low risk to users, in return for being able to sell them in a highly regulated market. When the legislation was passed, there were around 4,000 convenience stores up and down the country selling more than 3,000 different legal high products, without any control or restriction. The day the legislation took effect, as an interim step, the 4,000 stores were immediately reduced to around 150 R18 stores only, and the product range slashed to around 41 products. The interim step was always intended to be just that and I removed it altogether a few months later, leaving no legal stores, and no products to sell.

 

At the time, there was a lot of noise, reflected again in the recent Listener editorial, that the passage of the legislation saw many more young people being rushed to Emergency Departments with severe problems as a result of using legal highs. Yet surveys of Emergency Departments at the time showed that an overwhelming majority experienced no increases in the numbers of young people presenting with psychoactive substances problems. Even amongst the minority that did note an increase in presentations, the numbers reported were very low indeed, and, across the board, alcohol intoxication remained far and away the primary drug-related reason for young people ending up in Emergency Departments.

 

So, rather than the disastrous results the ignorant editorialists allege, the facts tell a rather different story. There was no “experiment” with legal highs, nor did I “introduce” them to New Zealand. The reality was quite the opposite. It was my 2010 and 2013 pieces of legislation that removed them from the New Zealand market.

 

But then, perhaps I should not be surprised at displays of ignorance and stupidity like these editorials. We live in the “post-truth” age, after all. It is not new – Voltaire foresaw it centuries ago when he wrote that “The more often a stupidity is repeated, the more it gets the appearance of wisdom.” The facts are, once more, reduced to inconvenience.

 

Those of us who like evidence and facts obviously have to get used to the fact these apparently do not matter anymore. Perhaps Dennis Denuto was right – it is all about “the vibe” after all.

                

   

  

 

 

 

Wednesday, 5 July 2017


Claims this week that no-one seems to know how many affordable homes have been built in Auckland have re-ignited the housing debate in a shallow, unhelpful way of silly political point scoring which houses no-one, but more importantly, has also highlighted one of the basic flaws in our current approach.

 

Everyone, it seems, is flapping around bemoaning a housing crisis, and calling for something to be done. Things, we are told, are happening; new home approvals are allegedly at record levels; the construction industry is crying out for labour as it struggles to meet the demand; yet, now we hear banks are tightening lending criteria, even for first home buyers, to dampen demand.  Meanwhile, in Auckland, a number of previously designated special housing areas have been abandoned without one house ever having been built on them. And there are still too many stories of people who are at worst, homeless, or at best, living in grossly inadequate accommodation.

 

So, how can this be, despite all the apparently frenetic activity to the contrary? Ever increasing activity like a gyroscope out of control and without a clear purpose does not a crisis solve. Yet that is precisely what is happening at present. So it is hardly surprising that no-one seems able to say exactly how many affordable houses have been built, or even what constitutes an affordable home.

 

To stop these ever rapidly decreasing circles imploding there needs to be, as UnitedFuture has long argued, a clearly defined national housing strategy. And that strategy can only be developed after a special summit bringing together all the major players to design it, and then agree to abide by it. Central and local government need to be working far more closely together, with each other for a change and not against each other as has too often been the case. The banks and the building industry need to be at the table too to develop the plans for genuinely affordable homes for young families, and to ensure that the funds and the workforce are there to meet the demand. Social housing providers also need to be involved, both to ensure there are homes for those in need, and to work alongside private landlords to provide transitions from  emergency housing to affordable rental properties, and then ultimately to a home of one’s own. Without all these elements working in concert we will not make progress, and the current problems will simply multiply.

 

Worse, the sense of induced panic this will cause will produce extreme solutions – like Labour’s ill-fated plan not to sell homes to people with foreign-sounding names, or the thinly disguised anti-immigration of xenophobia of the likes of New Zealand First.

 

We need to life our sights above that negativity and become much more innovative in helping assist young families into their first home. UnitedFuture wants people to be able to capitalise in advance their Working for Families entitlements each year to assist with home ownership. There are other things we should be looking at as well. We believe half the homes the government will build over the next few years should be set aside as rent-to-buy homes, where families could use their rental payments to build up equity in their house to the point where they can buy it outright. We are also interested in share equity schemes whereby people might buy a portion of a house – say 40% – and rent the remaining 60%, using the equity built up by the portion they own to buy a greater shareholding as time goes by, until they have bought 100% of the home. Another option we are interested in is allowing people to convert their student loan repayments for up to the first ten years to a Kiwisaver scheme and to use those repayments and the interest earned as a housing credit towards a first home.

 

The combination of a coherent national housing strategy to which all the major players are signed up, and innovative funding arrangements of the type we are proposing will go a long way towards addressing our national housing crisis, and restoring dignity and hope to ever despairing young families. These ought to be priorities for a compassionate society that cares about ensuring a better deal for future generations.