Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Well, fuck.

So the Psychoactive Substances Amendment Bill went through under urgency last week. For those not in NZ, that means a) all the synthetic cannabis products excluded from the previous version of this legislation (about 40 products from the previous about-a-gazillion) are now banned until they can be proved to be of "very low risk" and b) the government might well have shot a giant gaping hole in what could have been the first thing to approach sensible drug legislation in this country.

Russell Brown has a good post about this over at Public Address, but here's my take on what happened. There are two "official" narratives, one from the government and one from grassroots anti-drugs people which are both wrong, or at least, they're quite selective in the ways that they're right.

The anti-drugs crowd seem to believe that the passing of the original Psychoactive Substances Act put a bunch of synthetic cannabis products on the market as "safe". These products were anything but, and caused massive problems, with addiction and emergency visits becoming rife (see the horrifying photos of queues around the block from legal high stores for evidence). Eventually, in response to public outcry, the government finally acted (after too long) and put a stop to it. The moral tenor of the marketers of these drugs can easily be determined by the fact that they proposed to test this stuff on innocent animals.

The government contend that they were on the right track, but overlooked the risk posed by the synthetic cannabinomimetics that they allowed to remain on sale. They have now rightly removed these products from shelves, and put the burden of proof back where it belongs - with the manufacturers.

Actually, these drugs have been around for a long time. Ten years at the very minimum. The first ones appeared all over the place in little metal single-smoke cylinders, and seem to have been pretty close to inactive. The recipe quickly got refined and they started to sell by the packet. The attraction at this point was pretty clear - these products seemed to fairly closely mirror actual weed (which has a strong social niche in New Zealand culture) and were all legal to buy. It's important to note that all through this story, legality has been the main drawcard with these drugs - along with the ability to get high and still pass drug tests for pot.

Four or five years in, there was the first surge of media attention addressed at these specific "legal highs". I talked about that here. As a result of that, a large number of these products (if you're a New Zealander you'll probably recall the brand names "Spice" and "Kronic") were banned, along with their active ingredient. Because we were still operating under our original drug legislation which required the government to ban individual chemicals one by one, a raft of new products sprang up to take the place of the banned ones.

It's probably at this point that the real damage starts to get done. The evidence suggests that it's at this point that the chemicals on the market start to be seriously habit-forming and people start having panic attacks, heart palpitations and the like. However, these things are available everywhere - corner dairies all over the country stock this stuff, so if you're an addict it's fairly easy to stay under the radar.

When the government passed the Psychoactive Substances Act, they did two things. They gave councils the power to control where these substances could be sold, and they reduced the products available from hundreds to around 40 (considered to be "low-risk") which were allowed as an interim measure until councils finished deciding where their OK zones for legal high sale were going to be. Unfortunately at this point councils decided more or less en masse to throw all their toys out of the cot at once. Many protested at not just being able to ban the sale of non old-white-men drugs entirely and refused to zone, while others zoned as punitively as they could get away with.

As a result, the number of outlets selling these new more habit-forming drugs dropped dramatically. Can you imagine the queues that would appear if, tomorrow, all supermarkets and dairies were banned from selling alcohol and liquor stores were cut down to 2 or 3 per hundred thousand people? Do you think that it might look as though there was a sudden plague of alcoholism all around the country?

I must stress that this is not to claim that this newest batch of cannabis substitutes were good drugs. They appear to be very bad for their users both mentally and physically, and the people who sold them are probably not nice people.

The issue is that we're now back in blanket-ban territory, and these drugs have probably been bought up cheap by people who intend to stockpile them and sell them for vastly inflated prices on the street (they still get around drug tests for pot, and there are still addicts out there - money to be made...) Why? Because we had a media panic. I also want to restate that the reason we have this particularly vicious and addictive batch on our hands in the first place is because the previous safer generation were also banned as the result of a media panic. And we got that generation because we swallowed someone else's media panic about cannabis way back in the '50s. This is not a sensible way to make laws - look at the Sex Offender Registry in the US, and its many many abuses if you want a stunning example.

There are two consolations here. The first is that we do have the Psychoactive Substances Act, which has probably got the government out of playing whack-a-mole with drug designers for the time being. It's been mauled (the government is now in the bizarre position of being legally forced to ignore all data from animal tests, conducted anywhere in the world unless they prove a drug is unfit for sale) and drugs are going to be inhumanly hard to pass through it in the short term, but it's still around - so that's something.

The second is that this whole debacle does seem to have reopened the debate on which drugs should be legal and why. Let's hope we can actually talk about that this time, eh?

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Lest we forget

ANZAC Day has always made me a bit uncomfortable. I suspect this is partly a consequence of being brought up Quaker(ish)* - I have an inherent dislike of armies and militarism that makes the spectacle of hundreds of servicemen and women in uniform filling up the streets in the days leading up to ANZAC Day feel a bit like an invasion. I also did a research project about the treatment of conscientious objectors and their families when I was in high school which left me with a very nasty taste in my mouth about the RSA.

All this is to say that I come from a point fairly widely outside of the mainstream here. I realise that for many people the point of the day is to  honour those who did what they felt was right and made the ultimate sacrifice, but I feel like the strong involvement of the military poisons that. It seems to me that the most important lesson we can learn from the disastrous Gallipoli campaign is never to repeat it. Not just to avoid the ridiculous strategic and tactical mistakes that led to the monstrous waste of life, but to value human life more highly and to be highly critical of government's reasons for extinguishing it.

Of all the wars we have involved ourselves in over the last hundred years, I think only a tiny minority of those have been in any way justifiable. Disturbingly, I see increasing attempts to try and recast World War 1 in this light. That can't be allowed to happen.

Moreover, I think it's important (especially in regard to World War 1) to honour equally those who refused to fight. New Zealand conscientious objectors in World War 1 were deported to the front and subject to horrific punishments, many of which took place in No Man's Land - thus putting them in more physical danger than the actual combatants. You can read about this in Archibald Baxter's book We Will Not Cease.

Honouring the dead who acted in good faith is a noble thing, but perhaps it's time we paid less attention to Rupert Brooke and Laurence Binyon, and more to Wilfred Owen and Rowan Atkinson.

*My parents are anything but dogmatic, but my "mental furniture" is fairly Quaker in the same way that the mental furniture of ex-Catholics includes the instructions on the right calls and responses and when to sit, stand, or kneel in the course of a Mass.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Alphabet TV - B is for.... Big Love

First off, Cinemania has my review of Unsolved. In the highly unlikely event you were contemplating seeing this fairly-obscure product of the Oklahoma University Moving Image Arts Programme, don't.

Second, on with Alphabet TV!

Though actually, I should probably clarify a couple other things about it first. One is, we're waaay ahead of where I'm writing in the alphabet - I've just been slack and busy by turns. The other is that we're not binge-watching things in the traditional sense. The rule of Alphabet TV is that we watch things a season at a time, at whatever season we're currently up to. So for the last post about American Horror Story I should really have clarified that I meant Season 1.

Now, though - B is for Big Love. In case you're not familiar with it, Big Love is a dramedy about Bill (Bill Paxton) who is a fundamentalist Mormon living the Principle (ie, polygamous marriage) undercover in mainstream LDS society in Utah with his three wives and all of their children (I've actually lost count of how many there are). We're currently up to Season 3, but in this case it's actually not super-important for you to know that.

Big Love is a weird show. On the one hand, the whole deceptive undercover element is pretty interesting - and the various ruses the family use to avoid detection are pretty clever, and when it reverts to essentially being a dramedy about family under pressure it's far from the worst one I've seen. On the other, the central conflict is between Bill and his friends (the "good" polygamists) and the ultra-fundamentalist compound of Juniper Creek where Bill was raised. That is, the conflict is between "good" polygamists and "evil" polygamists. Juniper Creek is definitely warped, but it almost feels like it needs to be in order for Bill to look ordinary and decent in contrast.

Bill attempts to treat his wives with respect and dignity, but his actual belief structure dictates that he is priest-king of his own house and that his wives and children are beholden to him as a result. It's a deeply misogynistic and patriarchal structure, and seeing the dictator attempt to be benign doesn't really change that. There are also troublesome elements of the history of Mormonism as a whole which briefly surface, then disappear without much attention. I'm thinking specifically of the overt racism in some of the early doctrines, which is raised by a random black walk-on character and never mentioned again.

That said, you don't have to  take the characters' beliefs on to enjoy the show. The acting is largely great - especially Harry Dean Stanton who brings a peculiar beauty and melancholy to the role of the head of the Juniper Creek compound - and the relationships between the characters play out in consistently interesting ways.

Maybe check it out, see what you think?

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Alphabet TV! A is for.... American Horror Story

Having got bored of the movie offerings at our local DVD rental place (and with my wife feeling hard done by because we tend to watch a lot of my review movies that I pick from a list on Cinemania as well as any I pick at the shop) we decided to give TV series a go. However, as mild OCD is a guiding force in our lives, we decided the only rational way to do this was to start with the A's and work forward, watching one boxed set at a time until we loop around.

It's going well - we're currently watching the closest to a dire series we've gotten, and we're up to L. It also transpires that fitting TV epsiodes into our lives is currently easier than watching movies.

At this point it occurs to me that I really ought to document this in case anyone thinks it's amusing. Therefore behold and wonder at the awesome force of ALPHABET TV.

A is for... Amercan Horror Story
I didn't really have any expectations of this - though I was cynical about the capacity of a series to maintain the scares and atmosphere over a whole run.

I was initially really impressed - each episode seemed to have a new unique scary thing that genuinely creeped us out, and the theme music managed to give us the jitters pretty much every time.

The premise (only mild spoilers, I promise) is that a troubled family move into a house which for some reason causes everyone who dies there to become a ghost. The collection of ghosts are pretty unnerving (at least to start with) but toward the end of the season everything did kind of degenerate into "Desperate Housewives, but everyone's dead".

A noble experiment.

Thursday, January 9, 2014


Way back in 2011, in an attempt to stop neglecting this blog so much, I reviewed a terrible movie I'd watched called Asylum. If you can't be bothered going back and reading it my post in full, the movie was about teenagers being stalked and murdered by the ghost of a sadistic psychiatrist who wielded lobotomy picks as weapons. It was really very bad.

Anyhow, one of the things I mentioned in that review was that it was that the non-stupid bits of the killer psychiatrist's story loosely mirrored the life and work of Dr. Walter Freeman, the American physician who pioneered and did much to popularise the transorbital "icepick" lobotomy. I thought that it was a shame that Asylum ignored this connection in favour of really dumb slasher-backstory, because I feel like Freeman is kind of a tragic figure. He genuinely seems to have been motivated by what he saw as the best interests of people who would otherwise have been confined to state asylums.

The Psychologist has just put up a really interesting article about letters to Freeman from his patients and his responses - it's a really fascinating look at the way lobotomy was viewed at the time, and how it was able to continue for so long.

(Hat-tip to Mind Hacks for the link.)

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Pet Hens Fry

Cinemania have my review of the big boxed set Stephen Fry's Inquisitive Documentaries. Is it good? It's Stephen Fry talking about stuff he's interested in, so if that sounds good to you it's very good.

The set includes Stephen Fry In AmericaLast Chance To See, Return of the Rhino (basically just another LCTS episode), and Stephen Fry and the Gutenberg Press. They're all good, go check out the review if you want more detail on why (it's MAAAAASSIVE is why I'm not going to rewrite it here).