Monday, April 15, 2013

Talking to Clare Curran about drugs

I recently got into a Facebook discussion with Clare Curran about an opinion piece she'd written for the Oddity.

The teal deer* version is as follows: she says she's "woken up" to the dangers of synthetic cannabinoids and other "legal highs" currently available in dairies in New Zealand, and wants people to challenge dairy owners over selling this stuff.

My response was that a) just waking up to it now is a bit late, as these products have been available in dairies since they first came on the scene four or five years ago; and b) surely a legislative response is more effective here - for example, people who don't think alcohol should be available in supermarkets lobby local or central government to change the law**, they don't attempt to shame supermarkets into not selling booze one by one.

At this point, the comment thread was taken over by the usual opposing choruses of "Think of the children!" and "Legalise weed, man!" and the capacity for useful discussion was largely destroyed. Her final response to me was to ask me for a constructive alternative proposal, and mine was to question what her end goal was vis-a-vis the legality of recreational drugs generally.

After thinking about this for a while, I do have a more constructive solution for Clare Curran and my parting shot has a lot to do with it.

The current situation is clearly not good. There are some very rich people paying some very flash chemists very good money to keep making substances one step ahead of the law. These products have minimal (if any) human testing, and do appear to be causing genuine harm to their users.

But here's the thing - these people aren't supervillains*** - they're meeting a demand that exists in the community by selling the products they're currently allowed to sell. If they could meet that demand with other safer products, they probably would. As it is, the commercial pressure on them is to always have another chemical up their sleeve for when the product du jour gets banned, and not to worry too much about concerns like consumer safety.

There's a commonly-repeated idea that prohibition doesn't work - but that's not quite right. Actually prohibition has worked pretty well in eliminating some drugs from the marketplace in New Zealand. The 2C family, Fantasy and BZP were all popular during their brief windows of legality, but have pretty much disappeared now that they're illegal.

People don't actually want to take bad**** drugs. They tend to do so when  those drugs are legal, because they want to buy them without risking prosecution and all of the other personal and social hassles that come with dealing with the black market. When they're made illegal, committed users return to whatever illegal drug their legal high of choice was emulating and "curious" users shrug and move on. This is why actual cannabis, speed, Ecstasy etc. all persist in the community, while the alternative versions have all faded into obscurity.

So, after all that, here's my reply to Clare Curran. What she seems to see as moral turpitude on the part of dairy owners, I see as a failure of market regulation. People want (and arguably have always wanted) to get high and they tend to do this in whatever way is most easily achieved. Legal highs are easier and safer to get (if not safer to use) than illegal drugs, and there's no regulation saying who can sell them - so dairy owners are free to profit from supplying this demand.

My solution is two-fold:

  1. Stop claiming special cases for tobacco and alcohol. These are recreational drugs, and fairly harmful ones at that. The hypocrisy of telling one group of people that their drug of choice is wrong while freely indulging in a more harmful one knocks a massive hole in any attempt at drug education, and seriously undermines public confidence in drug information that comes from government or the police.

    "Culturally familiar" is not the same as "safe". This inconsistent approach is what has allowed the current messy and ineffective regime to get as bad as it has.

    A more sensible way to decide which drugs are illegal and which are allowed would be to decide on an allowable level of harm*****, and ban (or restrict to medical and scientific applications) drugs more harmful than that. There are already indices that rank various drugs on harm to the user and social harm, so there are clearly metrics for figuring this stuff out.

    Alternatively, if as a society we don't want anyone to take any drugs except for medical reasons, we need to be upfront about that. And we need to ban tobacco and alcohol (and arguably energy drinks, coffee, tea, and nutmeg) along with the rest.
  2. License all the drugs we've decided are safe enough to be legal, and limit their sale to premises that specialise in those products.

    One of the things that contributes to binge drinking in New Zealand is very cheap booze from supermarkets. If supermarkets drop their prices on alcohol to lure in custom, they can make that profit up elsewhere. Even if they lose their license, they probably won't go out of business, because they still sell a lot of other stuff that everyone needs. In order to have real teeth, a license needs to be vital to your continued livelihood.

    I realise that this means I'll need to buy my beer from a liquor store, but I'm actually OK with that. Liquor stores tend to sell better beer than most supermarkets anyway, and no-one will die if booze or other drugs get priced out of their range.
The current legal-drugs barons would have to fall in line with such a regulatory regime, or go undergound and risk direct prosecution. However, current evidence suggests that no-one would abandon legal cannabis to smoke illegal Kronic.


* This was recently introduced to me as a different way of saying "tl;dr" and I think it's awesome - so there.

** This is how come you can't buy alcohol from supermarkets in Southland, for example.

*** Just so we're clear - I don't think they're nice, I just think that moustache-twirling villains are less common than one might expect.

**** "Bad" in this sense means both less safe and less pleasurable than the illegal equivalent. This may be disputable in some other cases, but is certainly true of the synthetic cannabinoids - people don't tend to end up in emergency rooms suffering panic attacks and heart palpitations when they smoke real cannabis.

***** I would suggest that sensible questions to ask might include "How possible is it to fatally overdose?" and "What behavioural changes does this drug induce? Do those changes often include increased aggression?" for starters.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Test fire!

I just upgraded from my weird old Nokia to an Android phone. Because Android is a Google thing (as is Blogger) there's an app to do blog posts from my phone.

I dunno that I'll do it too often (hamfingers + imaginary keyboard = sad) but it's a potentially interesting thing

We'll see.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Profane is sort of Magic

Cinemania has my review of Profane. It's.... interesting.

If that sounds like backing-away-slowly "interesting", that's kind of a shame. I thought Profane was a good movie, I just hesitate to recommend an explicit BDSM picture with long unfocused psychedelic sections unreservedly, because it's either going to be your thing or emphatically not your thing.

It's hard to explain why I think this movie is good without potentially spoiling some stuff, so if you're desperate to hunt down a copy of Profane and hit it full-force with the Beginner's Mind (which is what I did, albeit inadvertently) you might want to stop reading and go organise that. If you want a pre-taste of what's about to hit you, but not to have things spoiled, here's Usama Alhaibi's Vimeo feed (the link is safe, but at least some of the videos are not even slightly Safe For Work - you have been warned).

Now read on...

I read a book of interviews with Tom Waits a while back, where he talked a lot about "the hair in the gate". Back in the days of reel-to-reel film, it was possible for pieces of grit or hair to get stuck in the gate that the film passed through. When that happened, the audience would see it superimposed over the picture, jumping about as the fast-moving film agitated it on the way past. Waits says that he enjoys the hair in the gate (a sonic equivalent would be someone else's music heard through a wall or in a crowded noisy market) because it forces audiences to make up their own minds about what's happening behind the distortion*.

Profane is very like that. One of the functions of the psychedelic segments and extended BDSM scenes is to confront you with "noise" that can't be processed logically and forces you to try and reconcile what you're seeing now with the information that was revealed in the more "documentary" scenes. As a result, it's hard to say what definitively what happens in the course of the film.

It's possible that Muna undergoes a spiritual death and resurrection in line with the Hero's Journey, and reconciles her cultural Muslim upbringing with her current life in a new sort of mystical spiritual synthesis. It's an equally valid interpretation of the events as presented to say that she fails to reconcile with Islam and becomes an atheist, or to say that the movie is an account of her total spiritual destruction and that by the end she has been entirely consumed and/or possessed by the Djinn. I know which of those I believe, but I'm fairly sure that someone with a different psychic makeup would draw an entirely different conclusion.

The other function of the psychedelic scenes is to mirror Muna's state of mind. This isn't new - lots of films have attempted to convey the experience of taking mind-altering drugs - but Profane is the first movie I've seen to attempt to show drug effects relative to one another, from a subjective point of view. Muna drinks and smokes pot as well as snorting coke and assorted crushed-up pharmaceuticals, and each drug changes the film in noticeable and highly characteristic ways. It's a really interesting device to try and get you into a character's head (as well as making a subtle point about allowable and banned forms of perception) and I thought it was really effective.

What Usama Alshaibi has done with Profane is a sort of Magical cinema. The closest cousins I can think of would be David Lynch or Alejandro Jodorowsky (I've also seen him compared to Kenneth Anger, but I haven't seen any of Anger's films so I can't really comment on that). Both Jodorowsky and Lynch rely on symbolism to carry a lot of the weight of their films, and construct them with a specific psychological impact in mind for the audience.

The Magical element of this is that, because the nature of the symbols is not explicitly decoded, the viewer's subconscious does a lot of the processing in line with their own perceptual reality filters. The full effect of the film is then felt over the course of the next few weeks or months as it slowly unpacks its baggage into the conscious mind. Because the decoding filters aren't "up" and screening the information as it comes in, charge** isn't lost or diffused and it's actually possible for the film to change you (albeit subtly) in ways a more straightforward narrative can't.

I am not the same person I was before I watched Profane - not much different, but certainly not the same.

* This could also be understood as forcibly opening up a gap between perception and reality (or "reality" as relates to the medium in question) as discussed here.

**I try hard to avoid New Age-yness, or "Magickal" language here, because my point is that Magic is a way of explaining a set of processes (for example "negative energy" is a metaphor, not a measurable physical phenomenon) that can be explained in other ways, but (I believe) less effectively. However, I can't think of a better word here. "Charge" in this context would probably be best described as the sense of emotional realness and immediacy in an idea - the difference between reading about something and experiencing it, for example.