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May 4, 2014 | by  | in Features Online Only | [ssba]

Interview with the Executive Director of the Drug Foundation, Ross Bell

On the Drug Foundation:
It’s a charitable trust. We celebrate our 25th anniversary this year. We were set up by two medical doctors and a nurse who were concerned about the quality of debate around drug policy, and mainly drug education. Back then it was the kind of scary, D.A.R.E, just say no kind of stuff. It was originally funded through a telethon. And Salient readers may not have a fucking clue what a telethon is. Do you guys know ‘Thank you very much for your kind donation?’. Anyway it was set up as an independent voice around drug policy. Funded by independent money and money from the Ministry of Health. Tobacco control was the original focus, and then it became more focussed on alcohol, and we’ve now focussed more on informing the discussion around illicit drugs, and legal highs. We have two main strings to our bow, one is to inform the public about drugs. That could mean answering the phone call from a parent worried about Johnny smoking cannabis. We’ve got a text service that people can message, we try to signpost people to help, we provide hard copy drug resources to families and medical practitioners. The second string is the political advocacy side of things. We are really focussed on independent advocacy. We want to inform the debate about the best way to minimise drug harm in New Zealand. Our vision is for a New Zealand free of drug harm.

We won’t go out and smoke cannabis on the lawn of parliament but we will happily don a suit and go and talk to politicians about what’s happening in places like Colorado and Washington, in Portugal and Uruguay, and how that could inform NZ’s drug policy.

On Peter Dunne:
That’s the thing with him. He gave an interview with Catherine Ryan about a month ago. He had just returned from a united nations drugs meeting that we were at as well. It was quite frustrating. The comments he made on the radio were quite different to what he’d previously blogged about when he wasn’t a Minister, comments like ‘maybe regulation of cannabis like we do for legal highs would be the way to go. That’s what she said to him. But he says ‘No, no, no you couldn’t do that.’ And we were just like ‘But that’s what you wrote!’.

On politicians smoking weed:
[Jackson James Wood]- John Key blazes every day.
[Ross]- He says that he hasn’t smoked cannabis. And I believe him.

All politicians should have an answer to that question.

On the Law Commission Report:
We worked really closely with them on the report. They gave us confidential draft chapters and we peer reviewed them for them. There’s was lots of to and fro. They were very respectful. They didn’t try to shut the door on us. We didn’t always agree, but it was much better than just presenting report after report to select committee and getting nowhere.

It’s frustrating that the review took place in 2011 and not much has changed, but I’m resigned to the fact that change will happen very incrementally. It’s frustrating but it’s the reality of politics.

On pot legalisation:
To me legalisation implies a commercial free market. I don’t think we want to go down that route.

D & C: Why not?
Well, I fear New Zealanders and their drug habits. I just don’t trust us. Within a year of BZP hitting the market, a quarter of New Zealand adults had tried it. And it’s like, fuck me noone demanded an iPad before but once they arrived everyone wanted one. A commercial market isn’t a good one for New Zealand. We’d just go nuts.

D & C: Is increased use a bad thing per se?
Well it depends. If cannabis is a substitute for alcohol, then there might be some gains to be made if people shift from booze to pot. But I think we would use it for a complement. So I think we should come up with a model that accounts for our silliness. Decreasing penalties around possession, growing plants, trading among friends. Social clubs maybe – Spain has social clubs. The first thing we should do is remove all the criminal penalties around it.

The question is how we deal with the supply end. In the Netherlands in pot cafes, it’s legal to sell out the front door but illegal to supply it through the back door.

We think drugs should be treated together. If we refer drug users to rehab and health practitioners, it should be for meth users as well as cannabis users. If we focus too much on pot, we might miss out on helping all victims of drugs.

The drug law can sometimes be more harmful to users than the drugs themselves. Everyone knows the difficulties of travel if you have a conviction, it’s harder to get jobs. The people who are likely to get pinged are unfortunately young brown men. If you’re Maori, you’re four times more likely to get a conviction for possession after being arrested than if you are white. It’s that kind of obvious, simple injustice of the law that people don’t want to confront. Some people argue it’s the result of institutional racism within the police- they can choose to use their discretion not to charge white males. I think it’s one very good explanation.

It is young people who are the victims of this law, and I’m surprised there aren’t more young people speaking out against this wrong, bad law.

On synthetic drugs:
We never seem to learn. We have a strong intuition that here is something that is wrong, it’s bad, so let’s get rid of it. But that is simply not working. It’s never worked and it never will. We’ve tried for ten years to ban these things. Can’t you see that a new approach is needed?

We first wrote about these drugs back in 2005. We said ‘Here’s a new challenge’. It’s not one that can be won by government, because chemists are just too clever. As soon as you ban one chemical, they make a new one that is almost identical. We know about failed prohibitions of the past: alcohol and cannabis. So maybe with these substances, let’s try something new. We did this- Jim Anderton passed an amendment to the Misuse of Drugs Act which created a fourth category called the ‘restricted substances category’ (along with Class A, B and C), that would be regulated and sold. But that gave a lot of power to the Ministry of Health to develop the regulations, and the Ministry failed to do so. In the end, Jim Anderton just banned BZP.

We’ve been a huge supporter of a regulatory approach. It’s a useful litmus test- if we can do this right, then maybe we can use it as a platform for law change for other drugs, as Peter Dunne wrote about in his blog post. The current law is coming under attack

Media portrayal- It’s possibly overblown. I think there’s always media hysteria around drug reporting anyway. I think there are some problems- one of them is that the media aren’t unpicking the stories enough. I absolutely believe the stories about the harm from synthetic cannabis are genuine, but those harms have been created over the last three or four years, by products that have since been banned. There is a lag in media reporting. They’re not covering it that well.

In general, there is a collective amnesia about the many different ways we’ve tried to ban these products. I did a list the other day about how we tried to get rid of BZP. We first tried the Dietary Supplement Regulation of 1985. Apparently that wouldn’t work. Then someone put BZP in an energy drink can, and we thought well maybe the Food Act will cover it. The food safety authority said no no no that’s not going to happen. Tariana Turia declared that the Smokefree Environments Act would cover any smokable product. And it’s just like “I just pulled that out of my arse”. And then there was BZP being scheduled as a Class D drug and now this Psychoactive Substances Bill. The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting the same result. Wise men try a whole lot of dumb things until the right answer comes along.

If there was natural cannabis more freely available in a regulated way, then more people will use the regulated product over the synthetic equivalent. But it wouldn’t answer the problem to just legalise cannabis now. The genie is already out of the bottle. The first legal high was an ecstasy mimic. So it was an alternative to an illegal speedy drugs. People will still want synthetic hallucinogens. Life isn’t so simple- people don’t just want 3 or 4 drugs, they want a whole smorgasboard. It’s a buffet of gear. People want a portfolio of drugs for different cultures and settings and moods.

The claim has been made by Peter Dunne that cannabis wouldn’t pass the test for low risk in the Psychoactive Substances Bill. But also, the law says you have to approve a product, not a chemical. So what you might do – cannabis these days is now very high in the THC, and low in the CBD and THC seems to be the trigger for mental health problems, whereas the CBD has been shown to help with anxiety and disorders like PTSD – is make a powder or a pill or a mouth spray which is high CBD and low THC. And that might pass. And this is what they do for synthetic medical cannabis. They try out different ratios of the different cannabinoids. People already breed different types of cannabis for different highs.

On medical marijuana:
It’s a no brainer. The science is indisputable that cannabis has pharmaceutical qualities. What’s important is how that cannabis is administered. I mean Asprin is Acylic Acid, but they get it from the bark of willow trees. We don’t chew bark, we buy packets of Asprin.

The one which has been approved in New Zealand is Sativex, but it’s prohibitively expensive. Something like a thousand dollars a month subscription. It’s been approved for Multiple Sclerosis. It’s 50/50 THC and CBD. It comes out of a UK lab called GW Pharmaceuticals. It’s not subsidised by Pharmac. You have to go through a process to get it. It’s been approved for MS but it can be provided off script for anything else, which means that doctors can say ‘It’s not in my book of treatments but I can recommend this for you.’ Medical cannabis technically is legal if approved by the Minister of Health. There is the Medicines Act and the Misuse of Drugs Act. THC is controlled by the latter, and CBD by the Medicines Act. But no Minister of Health is going to approve an application for Bob to grow three plants in his back yard for his sore toe. We don’t have an easy way of getting it, but Sativex is easy because politicians can say- well look it’s just a mouth spray, you’re not smoking it.

Cannabis benefits you if you’re on HIV or Cancer medications which cause you nausea, vomiting, loss of appetite. Cannabis is great- you get the munchies. It helps moderate the other side effects of your medication. There’s new research coming out of America and Israel around using CBD to fight epilepsy in young people. Dravet syndrome is a form which is prevalent amongst kids, you should google charlotte’s web.

Drugs can be fucken harmful for a fuckload of people.



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