Sunday, February 26, 2006

Deborah Coddington: Smoking gun on drug policy

Nanny state is rearing her ugly head in certain new National Party MPs.

We've been hit with calls for new laws to ban, toughen up, or further restrict things of which they highly disapprove.

One only has to look at the bookcases groaning under the weight of legislation and wonder if there might already be a law that could deal with the problem.

One example is the new National MP for Otago, Jacqui Dean, who announced right on Christmas that she was launching a campaign to have party pills reclassified and their sale restricted.

If changes aren't made "in this area", said the former Playschool presenter, "buying party pills at a local dairy" will become as acceptable as "buying an icecream".

That's poppycock, of course, and Ms Dean is far too astute to believe that line.

But there's nothing like the topic of drug and alcohol abuse linked with youth-of-today - as in wasted-youth-of-today - to get the conservative tongues clacking. And there's nothing like releasing news in the quiet Christmas break to get headlines for struggling-to-be-seen, new backbenchers.

I do concede there is a drug problem in New Zealand, but only with a small number of people. It's not an epidemic and it doesn't affect every citizen, except perhaps in an indirect way.

But you only have to look at scientific evidence which shows the enormous damage cannabis can do to certain individuals at specific times of their lives, especially young people whose brains are still developing and who have a predisposition to mental disorder, to agree that cannabis is not the harmless, recreational drug many claim it to be.

However, it's also a fact that even though the sale of cannabis is banned, that doesn't stop it being used by those who shouldn't be anywhere near drugs - cannabis, P, Fantasy, LSD - anything that can tip them over the edge of sanity into a world of psychological pain, despair, and - all too often - suicide.

So I doubt new laws on party pills will suddenly fix Ms Dean's problem. Instead, she and her fellow Opposition MPs could confront the Labour Government for its shallow and gutless policy on drugs.

As far as drug policy goes, Labour expediently kowtows to Captain Sensible Peter Dunne and refuses to put the topic of cannabis legislation on the table for discussion.

On the health side of drug policy, however, Labour continues with its fatuous "minimisation of harm".

This attitude is basically a cop-out - even though certain drugs are illegal, hey, people take them anyway so we're better off telling them how to take them safely.

So while cigarette smoking is legal (only just), this Government happily passes laws banning smoking in pubs, cafes, bars, all in the name of improving the nation's health. On the Health Ministry website, there's no "minimise harm" message when it comes to tobacco. Other than advice on how to quit, the ministry quotes fatalities, illnesses and ways to "confront the tobacco epidemic".

But with illegal drugs like cocaine and cannabis, a much softer approach is taken, and District Health Boards, through their drug and alcohol counselling services, implement the Government's policy.

Last month I was shown a Waitemata District Health Board pamphlet on nitrous oxide, or NOS - "hippy crack, laughing gas".

Community Alcohol and Drug Services publishes these brochures - both on the internet and in hard copy - and while they do state "no use is the safest option", they're full of lessons for drug users on how they can "reduce harm" to themselves.

Take, for instance, this advice: "Inhaling the gas using balloons reduces the risk of potentially fatal lung damage from NOS pressure". That's followed by instructions on how to get the gas from a canister into a balloon. "Because you can fall over when using NOS, it is best to sit or lie down. Make sure you have plenty of fresh air."

If cocaine's your poison, you're advised to "use lube during sex" and warned that the drug causes shrinkage and makes ejaculation more difficult. Putting coke on genitals is discouraged and readers are told to "avoid using the same injection site when having several blasts in the same night, to reduce vein damage".

But if you prefer cannabis: "Try a small quantity of any new smoke first. Although uncommon, cannabis can trigger psychosis in some individuals. Replace bong water each time to avoid bugs and bacteria."

Can you imagine something like this from the Government on cigarettes? "Different brands differ in strength so try mild, menthol or filter first, before moving on to full strength. Clean out ashtrays to avoid bugs and bacteria."

The Labour Government - and some National MPs - should read some coroners' findings into youth suicides and think about why some drugs are being officially promoted if they're illegal and dangerous.

They could talk to some addicts and see why minimising harm doesn't work.

Then if they're really serious about protecting people from themselves, talk to Trevor Grice at Life Education Trust about harm prevention.

Matt McCarten: First step in getting rid of youth rates

Young workers are another step closer to getting the same minimum pay as adults after Sue Bradford's bill to scrap youth rates passed its first hurdle in Parliament this week.

For those of you who don't know, 16- and 17-year-olds get paid a minimum of $7.60 an hour. Everyone over 18 gets at least $9.50 for the same work. Under 16-year-olds have no minimum. If Bradford's bill is passed the adult minimum wage would apply to all workers aged over 15.

Predictably the employers' unions are putting out all the usual nonsense that teenagers won't be employed. Of course they haven't released any research to back up their claim. That's because there isn't any. In fact a recent Treasury report shows that youth employment has been increasing despite a closing gap between youth and adult rates.

The report further suggested there was no correlation between employment of youth and the wage differential.

Employers' unions have a history of claiming that the sky will fall in if workers make any gains in their wages or conditions. This is the same crowd who predicted dire consequences when the labour laws were changed, when ACC was re-nationalised, when paid parental leave was introduced and whenever there are increases in the minimum wage.

The fact is we now have the lowest unemployment in the OECD and the economy has grown by 20 per cent in five years.

No one would argue that there is a legitimate case to pay workers less while in training. But youth rates are unfair because they discriminate solely because of a worker's age.

CTU President Ross Wilson says: "Time after time the business lobby has proved themselves wrong on labour reforms, and we would be happy to add youth rates to that list."

In fact, I'm sure there could be a strong legal case to be made that discriminating against a worker because of their age is in breach of their human rights. It seems logical to me that if an employer can't discriminate against workers on the basis of their gender or race then it can't be legal to discriminate on the basis of age.

After all, the mandatory retirement age was removed because it was discriminatory to older workers.

NZ Statistics revealed in its latest household income survey that 59,000 of the 109,000 16- and 17-year-olds are in the workforce. Well over three-quarters of these young workers are employed in the fast-food restaurant industry, picture theatres or retail stores and supermarkets. All these young workers are expected, as are the adult workers, to perform to the required standard of work after their induction.

In fact many of these young workers are supervisors and train new employees.

In moments of refreshing honesty, I have had two major employers concede that the only reason they pay youth rates is that the law permits them and it keeps costs down.

Major employers such as Wendy's, who don't pay youth rates on principle, still seem to have the same percentage of mixed age in their workforce as their competitors. McDonald's only brought in youth rates two years ago because, they say, their competitors were paying youth rates and the competitive advantage was too great.

The employers are right, of course, that many of these jobs are entry level. But the main point is that all employees, whatever their age, are expected to reach the same standard of output.

As Bradford said this week: "Employers aren't hiring young workers out of the kindness of their heart, they are taking them on because they are as valuable to them as any other employee."

Labour, the Maori Party, NZ First and even United Future supported the Greens in getting Bradford's bill to the select committee stage.

Bradford told the CTU executive on Thursday that she was under no illusion that it was the recent actions by young workers in the fast food industry that helped tip the other parties into supporting her bill - at least to the first stage.

If you asked me a month ago whether this bill could get through, I would have said it had a slim chance. Now I'd give it a better than even chance.

So if young people start mobilising to support their case for equal pay we may finally see the last scourge of wage discrimination against a single group of workers come to an end.

Kerre Woodham: Unholy row a TV ratings blessing

Thank heavens that's over. The Bloody Mary episode of South Park has been and gone, and C4 has enjoyed the highest ratings it's experienced in its young life.

It's unlikely it will ever achieve the likes of those again. I hope the sales team added a zero to the billing schedule - got to make hay while the sun shines.

Programmes like South Park are for a select audience - those that enjoy scatalogical humour and puerile jokes. It's comedy that bludgeons sacred cows with heavy humour, as opposed to skewering the cows with rapier wit. There's a place for that sort of comedy - nothing like a bodily function joke to reduce a complex issue down to its most fundamental level - but it's not for me. Or indeed for much of New Zealand, given the usual ratings for South Park. But the media furore over this particular episode ensured this off-beat, off-mainstream television programme received far more attention than it deserved.

That's the thing about offended sensibilities. People who want to promote their product and garner the sort of column inches publicists can only dream of, need only hint that a particular cross-section of the public is going to be outraged by their particular creative enterprise, be it a television programme like this one, an artwork like Virgin in a Condom, a film like Life of Brian, a book like The Satanic Verses, for it to be an instant success.

Send out a press release with the words controversial and religious dotted liberally throughout and you're guaranteed at least five minutes of fame - 10 if it's a slow news week.

To be fair to the creators of South Park, this particular programme was more about people's desire to offload responsibility for their own demons by looking for miracles than it was about beating up the Catholic Church. Still, the anarchic makers of the show wouldn't have been at all concerned at the offence they knew they would undoubtedly cause Catholics. They've offended everyone over the years.

In fact, I believe they even depicted Muhammad on the show, way back when the Danish cartoons were still lead in the pencils of the cartoonists. Depicting the Virgin Mary in such a crude fashion would no doubt have been seen by the South Park team as equal opportunity offending. And to be fair to the Catholic faithful, they had to display some polite and well-ordered outrage - otherwise in the wake of the hysteria over the Danish cartoons, it would have appeared as though they didn't take their religion as seriously as Muslims took theirs.

It's over now, and let's hope the offended realise that by making their offence public, they're simply playing into the hands of those who are looking to score cheap points.

Kerre Woodham: Snail's pace progress as Powell sends miners home

On the one hand, I like living in a country where heavy machinery and multi-million-dollar contracts come to a grinding halt because of taniwha.

Remember the taniwha that lived in the Waikato River? Road construction was halted while kaumatua were consulted (at a very competitive hourly rate, by all accounts) as to how best to continue road widening without enraging the taniwha.

And work on the Albany Puhoi extension came to a standstill a couple of years ago, when it was discovered that nesting birds would be disturbed by construction activity. Transit delayed the work until the birds could be safely shifted out of harm's way, and then continued, weighed down with the environmental strictures under which consent for the highway had been granted.

And now we have rare snails threatening the jobs of 115 miners on the West Coast. Solid Energy has suspended mining in part of its Stockton mine after rare giant land snails were found on the Mt Augustus ridge last week. The company is well aware of its environmental obligations. There was no suggestion of ploughing into the snails and reducing them to sludge.
As soon as powelliphanta augustus, or Powell to his mates, was spotted, the whopping great trucks and diggers and excavators were shut down and the men were sent home to await instructions. The company is now waiting for permission to move the snails to another part of the forest where they'll be safe, but that permission is slow in coming.

Now the Buller mayor fears that jobs will be lost, export orders for coal will be cancelled and billions of dollars will be lost to the economy.

There's a touch of Chicken Licken about the Buller mayor - that is indeed a scenario, but it's the worst-possible scenario and as we've seen, compromises can be reached between industry and conservationists, provided everyone is reasonable. The conservationists are delighted at the find of Powell and his mates. They believe this is a rare sub-species of the giant land snail that can be found in other parts of the country - predominantly the West Coast and the Marlborough Sounds. They didn't want a dirty great coal mine excavating parts of Stockton anyway, so the discovery of this very rare sub-species is fortunate indeed for those in the green corner.

Conspiracy theorists might suspect that the snails have been planted precisely to bring about the suspension of operations, but however they got there, the snails are there now and it's snails one, Solid Energy nil at the moment.

As I say, I'm glad I live in a land where consideration is given to the environment and where money doesn't buy you the right to destroy everything around you in pursuit of financial rewards.

I've read Carl Hiaasen's books - I was brainwashed at an early age. But at the same time, if I was one of the people charged with managing these projects, or if it was my signature on the cheques I might feel differently. And if I was a Stockton miner, waiting to hear whether or not I still had a job, I might well believe that the only good snail was a dead one, sauteed in garlic and butter, rare sub genus or not.