How often is cannabis/alcohol a factor?


The pilot of the hot air balloon which crashed near Carterton tested positive for cannabis:

The Transport Accident Investigation Commission (TAIC) released the  report this morning which stated toxicology results from the body of pilot  Lance Hopping, 53, gave a positive result for cannabis. His body was tested four  days after the accident.

The Commission has not made any link between the pilot’s  cannabis use and the accident, saying it is “wrong to draw premature  conclusions” but it does say the results are “very concerning”. . .

Another report released by the TAIC yesterday into the Fox Glacier air crash  revealed two skydive instructors had cannabis in their systems. TAIC recommended  drug and alcohol testing as a result. . .

It is worth repeating both that the Commission hasn’t made any link between the cannabis use and the accident and that the results are very concerning.

Moving from these particular cases to the general – adventure tourism attracts young, adventurous people who work hard and play hard.

The playing hard often involves a lack of sleep, alcohol and possibly other drugs, all of which can affect work performance the next day.

How often are one or all of these a factor which increases the risk of accident in pursuits which require full attention and quick reactions?

Criticised for what don’t do not appreciated for what do do


National’s doing well but I’m disappointed it’s not being stronger on alcohol.

This was the message a party member gave me when I ran in to him last week.

The next day I was at a meeting where Invercargill MP Eric Roy mentioned that the legislation the government introduced to the House has 52 of the 63 recommendations from the Law Commission’s report on alcohol.

That may not be going far enough for some but it’s more than a very good start – especially when you acknowledge that the root of the problem with alcohol abuse is a cultural one which requires change in people and behaviour not legislation.

However, the conversation with the party member illustrates one of the perennial problems in politics – you’re far more likely to be criticised for what you don’t do than recognised for what you do do.

Change the culture not the law


Let’s start with a confession – I drank more than I should have then drove twice.

Both times was when I was a student, once at 19, the second time at 21.

I don’t know how much I’d drunk but it was probably no more than four glasses of wine. Both times the drinking was with a meal over at least three hours so I may not have been over the legal limit. Everyone else had drunk more and they nominated me as driver but all these years later I remember thinking I’d had too much to drive safely.

Luck was our side, other road users, my passengers and I all got home safely.

I have no idea why we didn’t get a taxi, although drinking and driving wasn’t unusual back then, long before the campaigns and culture change which have made our roads safer – although still not safe enough.

Twice was two times too many. I’ve rarely drunk that much at a time again and never if I’ve been driving.

Living in the country requires a lot of driving and I’m happy be the sober driver for several reasons:  I’d rather eat kilojoules than drink them; I’m quite capable of having fun – and being silly – when I’m sober; and I don’t want to deal with a hangover when I’m expected to function effectively next day.

I sometimes choose not to have any alcohol and if I do drink it would never be more than two glasses of wine, with food over several hours if I’ll be driving.

Because of that I wouldn’t have a problem signing up to the NZ Herald’s Two Drinks Max campaign to never drink more than two standard drinks.

But like Macdoctor I think the paper would be better to campaign to change the culture rather than the law.

A massive campaign to get people to pledge to less alcohol would probably do far more good than dropping the limit. New Zealanders are far too apt to wink at excessive drinking and condone it as laddish behaviour. . .  Most of these people are responsible and would never dream of driving home in that state – but they give legitimacy to it, encouraging less responsible people to drink excessively. These few then go on to create our appalling drink-driving stats. “Two Drinks Max” might go some small way towards mitigating that culture of drunkenness.

Both Macdoctor and Kiwiblog question the case for lowering the legal breath alcohol limit.

I don’t know if they’re right, but there are mixed messages in campaigns which say if you drink and drive you’re a bloody idiot. The clear inference in that is that it’s okay to drink too much if you’re not driving.

There is plenty of evidence in not only the road carnage but in statistics on violence and other alcohol related harm to make the case against drinking to excess, whether or not you’re driving.

We need a culture change rather than a law change if we’re to address the attitude towards problem drinking and a two drinks max might help do that.

Doing the right thing needed to change culture


From the time I did lifesaving at high school I worried that I’d be called on to use what I’d learned but panic and not be able to do it.

The only time I’ve had to do CPR was the night our son stopped breathing. Those long ago lifesaving lessons had been reinforced by more recent ones before we’d left hospital with Tom and I automatically did what I’d been taught to do.

There weren’t a lot of options that night, but sometimes the situation isn’t so clear-cut. What if someone needed help and I didn’t recognise it, if I didn’t realise how serious the situation and made the wrong decision to not seek medical aid?

It appears this is what happened the night James Webster died.

When I saw his parents on television at the time I was amazed at how measured they were in their response, not casting blame on the people who’d been with their son, not asking what happened, how it had been allowed to happen and why no-one did anything to help him.

They still aren’t casting blame and they’re not saying James wasn’t at fault,  but they are asking questions and they’re not getting many answers.

Auckland mayor John Banks’ son was at the party and:

Banks is one of the few parents associated with that fatal night, to front up to the Websters as they desperately seek to find out exactly how their son died.

It is up to the coroner to determine what happened that night but – if the story as reported is accurate – others at the party could help the Websters put together the pieces of the puzzle over their son’s death much sooner.

One of the things which can help people come to terms with the death of someone they love, is knowing that some good can come from it and that lessons have been learned which could prevent a similar tragedy.

After meeting the Webster family, Banks grounded his son and sent him on a first aid course.

“He now knows and can recognise that when someone’s in trouble with alcohol he calls 111 – had it happened on that night James Webster would still be alive.

“I say as a father – there but for the grace of God go I.”

. . . Reporter Mark Crysell asked Banks what he said to Alex after James’ death. Banks, whose own mother drank herself to death, had an emotional response.

“Well I said to Alex this is very sad … for our families and you’re going to have to stay home and not go out at night until you’ve undertaken a comprehensive first aid course so that you understand the dangers of alcohol.”

But what of the other people there – the young people and the adults who were supervising them – who haven’t fronted up to the Websters?

Have they learned from the experience and changed?

Have all of them learned that unconsciousness is a sign of something badly wrong and it’s better to call for an ambulance for a false alarm than delay over something serious?

Has none of them drunk to excess, or encouraged someone else to do so, since James’ death?

And why haven’t they all done what they can to help the Websters?

Until they do, James’ parents won’t be able to piece together what happened. Nor will they have the comfort of knowing that those who were there have learned enough to ensure they and the people they’re with drink sensibly and safely in future.

It is dangerous to make judgements on information gained from a television story, but if this one was fair, the other people at the party should do the right thing, meet the Websters and help them understand the steps which led to their son’s death.

The government announced proposals last week to change liquor laws. The one proposal which might help prevent a repeat of this tragedy is the one which will make it illegal to supply alcohol to anyone under 18 without parental approval.

But even that law will only be effective if there is a culture change as well, one that means drunkenness isn’t acceptable and drinking to excess isn’t funny, it’s stupid and it’s dangerous.

The people who were at the party could be part of the culture change which is needed to prevent a similar tragedy happening to someone else. They could start by talking about it to the Websters.

Any  of us might not recognise how seriously ill someone was and make the wrong decision about calling for help. But I’d like to think that if I did and someone died as a result, I’d have the courage to face the family and help them understand what happened.

UPDATE: Apropos of this Roarprawn posts on teenage hell.

It’s not the age it’s the attitude


The root cause of problems with alcohol isn’t the purchase age, it’s our attitude.

The Law Commission’s report on alcohol  leaked by Kiwiblog last week is due out today.

It had some radical recommendations including a 50% excise tax on alcohol. Listening to Bill English on the Farming Show yesterday, I don’t think that’s likely.

Another suggestion was raising the purchase age. Voting on that has always been a conscience vote and I don’t think it’s likely to be a measure on which MPs are whipped.

I was in favour of reducing the purchase age to 18.

Now I have reservations and would favour keeping the age for drinking alcohol on licensed premises at 18 but raising the purchase age from off licences to 20.That would allow young adults access to alcohol in supervised environments where it is easier to control irrsponsible drinking but restrict access for unsupervised drinking. It would also make it a bit more diffcult for people under the age of 18 to get alcohol.

However, that too treats the symptom not the cause.

Problems caused by the misuse of alcohol may be reduced a little by increased taxes, increasing the purchase age and reducing the number and/or operating hours of liquor outlets.

But they won’t go away until there’s a change of attitude.

Information on the dangers of smoking and action to reduce the harm it caused were just starting when I was leaving school. That was more than 30 years ago and it’s only in the last decade that there’s been a real change in attitude which has put non-smokers’ right to fresh air above that of tobacco addicts’ right to smoke.

The attitude to driving drunk has changed, although there’s still room for improvement. But the message that it’s not what we’re drinking it’s how we’re drinking, hasn’t yet made much traction.

Until it does and the attitude which at best doesn’t condemn, and at worst condones and even encourages, drunkenness changes any change of law will make little impact on the problems caused by alcohol abuse.

How much is too much?


A judge whom I interviewed during an alcohol awareness week said he’d never driven drunk but he had driven tired which could have been just as dangerous.

I have several vices but excess alcohol isn’t one of them which means I’m often the designated driver.

When that’s the case I never have more than one glass of wine if I’m not eating and no more than a couple over several hours with a meal.

That should mean I’m well below the legal limit for driving,  but does that make me fit to drive?

As Macdoctor points out, not necessarily.

I wouldn’t be taking any other drug, but I have driven when I’m tired which, as the judge I interviewed said, may be just as bad.

So how do we know how much is too much?

The answer to that depends on several variables, so what should we do to make the roads safer?

Macdoctor suggests:

 Let us scrap the legal limit for alcohol altogether. Instead, we should substitute a legal requirement to be “fit to drive”. Should you be stopped at a police checkpoint and the cop has any reason to believe you may be impaired in your ability to drive (including checking your breath alcohol), he can insist that you take a “fit to drive” test. Failure (to take or pass the test) will get you arrested. The test could be administered using driving simulators in the back of a police van (basic tests administered by cops – such as walking a straight line – are simply too imprecise).

The advantage of a “fit to drive” test is that it catches all the impaired drivers, not just the ones impaired by excessive alcohol. It also avoids the problem of the margin where the person with the BAC of 0.052% is carted off to jail, despite being only mildly impaired, and the person with the BAC of 0.048% is let go, despite being high on cannabis and a liability on the road. It also standardises the drug tests that the new drug driving laws propose – making them considerably more objective. It will also prevent people from using portable breathalysers so that they can drink “to the limit” regardless of how capable they are of driving.

There’s an old joke about Aunt Mabel driving better when she was drunk than Uncle George did when he was sober.

If the fit to drive test was introduced it might prove to be true.

Attitude is the problem at any age


Southern European attitudes to drinking have always been held up as sensible ones we should emulate.

“The French/Spanish/Italian people drink more than we do but you don’t see them binge drinking,” we say.

But now you do.

In Spain and Italy locals told us that young people have learnt from other cultures. They no longer sip sensibly on wine over long, leisurely meals. They’re throwing back spirits and RTDs and drinking to get drunk.

As their drinking has deteriorated so has their behaviour. Drunken violence, property damage and voiding of stomach contents from one or more orifices in public places have all increased.

Just like here.

We can change the age at which people can purchase alcohol, we can change the number of outlets selling alcohol and the hours they are permitted to do it. But unless and until we change the attitude to drinking we won’t solve the problems of alcohol abuse.

Whether it’s police drinking in their own bars or students partying in the streets, it’s not the age nor the hours that is the real problem, it’s the attitude and changing that takes time.

It’s no longer legal to smoke in enclosed public places in many countries and it’s no longer regarded as a mature or glamorous thing to do.

The attitude to smoking has changed but more than 30 years after the anti-smoking message began, people are still taking it up. It’s going to take even longer to change the attitude to alcohol and the behaviour which goes with drinking to excess.

Booze bad for brain


Most of us would think the headline is stating the obvious: Alcohol: Not good for the brain after all

The story which follows explains researchers decided to see if moderate consumption of alcohol which has been found to help heart health would also benefit the brain.

Their results show that tee-totallers lose less brain volume with age than drinkers do and the difference is greater for women.

I’d better not drink to that.

SFF Meat Jobs Safe in the South


Plans for all-year round processing should safeguard jobs at Silver Fern Farms’ Finegand freezing works in Balclutha and Waitane near Gore.

SFF chief executive Keith Cooper said:

“This is a high-level strategic view to keep costs down, utilise plants better and attract employees by getting away from seasonal work to become a longer-term employer.”

Multi-species plants which operate all year round make sense because of ever-increasing compliance and maintenance costs, and difficulty sourcing seasonal labour.

There will be economic and social gains for the community too because fulltime employment brings more regular and secure income than seasonal jobs which can leave large numbers of people with low incomes and little work in the off-season.

A judge I interviewed for an alcohol awareness week years ago told me he thought there was a relationship between freezing works and alcohol problems because there were a lot of people on high incomes during the killing season but low incomes and too much free time in the off-season.

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