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Paul Little is a Herald on Sunday columnist

Paul Little: Ridiculous message inside a message

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Dunedin dairies are being asked to withdraw K2.Photo / NZ Herald
Dunedin dairies are being asked to withdraw K2.Photo / NZ Herald

When it comes to laws pertaining to mind-altering substances, we are hardly short of examples of inconsistency.

But the absurdity was cranked up to a new high this week with reports that police in Dunedin have been visiting dairies, saying, "Please may you?" and asking nicely if the stores would stop stocking and selling a synthetic cannabis product known as K2.

The police had to take this approach because selling K2 is perfectly legal. They happen to think it is dangerous and so are making the effort to do something about it, putting moral pressure on shopkeepers in the public interest.

One report needs to be quoted at length:

"We realise the dairies are selling a product that is profitable for them, but the reason we are asking them to take the product off the market is all the flow-on health effects ...

"These included users becoming highly aggressive, experiencing anxiety and hallucinations. The product was also believed to be a 'driver of crime'. "People on the substance are doing things that they would not normally do at other times.

"During the weekend, Dunedin police dealt with three youths who had taken K2 and become aggressive and suffered hallucinations. Retailers, some of whom had been targeted in synthetic cannabis-related crime, had given a mixed reaction about removing the over-18 product. Some maintained they would continue to sell K2 until it was declared illegal."

Sobering stuff, especially if you go back through those paragraphs and substitute "alcohol" every time you see a reference to K2.

You do the math

New Zealand media in general do a good job of not repeating drivel unquestioningly, as much as our elected representatives may wish for that to happen.

But the amount of time that now has to be spent monitoring politicians' utterances and comparing them with the facts means it's inevitable the odd piece of bilge will slip through and make the news.

It's an example of the phenomenon outlined in a useful volume called Flat Earth News, by Nick Davies, one of the best books about news media in recent years.

Its message in brief: news organisations are today most likely to be owned by profit-driven corporations who keep expensive resources - such as journalists and editors - to a minimum.

The result is cheaper (for which, read inexperienced) workers doing jobs for which they are not qualified. The result: drivel in print and on the air, going unchallenged. After all, everyone believed the Earth was flat until some contrarian nuisance questioned the belief.

Which brings us to the recent exciting news that during a two-and-a-half-year expedition on Sir Peter Blake's old vessel, the Tara, researchers had discovered "up to a million" new species of aquatic life.

"Up to", as any secondary school student can tell you, is a phrase beloved of advertisers for its flexibility. A product that kills up to 99 per cent of household germs, for instance, may kill just 3 per cent but still qualifies for the description.

Three is easily "up to" 99.

Those who heard the news item without stopping to do the maths would have been left with the clear impression that one million new species had joined the oceans' population roster.

But, in the case of new fish, three could well be as close to the real total as one million, for all we know.

In fact, to discover one million of anything in two and a half years would have required encountering 7692 species a week, or 45 creatures every hour, around the clock.

A task which even Sir Peter would have found beyond him.

- Herald on Sunday

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