drugs
Photo: Steve Snodgrass

There is no doubt that dealing with new psychoactive substances (NSPs) the so-called ‘legal highs’ as they are commonly described in the media, has proved a headache for governments across the world. The manufacturers and pedlars of these toxic substances have cleverly sidestepped national and international law by creating new chemical compounds to mimic drugs that are illegal, and seem dismissive of the very real harm they cause. In New Zealand particularly (where I live and work as a Member of Parliament) young people have become the guinea pigs of their ‘scientific experiments’

The national poisons centre and accident and emergency wards around the country have been swamped with individuals suffering all manner of severe physical and psychological reactions to these substances. Furthermore around the world there has been a surge of deaths associated with their use as their availability has increased through sale in high street ‘head shops’ and the Internet.

In New Zealand treatment and rehab centers have been inundated with people experiencing severe addiction and withdrawal symptoms. It is, as ever, adolescents who are the most vulnerable to them in every way. It is no wonder that legislators both here, in the UK as well as in the EU, find themselves frantically playing catch up with the accelerating development of these compounds and in a game of cat and mouse with the chemists behind them. For as soon as one compound is identified and banned another pops up to replace it.

The UK introduced both generic and temporary bans as a response. While essential this still has not proved enough. New Zealand went down another path deciding to go it alone and take a different approach to deal with the growing crisis here.

Parliament in New Zealand passed the Psychoactive Substances Act mid 2013. The formula central to this was to reverse the onus of responsibility from the government to the manufacturers and suppliers on proving the substances were “low risk”. The legislation, as a part of its transitional stage, gave interim approval for 41 products that had not come to notice as causing harm prior to the Act passing. The rationale was that providing interim approval to these products would help avoid a black market, given that around 200 other products would be withdrawn from sale.

It was widely praised by drug legalisers and the manufacturers of NPS (who want to see all drugs regulated in this way rather than banned) and was presented as being pioneering legislation.

My view and approach was this was a ban by other means. I hoped that drug makers would be put out of business – having to spend millions of dollars on clinical trials – and that the only products that could pass the “low risk” test would be ones incapable of causing the ‘high’ that ultimately leads to addiction.

It will not surprise some to learn that within weeks, the 41 remaining products were also causing major problems with users. Furthermore the public, becoming increasingly frustrated, began to call for all the remaining products to be banned also. There was a public outcry which culminated in organised protests marches up and down the country.

The continuing harms deriving from these products had exposed the New Zealand approach as a non-starter  – both in terms of harms emerging from the transitional products and the huge public backlash to the continued availability of any of these products.

Finally, this week, in response to public disquiet, the legislation has been amended. Now all interim licenses have been cancelled; all psychoactive products previously given interim approval have been removed from sale; and it becomes illegal to possess and supply the product until they can pass the requisite clinical trials to prove “low risk”.

The New Zealand experience is a lesson to governments around the world. Legislators must be cautious of the mood of their citizens and the implications of a regulated approach which allows ongoing sales of products which are clearly dangerous.

As we have seen in Portugal, banning of “Head shops” and similar retail outlets offers another viable alternative and avoids all the problems experienced in New Zealand. Re-defining the substances as products which mimic or are intended to mimic illicit drugs alongside this will also close off opportunities for NPS to beat laws. It also sends out the right message to the public, that these places and substances are to be avoided, which seems to be exactly what the majority of New Zealand public wanted all along.

It is true, however, that the problem is not going away. The reality is that governments will have to remain forever vigilant – on the alert to ban new substances and to close down new outlets and internet sites. But the New Zealand experience demonstrates that any form of regulating chemicals not suitable for human consumption – front door or back door – has significant consequences and is challenging unless framed in a manner that restricts entirely, and unless low risk is absolutely proven – something I believe will be virtually impossible to achieve given the dangers of these products.

We set out to solve the problem of drug chemists being able to beat legislation that reverses the onus. But New Zealand legislators quickly learned there is no appetite for a regulated market of these poisons, something others may do well to take note of.

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