Editorial: Unfortunate experiment II

By The Listener In Features

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Thanks to what the Government frankly termed an experiment, New Zealand is the only country in the world where legal highs like synthetic cannabis are legal.

Eight months on from the passage of the Psycho­active Substances Act, it’s time to declare the experiment a dismal failure. Its architect and stout defender, Internal Affairs Minister Peter Dunne, is fond of pointing out that it passed with just one dissenting vote. Were he to ask around his colleagues today, he would find a surprising willingness to admit that Parliament got this one wrong. So wrong that far from simply being legal, sales of the drugs are now effectively compulsory.

A bag of synthetic cannabis.

Councils, which Dunne boasted would have control of these drugs, have found they must allow them to be sold somewhere in their district. Even if a council believes there is nowhere suitable for a legal-high shop, it has to approve at least one site. This is one of the few issues to have united ratepayers and council politicians, with a nationwide campaign of council-supported protest marches calling for a ban on the drugs.

There is mounting evidence from health professionals and schools that these substances are causing tremendous physical and mental damage. Even where they work as benignly as intended, they are easily accessible to young people, and can do near-irrevocable damage to learning. This alone makes the new law insupportable.

It may seem good news that a recent study found declining use of one of the most popular party drugs, Kronic, because of publicity about the continuing incidence of side effects such as psychosis, addiction and organ damage.

In reality, this trend only underlines the ugliest truth about these drugs: it’s children and teens, not habitual adult “stoners”, who remain most at risk. Younger users do not, in general, read the newspaper horror stories or watch them on the television news. And nor – as anecdotal evidence, including “sting” reporting by TV3, suggests – are buyers of the drugs scrupulously age-checked by retailers.

Dunne is also fond of equating the regulatory treatment of party pills with that of alcohol, also easily obtained by the under-aged and subject to only limited control by councils. The comparison is irresponsible. Neither alcohol’s chemical formulation nor its effects on the body are a mystery. The risks of drinking are well understood, even by children. But not so the risks of party pills. Young drug-users report switching to synthetic cannabis from other options because it’s legal, leading them to assume it’s safer than real cannabis or other stimulants. This is an understandable but dangerously misleading inference which Parliament never intended when it passed the legislation.

Dunne also argues a ban would only lead to underground trafficking, beyond the scope of society’s supervision and care. He should wait across the street from any of the popular legal-high shops in working-class suburbs first thing in the morning, watch the queues of people of all ages who roll in and then shamble out, often causing fear and anxiety to other shoppers in their path, and then explain how much supervision and care his legalised system provides.

At least an underground trade, with its greater attendant risks increasing the price of the drugs, might involve fewer sales to school children.

It’s true prohibition never works and young people will always experiment. But this does not absolve the Government of the duty to set clear boundaries. We have banned methamphetamine, heroin and other Class A drugs because they are harmful. That they persist on the black market does not negate that harm or society’s responsibility to protect people from them as far as possible.

Dunne’s further argument, that it is not possible legally to enforce a ban on what are ever-changing new chemical hybrid products, is also no longer believable. Regulations give politicians and officials wide “deeming” powers over all sorts of products and issues. Why not psychoactive substances? Existing drugs on the market are officially deemed safe, even though they have been responsible for hundreds of hospitalisations here and five deaths in Australia.

Our legislators took a step in the right direction by placing the onus on the legal-high industry to prove each new formulation was not harmful. Parliament is now considering an amendment to outlaw animal testing as a means of obtaining that proof, which would neatly render safety testing unaffordable for most players in the market.

MPs could surely take one step further still: amend the law to ban all psychoactive substances and put the onus on party-pill peddlers to prove their products are not psychoactive.

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