The solution for doing away with legal highs is a strong community, Todd McLay the Associate Minister of Health said in Dannevirke this week.
In the town to meet a parent of a 17-year-old struggling to come off synthetic cannabis, local community groups, social agencies and the police, on the eve of Parliament debating the final stages of his Psychoactive Substances Bill, Mr McClay said he was well aware of the harm the so-called legal highs were doing in our community.
"These drugs are causing considerable concern to parents in towns like Dannevirke. A mum with first hand knowledge of the personal suffering and addiction problems which have arisen as a result of her son's use of these psychoactive substances tells me the sooner this dangerous muck is regulated and out of our dairies and corner stores, the better," he said.
"The bill is expected to pass its third and final reading in Parliament today and once it becomes law, all so-called legal highs will be immediately removed from dairies and non-specialist shops, with strict prohibitions on the sale to, possession and consumption by, under 18-year-olds."
Gavin Smith, a member of the youth offending team, said he'd had the parents of 14, 15, 16, and 17-year-olds coming to him asking if they can tell their children to go back onto marijuana.
"They thought because synthetic cannabis was legal, it was safe," he said.
"However, I do believe the issue of legal highs has brought the community together and people are actually starting to talk with neighbours about these issues. Youth offending can be linked to alcohol and drugs and synthetic cannabis has infiltrated in to society as a normal part of our culture. We've got to put the onus back on the sellers."
Mr McClay said it will be a few days before the bill becomes law, but then dairies, supermarkets, petrol stations, corner stores and places where alcohol is sold, will be banned from selling the product, with up to a $10,000 fine for an individual and up to $50,000 for a business caught breaking the law.
On Tuesday Tararua District mayor Roly Ellis and senior constable Wayne Churchouse, the youth aid officer for the Dannevirke Police, visited the three local outlets believed to be selling synthetic cannabis, alerting them to the passage of the bill.
"I hope we fired a shot across their bows, because we'll be back visiting them again late next week," Mr Ellis said. Mr Ellis was also worried about a black market developing once product was off the shelves.
Mr McClay said his number one priority was to ensure the risks from these products are absolutely minimal.
"I hear on a daily basis from doctors and nurses in hospital emergency departments and mental health units just how much damage and suffering these products have done, particularly to our young people. With this legislation we are putting those who profit from this harm on notice," he said.
And even as the bill becomes law, communities continue to work with police to put in place local measures to end legal highs being sold.
"The Waikato town of Putaruru is the most recent example of this and it echoes the same concerns being heard loud and clear in Dannevirke and other Wairarapa electorate towns. I wholeheartedly endorse these community calls for action," Mr McClay said. "I applaud the action we've seen taken by a community like Dannevirke, such as declaring the Dannevirke High School a legal high free zone, and the poster campaigns saying 'No to Legal Highs'.
"Where communities have spoken they have increasingly been successful in having products removed from local shelves. The Psychoactive Substances Bill will back these local communities by giving new powers to councils to further restrict the sale and availability of legal highs."
Lieutenant Rob van Abs, of the Salvation Army, said although one Dannevirke businessman was at first willing to remove stock from his shelves, he remained actively selling.
Three outlets in Dannevirke and two in Pahiatua have been identified as selling the product and Mr McClay said he realised outlets were making a lot of money from the sale of legal highs.
Profit wasn't worth the grief and harm synthetic cannabis did, he said. "For any retailer who doesn't care about the rules when the law is in place, then the full force of the law will hold them to account. Ignorance of the law will not be an excuse."
Local MP John Hayes said he was looking forward to the bill becoming law. "Communities in my electorate are fed up with these products being sold in their corner dairies and I know the whole community will be supportive," he said.
"I'm calling on the suppliers, distributors and corner store retailers to take these products off their shelves immediately. This is a test that will show in a tangible way they can be at least socially responsible."