Associate Health Minister Peter Dunne's plan for a government-approved legal-high industry breaks new ground. It, therefore, also raises new problems. One already the subject of public discussion is the safety threshold to be applied to party pills and synthetic cannabis products in comparison to that governing other recreational drugs, especially alcohol. Now, further debate is being stirred by the place of animal testing in the process that makers of legal highs will have to undertake to have their substance proved low risk before sale.
Both animal testing and human trials were envisaged by health officials when Mr Dunne outlined his plan. They believed there would be as many as 10 applications to have substances classified in the first year after the new regime is introduced. Unsurprisingly, that figure has tweaked the interest of animal rights groups. They point, quite correctly, to an ethical issue in the use of animals for this purpose. It is one thing to carry out experiments on animals when there will be a benefit in human wellbeing. It is an entirely different matter to involve animals when the product will be used simply for recreation.
Mr Dunne says he has a great deal of sympathy for the view that it is sad to test legal highs on animals, as opposed to testing necessary medicines. He is still to decide on the amount of testing of party pills on animals, but notes that "human safety is the paramount consideration". Even so, it seems unreasonable to kill or harm animals to achieve that end in this situation. Clinical trials involving willing people, as originally prescribed as part of the process, are a far more palatable prescription.
Indeed, the use of animals in such a context should not win the approval of the National Animal Ethics Advisory Committee. Its job is to analyse whether the harm to animals is justified by the benefit that would come from the use of the product. In some arenas, such as cosmetics, that benefit is already being increasingly questioned. In this case, it seems unconscionable, especially as any testing may also prove ineffective. According to expert opinion, animal testing is able to show if a drug is poisonous or causes cancer, but will contribute little in terms of establishing whether it causes psychotic episodes in humans.
The case for banning the use of animals becomes even stronger in the context of the number being used for research. Last year, 327,674 were used for this purpose, testing and teaching, a 35.3 per cent jump on the previous 12 months. This included more than 1000 dogs, of which 12 per cent died or were put down. The increase seems out of kilter with an environment in which increasing attention is being paid to animal welfare, and cruel practices are coming under greater scrutiny. To kill animals for a product used only for recreation would be equally incongruous.
Mr Dunne has already ruled out a test in which doses of a drug are given to a sample group of animals until half the test group dies. Other testing may be less ruthless, but harm is an integral part of any animal testing. Testing for the impact of party pills should come nowhere near to meeting the ethical standard demanded in this country. Mr Dunne should rule it out, and instruct pill makers to restrict their trials to humans. First, though, the National Animal Ethics Advisory Committee should make its opposition clear. This is not an instance where the national interest offers a valid reason for a minister to disregard its advice.