Get your (ultra mild) legal highs here

By Andrew Laxon

Sales of synthetic cannabis at corner dairies will soon disappear under a radical law change. Is this the end for the legal highs industry - or is New Zealand about to create the world's first lawful market for recreational drugs? Andrew Laxon reports

Community leaders have been outraged by the opening of a new High Zone drug store in Manurewa.  Photo / Natalie Slade
Community leaders have been outraged by the opening of a new High Zone drug store in Manurewa. Photo / Natalie Slade

The man in the beanie sidles up as I stand at the counter, looking at Thai High "herbal incense" and various other brands of synthetic cannabis.

You want some real stuff?

What do you mean?

Weed.

Where?

Outside.

How much?

Twenty.

Our current drug laws don't make a lot of sense. Here in the High Zone, a pokey little shop in Manurewa's main shopping street, I can legally spend about $20 on a pack of smokeable synthetic cannabis, described as highly addictive and likely to lead to methamphetamine-style violence or psychotic episodes in many users. But if I follow this unauthorised local drug dealer on to the street and pay the same price for the natural version, I could be arrested, fined or jailed for up to three months.

The open sale of dangerous drugs at shops like this has provoked a huge national backlash. Only two weeks ago staff cowered behind the counter as hundreds of protesters chanted outside. Manurewa police say the shop is a magnet for crime - a 14-year-old boy broke in to steal products, two boys aged 9 and 10 vomited and ended up in hospital after they were forced to take the drug by older boys and police believe the drug was linked to a recent suicide attempt. Horror stories about synthetic cannabis make headlines almost daily, including a Timaru 14-year-old who tried the drug and had a heart attack and a Dunedin man whose son threw him around the house "like paper" as he tried to go cold turkey.

Communities can't take out their anger at the shadowy manufacturers, who trade under names like Stargate and Light Years, but they've made it clear what they think of the sellers. As Timaru Mayor Janie Annear told politicians this month, "Once upon a time the dairies used to be the family friend ... now they're our drug dealers."

Until now the Government has been caught flat-footed because every time it banned a new drug, the makers tweaked the chemical formula to produce a new one not covered by the law. "Since we introduced the first of the temporary bans in August 2011, I've banned 33 separate substances, 51 or 52 different products and they keep being reformulated and reappearing," says Associate Health Minister Peter Dunne. "I'd keep having products tested and banning substances and we'd just go on in a never-ending cat-and-mouse game."

The game has been going on for more than a decade, starting with GHB, also known as Fantasy, in 2000. It was responsible for one death, several rapes and dozens of hospital admission in the two years it took authorities to classify it as illegal. GHB was rapidly replaced by BZP-based party pills, which became a $25 million-$35 million a year legal industry until BZP was banned in 2008. The designer drug industry rapidly moved on to synthetic cannabis products, often laced with other drugs, such as Kronic (banned in 2011) and now K2, which was banned this month but instantly replaced with a new version.

Fed up with the industry's trickery, Dunne has changed tactics with a world-first law change that will force drug manufacturers to prove their products are low-risk before they can go on sale. His Psychoactive Substances Bill, expected to become law by August 1 or earlier, will require drugmakers to pay for a series of clinical trials, including tests on human subjects. The approval process for each product is expected to take between one and two years. It will cost companies $180,000 just to apply and an estimated $1 million to $2 million for the tests. Current products can stay on the shelves only if they apply to be tested within the first month.

Dunne describes the law change as a knockout blow to an industry that has proved time and time again that it cannot be trusted. At the very least it should wipe out the corner dairy drug trade, putting an end to politically embarrassing news stories as the Government heads into election year.

But the bill also has the potential to create the world's first legal, regulated market for recreational drugs. If a drug passes the clinical tests, it will be approved and can be legally sold. There are a raft of restrictions - including no sales to under-18s, no advertising except where the product is sold, labels listing every ingredient and the phone number for the National Poisons centre - but New Zealand appears to be going boldly where the rest of the world fears to tread.

Opinion is divided on whether this will actually happen. Drug policy reformers, who believe the United States-led global war on drugs has been a costly failure, are excited at the idea of ending more than a century of prohibition (opium was the first drug banned here, in 1901). Despite repeated assurances by Government ministers that cannabis laws will not be relaxed, they see the law change in the context of drug liberalisation overseas; Portugal decriminalised drug possession in 2001 and two US states, Colorado and Washington, have decriminalised the possession of cannabis. The New Zealand Drug Foundation, which opposes current drug laws as unworkable, strongly supports the "world-leading" bill as a pragmatic, innovative solution to a problem vexing legislators around the world. Libertarian Herald on Sunday columnist Damien Grant described it as stunning legislation, signalling the end of the war on drugs. The law change could also be seen as vindication for the Law Commission, whose 2011 report advocating sweeping reform of drug laws was dismissed out-of-hand by then-Justice Minister Simon Power. One of the commission's main proposals, along with a three strikes regime to decriminalise cannabis possession, has become the model for Dunne's current law.

The alternative view is that very few drugs, if any, are likely to get through the demanding testing regime. Dunne has deliberately left the definition of "low risk" up to an expert committee but the process would follow the steps used for medical drugs. Any new drug would first be tested for toxicity (how poisonous it is) on several levels, including a single dose, repeat doses and the drug's long-term effects on the body's functions, such as liver and kidneys, and genetic make-up, which could include cancer-causing properties. Makers would then have to prove "general quality" requirements, such as consistent dose and purity - a big issue for an industry which was caught two years ago adding a strong prescription-only sedative to synthetic cannabis. Human clinical trials would follow, then a final assessment of the relative risks and benefits of the drug.

Documents obtained by the Herald last year under the Official Information Act show Dr Stewart Jessamine, head of the Government's medicine safety regulator, Medsafe, worried that the requirements could be portrayed as a de facto ban - a phrase echoed by Norml (National Organisation for the Reform of Marijuana Laws) campaigner Chris Fowlie in his submission to the select committee. Online drug-seller MindFuel predicted the trade would die off, as no manufacturer would be prepared to spend $2 million and wait up to two years to win approval for a product so mild that few people would buy it.

Industry spokesman Grant Hall, general manager of the Star Trust lobby group for drug manufacturers, is also predicting a big cleanout.

"I think the benchmark will be set very high, not many will get through and there will be a huge rationalisation of the industry.

"A lot of products will just leave the market from August 1."

Hall says drugmakers are willing to accept the setback if the high standard is based on scientific evidence, not political prejudice. But he says if the bar is set too high, possibly by politicial interference, the bill will fail because drug users will turn back to the gangs and the black market.

Dunne agrees that the number of approved substances is likely to be low and successful products could be on the mild side, precisely because they must be low-risk. He acknowledges that might drive some users to buy illicit drugs for a bigger high.

"That's always possible, but what do you do? If you go for a complete prohibition - even if that were possible to achieve given the nature of the substances - that's exactly what you drive up. If you simply let the status quo prevail, you've got a totally intolerable situation. If you say we'll just ban dangerous substances, then we're forever chasing our tail. So we need a circuit-breaker and I see this legislation very much as that."

Massey University drug researcher Dr Chris Wilkins warns that because the law change is so far ahead of other countries, we should move slowly and cautiously.

Speaking from the Colombian capital of Bogota last week after presenting a paper on the New Zealand bill to an International Society for the Study of Drug Policy conference, Wilkins said the strong interest from other countries was tempered by wariness over whether the change would work in practice. "I think there's potentially some positive outcomes but there's a lot of unknowns. We don't have to go full steam ahead."

Despite rough calculations by the Ministry of Health that there could be 24 approved products on the market within four years, he would like to see only one approval a year until the law is reviewed in five years, to keep a lid on any unforeseen consequences.

Wilkins says no one knows whether the legal sale of psychoactive drugs will increase or decrease the illicit drug trade, as no other country has established a legal market. The move might draw people away from hard drugs and weaken the criminal trade, as reformers argue, or it might give people a taste for something stronger.

He has several concerns about the testing regime, noting that it took decades to prove tobacco caused cancer and several more decades to overcome the industry's denials.

"The tests need to be very strict, otherwise we've got a public health problem."

Wilkins agrees that the industry should pay for all testing but says the Ministry of Health-based regulator must appoint independent researchers to stop companies from manipulating the results.

A common trick in medical drug trials, he says, is to carry out a study with a small group of healthy people, which shows no side effects. Clinical trials of recreational drugs will need to be tested on thousands of people, including those with heart conditions and mental illness, to make sure rare but potentially dangerous reactions are picked up.

Along with emergency medicine specialists, Wilkins urges realistic testing that mimics the way people use synthetic drugs - frequently above the recommended dose and combined with alcohol.

The irony of turning down new drugs but not applying the same public safety test to alcohol, which is estimated to cause $5 billion of harm a year, has not been lost on critics. Asked for expert comment on the proposal last year, Professor Doug Sellman of the National Addictions Centre called it "the elephant in the room" and ministry policy analyst Mark Heffernan acknowledged, "I think it will be necessary to set the bar for approval at a level that alcohol would not meet."

The Government has sidestepped this inconsistency by excluding alcohol and tobacco from the legislation. Dunne replies, "You could argue in both cases that if we knew then what we know now, we would never have embarked down that path but that's a very, very long time ago. I guess the point I would make is, that doesn't mean we should repeat the same mistakes with regard to synthetics."

Hall also thinks the Government has underestimated the power of online drug supermarkets such as Silk Road, which allow users to buy in bitcoin, a virtual currency, using hidden servers that keep their identities anonymous.

"You can buy everything from illicits to legal highs online right now and many tens of thousands of Kiwis are doing that daily - the ones who don't want to brave the picket line down at the local dairy.

"You look at what's available, it's just staggering. I mean, people are buying LSD online."

Dunne says internet sales from overseas sites will be banned but sales from local sites will be permitted. The buyer's age will be checked from credit card details, as already occurs on lottery and gaming sites.

He says the Government will not levy any excise tax on the drugs at this stage - a decision widely criticised in select committee submissions - but adds it's "distinctly possible" after the five-year review.

Dunne says when he addressed the United Nations drugs convention in Vienna in March on his plans, it led to discussions with Ireland, Britain, the United States, France, Canada, Australia and Russia. "They're all very keen to see how this legislation works in New Zealand with a view to doing something similar in their own countries."

Wilkins reports a similar reaction in Bogota.

"There's lot of people coming up and saying we've got our eyes on New Zealand as the test case. That puts a greater onus on us to get it right."

However, he worries about "repeating the mistakes" of light-handed tobacco and alcohol regulation and hopes children and young people will not end up as unwitting guinea pigs if the safety provisions prove ineffective.

"Let's treat it like a limited experiment. But let's be cautious about it because we might find out that it doesn't work."

- NZ Herald

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