By Ross Bell

It's been a tragic month. Nine people have lost their lives in Auckland after using what is commonly known as "synthetic cannabis" (better described as dried leaves sprayed with any of a range of untested psychoactive substances).

On top of that tragedy, there have been as many as two dozen people per day presenting to emergency services, and no one yet knows what long term health and mental health effects those people will suffer.

We owe it to those who have died to use this as a wake-up call. That means taking a good hard look at both the handling of this crisis and the wider legal context that led to the situation we're now in.

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Firstly, let's look at Prime Minister Bill English's response. His take was that this is a police matter and a matter of personal responsibility, along the lines of "don't take drugs folks, they're not only dangerous, they're also illegal".

This wholly inadequate response is at odds with New Zealand's national drug policy passed by his own cabinet, which places drug use issues squarely in their public health and social context.

It recognises that people take drugs for a range of reasons, including to escape from the effects of unbearable physical or emotional pain, or because they have become dependent. It should be pretty obvious by now that we can't stop people taking drugs simply by telling them not to.

Instead we need to provide people with the information they need to make informed decisions. People need to know which drugs are causing this specific crisis, where they have been purchased, in what time frame, and what kind of packaging are they most likely to be in.

Of course that is not as straightforward as it would be if this was say, a crisis caused by a bad supermarket cheese. There's no regulation, no quality control and no clear retail pathways for this kind of product. Police are no doubt struggling to find out some of the basic information that people need to know to avert further tragedy.

However, it's clear the police have information that they are not sharing, and this is of serious concern. Instead of clear informative reports we've been fed confused messages, later retracted, about weed killer and rat poison being added to products.

One key learning from all of this is the importance of ensuring that if (when) this happens again, we can act fast to stop it. The Government has agreed we need an early warning system to monitor emerging drug trends and ensure people are informed about how to avoid anything deadly. We need strong leadership and funding to ensure this happens quickly.

Taking a step further back, we have a more fundamental issue; our drug law is a dinosaur. When the Misuse of Drugs Act 1975 was put in place, all the commonly used recreational drugs in New Zealand could be listed on one side of A4. Now we have upwards of 700 substances potentially reaching our shores, with no way to monitor or regulate them for potency or quality.

Drug use is first and foremost a health and social issue, which means we need a modern drug law that supports a health approach. Our new model drug law, Whakawatea te Huarahi, proposes removing criminal penalties for personal possession and use of all drugs, in line with the Law Commission's 2011 recommendations.

Fear of prosecution stops people accessing help when they need it. The same fear stops them telling police about toxic batches of drugs when they come on to the market. Instead of prosecution, let's offer those struggling with drug use treatment and other services to get their lives back on track.

Also key is to get the Psychoactive Substances Act 2013 working as it was intended and regulate substances for sale that can be shown to have a low risk of harm.

Would a functioning Act have eliminated this crisis? Possibly not, there will always be dangerous drugs entering the market, and there will inevitably be deaths from time to time. But there's a compelling argument that a regulated market for low risk substances would have steered some people away from danger.

And let's not forget there's a social justice element here. The people taking these cheap, poisonous products are largely young, poor and marginalised, and they're not being protected. Wealthy, middle-aged people take plenty of drugs too, it's just that they can afford better ones.

We can't keep relying on "just say no" as a model, it's irresponsible. Our job as a caring society is to seek to mitigate and reduce harms by developing emergency response systems, getting mature legislation in place and addressing the underlying causes of drug use. It's something we should do without further delay.

• Ross Bell is executive director of the NZ Drug Foundation.