Editorial: Recreational drug control a world first

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Others watching to see if NZ law has desired result.

Photo / APN
Photo / APN

New Zealand once prided itself on being a "social laboratory" for advances in public welfare. Within a few months it will become a laboratory in every sense: for the approval of new recreational drugs. Other countries are taking a close interest in Associate Health Minister Peter Dunne's proposed licensing system for synthetic psychoactive substances, as Mr Dunne found when he addressed a United Nations Drug Convention in Vienna recently. Drug researcher Chris Wilkins told the Weekend Herald he found the same interest at a drug policy conference in Bogota, Colombia last week.

Neither Mr Dunne nor Dr Wilkins relishes the idea that New Zealand could be the first legal, regulated market for recreational drugs thanks to the Psychoactive Substances Bill before Parliament. The bill's purpose is to put a stop to present sales of untested, unregulated party drugs. It will require them to be proven safe before they can be put on sale and the regulators probably would not mind very much if their testing regime proves prohibitive.

It will certainly be expensive. The Weekend Herald reported that it will cost manufacturers $180,000 just to apply for a drug's approval and perhaps $1 million or $2 million for clinical trials that are expected to take one to two years. If they pass the tests, which will include human use, their sale will be restricted to licensed outlets. Dairies, service stations and grocery stores will not be able to stock them.

But New Zealanders need to be prepared for the possibility that the time, expense and rigour of the testing regime might not be prohibitive. The industry is said to be excited by the possibility of legal recognition. One manufacturer told Parliament's select committee his company plans a new plant to meet the bill's requirements. Dr Wilkins urged caution; no other country, he said, has gone this far.

Campaigners for the legalisation of cannabis must be watching with interest. While the law would apply only to synthetic equivalents, it might be hard to deny the same tests to naturally grown leaf.

But for regulators the "elephant in the room" is said to be not cannabis but alcohol. The Ministry of Health might set the safety standards for psychoactive substances so high that liquor would not meet them. If that is so, they would be too high, for alcohol can be used responsibly. If a party drug is found to be no more damaging than moderate consumption of beer or wine, in fairness it should be classified safe.

But if just one tablet can produce the effects that doctors in emergency rooms have described, the drug is not safe. If those effects are the result of excessive consumption, well beyond the manufacturer's advice, the regulators' task is more difficult. Consumers of party pills are predominantly young, unlike consumers of alcohol. It will be harder to base the law on reasonable and responsible use but alcohol should be the benchmark.

Under the bill party drugs approved for sale will face the same age restriction as alcohol (no sales to under-18s) and advertising would be permitted only at the place of sale. The labels would need to list every ingredient and contain a phone number for the National Poisons centre.

It will be a welcome improvement on the present law under which any new recreational drug can be sold until the authorities ban it. The bill is expected to pass by August but may be enacted sooner to get rid of those that have come on to the market while they still can. In a year or two we will see whether we have become the first place to legalise psychoactive drugs for fun.

- NZ Herald

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