Ross Bell: Law change a comedown for legal high industry

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New Zealand has been dealing with new and novel psychoactive substances for longer than any other country. Photo / Sarah Ivey
New Zealand has been dealing with new and novel psychoactive substances for longer than any other country. Photo / Sarah Ivey

If Star Trek has taught me anything, it is that sometimes you need to change the rules in order to win. When faced with his third attempt at a no-win situation, the Kobayashi Maru test, Captain Kirk reprogrammed the simulator to allow him to take control of the situation.

While Peter Dunne may not quite be a young Captain Kirk, the Psychoactive Substances Act, which he is responsible for implementing, is the legislative equivalent of rewiring the Kobayashi Maru.

New Zealand has been dealing with new and novel psychoactive substances for longer than any other country. These first appeared in 2001, since then governments have repeatedly failed in attempts to ban this problem away because the legal high industry simply creates new chemicals to evade bans.

This has led to a perverse outcome: banning substances has resulted in replacement products getting more and more harmful.

The first substances were chemically similar to drugs we knew. They got banned and a new substance, slightly tweaked, came out, we banned that one, another tweak - a cycle which is all now too familiar. In less than five years we moved from products that were causing little harm to ones that were causing people's kidneys to shut down.

No country has been able to create a definition which captures everything, or in some way stops manufacturers labelling their products "plant food" or "bath salts". No country has succeeded in banning away these new drugs.

A Narcotics Anonymous book says insanity is doing the same thing over and over again expecting a different result. So while the people calling the Government "wimpish" for failing to ban these drugs have their hearts in the right place, their solution has proven to be ineffective, and has in some instances increased the harm that new drugs are causing.

We share the frustration of communities. It is heart-wrenching to see, day after day, stories about young New Zealanders who have become dependent on these substances. However, the Psychoactive Substances Act is not the gutless law that many suppose it to be. In fact, we now have more control over these drugs than ever before.

Since the introduction of the Psychoactive Substances Act in July last year, the number of retailers has declined from 4000 to fewer than 200 - they are no longer sold in your dairy. The number of products has decreased from more than 200 to fewer than 40. We now have a way of enforcing who can sell and what they can sell. Those are tangible wins. More intangible wins come with shifting costs on to the makers of new substances.

Retailers, wholesalers, and manufacturers now need to apply and pay for licenses. The costs of testing of products have to be met by industry, a cost which was previously borne by taxpayers. We can now regulate the industry. We've described them as cowboys, but there is now a legislative lasso around them to ensure there are sanctions for selling to under 18s, sanctions for selling dangerous unapproved products, and limits on what they can sell and how they sell it.

Extra regulations due later this year will add more power to the law: Product labelling will mean consumers will finally know what they're taking. Dosage can be controlled and products sold in childproof containers. Retail opening hours can be reduced, and extra rules added quickly in reaction to any emerging problems.

Councils have an important part to play in this. The local approved products plan should not be seen as an opportunity to ban the sale of psychoactive substances. This will only push the problem elsewhere and force people to the black market.

When it was passed last year the new law was praised by many newspapers who called it a world first, noting that the testing process put the onus of proof on to producers, and that the sale of these products would be severely limited. These things are proving to be true yet all we see in our papers are stories claiming the law isn't working.

New Zealand has changed the rules. We stopped banging our heads against the wall and created an innovative approach to dealing with new psychoactive substances. So far it has been the most successful piece of legislation globally in reducing harm being caused by these substances. Let's all take a breath, remind ourselves of the last 10 years of failed bans, and keep an open mind about this new law designed to tackle this new challenge.

Ross Bell is the executive director of the New Zealand Drug Foundation.

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