Maybe it was something Associate Health Minister Peter Dunne slipped into the parliamentary water jugs last year that, for a brief moment, sparked an uncommon flash of far-sightedness from our lawmakers. They voted 119-1 to create a regulated market for scientifically approved synthetic recreational drugs.

It was a brief flashback to the late 1890s, when pioneering legislation earned New Zealand a worldwide reputation as the "social laboratory of the world".

Turning his back on decades of failed attempts here and abroad to ban unwanted drugs, Mr Dunne persuaded MPs to create a legal market for "low-risk" drugs instead. "The problem in the past has been that we had a totally unregulated market with who-knows-what substances in these products.

"I am quite unapologetic about leading changes that will make things safer for young New Zealanders."


It was a watershed moment, but this week, with no market structure yet in sight and election day looming, the politicians took fright. Prime Minister John Key confessed on television that he couldn't bring himself to approve legislation that might involve drug testing on rabbits. Rats maybe, he said, but bunnies, no way.

Labour was having none of such equivocation, leader David Cunliffe sternly declaring that under Labour, rodents would be spared as well.

Next week the Government, backed by Labour, will rush through legislation to slap a ban on the 42 lowest-risk "legal highs" that have been allowed to remain on the market temporarily until the new regulated regime was put in place.

This instant and total ban will drive the synthetic cannabis trade underground, and no doubt revive the trade at the traditional illegal tinny houses. It will also encourage law-breaking among a new group in society.

The politicians have been panicked by reports of the deleterious side-effects on some users of the "low-risk" drugs. In particular, their powerful addictive qualities. Instead of driving the stuff underground then, the sensible move should have been to fast-track the proposed market, thereby ensuring the drugs being smoked by young New Zealanders have been tested and are "safe". If the politicians seriously believe they can stem the tide of synthetic cannabis and other manufactured drugs, why haven't they gone to the main source, our largest trading partner, China.

With our new milk-drinking friends seeming, at times, excessively pernickety about the contents of the white powder we ship in vast quantities to them, why haven't we done the same about the various coloured powders that fetch up here by return post?

The United Nations World Drug Report 2013 spells it out, stating "most of the new psychoactive substances found on the European market are ... imported from China and, to a lesser degree, from India." Perhaps it is time to send Justice Minister Judith Collins back to China for another private tete-a-tete with that unnamed senior border official. If an authoritarian one-party state like China can't control the manufacture and trade of untested and unproven recreational drugs, what chance New Zealand?

The Psychoactive Substances Act passed last July was a blow for common sense. The underlying premise was that decades of trying to ban recreational drugs - alcohol excluded - by criminalising all involved had failed. Here was an attempt to bring recreational drug users in from the cold by regulating for a safe and legal "high".

The Drug Foundation says almost half of New Zealanders aged 16 to 64 have used cannabis at some time and one in seven (14.6 per cent) in that age group had used it in the previous 12 months. That's based on a 2008 survey. Of the users, one in seven indulged daily.

That was the year that synthetic cannabis erupted out of the laboratories and on to the world stage. In New Zealand, many cannabis users moved across to the lawful unregulated synthetic product in preference to breaking the law.

What the Dunne legislation concedes is that it's part of the human condition to seek "highs". Some do it by climbing mountains or bungy jumping. Others by experimenting with drugs. It's been going on forever. Cannabis, betel nuts, kava, opium, datura. You name it and our ancestors experimented with smoking and supping and brewing and distilling plant-based products looking for a fix.

One researcher whose work has been pirated is David E. Nichols, emeritus professor of pharmacology at Purdue University in Indiana, who worries about the ill-effects of the misuse of his experimental formulas.

In journalist Mike Power's pioneering investigation into the drug culture, Drugs 2.0, the professor calls on governments to "legalise the safe ones. Mushrooms, mescaline and peyote, all have been used for thousands of years and have been shown to be safe. And marijuana, the most widely used drug in the US."

If that had been done, there wouldn't be any of the synthetics, "which are far more dangerous". He says cannabis should be regarded as "an intoxicant" and sold as such alongside alcohol.

Given Parliament's present mood, such a move is not likely next week. Let's just hope the market experiment survives.

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