When party pills were at their most popular in this country, the industry had an annual turnover of between $25 million and $35 million. According to the Ministry of Health, the market for legal cannabis-like products was broadly comparable.
However, as is often the case, the potential for a quick profit proved too much for some. Manufacturers had once been wise enough to make and sell their products in a low-key manner. Now, they began drawing attention to themselves by selling them in corner dairies and advertising them on youth-oriented radio stations. As is so often the case, their over-reach has led to their downfall.
The Associate Health Minister, Peter Dunne, confirmed yesterday that a new regime for party pills and fake cannabis, due to be in place by this time next year, will require makers to prove their products are safe before they can be put on the market. This, he said, would deliver the "knockout blow" to the party pill industry. He is probably largely right.
The ministry has estimated that the array of testing of a product to fulfil the onus of safety could cost the manufacturer about $1 million to $2 million, and each clinical trial could take up to two years. Further, there will be advertising and sales restrictions, probably similar to those on alcohol and tobacco. All in all, this is not somewhere most of the 10 major manufacturers of these products in New Zealand and a similar number of smaller businesses are likely to want to go.
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Already, the industry is in retreat. The Government's stop-gap policy, under which temporary 12-month bans have been placed on substances for which the health risks were unknown, has proved effective. About 50 synthetic cannabis products have been taken off the market.
This measure was introduced shortly before the last election in response to health professionals voicing concerns about the number of young people seeking treatment after using these products. The subsequent drop in use suggests that, whatever their one-time popularity, party pills and fake cannabis had fairly much run their course. Some manufacturers' blurring of lines between party pills and illicit drugs, and resultant stories from hospital emergency departments, had undoubtedly made many people nervous about results substantially more threatening to life than the customary side-effects of nausea, dehydration and lack of appetite.
Given the degree of unease, Mr Dunne has undoubtedly made the right decision. This reversing of the onus to remove unknown and untested products from the market was recommended by the Law Commission more than a year ago. Its implementation has been delayed only by the need to arrive at a fair and reasonable safety threshold for products.
The acid test of the new approach will lie in a regime that establishes its credibility by being rigorous but not rigid. While Mr Dunne seems keen to see the end of all party pills, that is not the task of the new regulator, which will be set up within the Health Ministry. Its job is to reject unsafe products while also providing the public with confidence about the risk profile of products that it deems legally available for sale.
There is good reason to approve low-risk substances. When this type of step is taken, there is always a fear that it will prompt a significant black market. That threat is reduced if products are available for those who want to consume them voluntarily at a risk to nobody but themselves. Thanks to Mr Dunne's perseverance, this is likely to be a very small group of people.