Drugs Down Under: the failed experiment with legal highs

New Zealand’s attempt at a legal market for synthetic drugs was never going to work.
Kathy Gyngell | May 13 2014 | comment  



Traders who push or sell recreational drugs whether legally or illegally cannot be trusted nor can their products be made safe. That is why New Zealand’s experiment in regulating a legal high trade was always a non starter.

legal highs

 

In a week that saw more than 20 UK music festivals, including T in the Park and Bestival, putting an outright ban on the sale of legal highs by traders at their events, the New Zealand Government finally saw sense. It removed from sale 41 legal highs that it had allowed.

It is ironic that while governments around the world – not just in New Zealand – have been dithering about how to cure their legal high headache, the modern music industry has suffered from no such indecision.

The Association of Independent Festivals in no doubt as to their dangers also ordered a "digital blackout" to highlight them. The festivals' websites and social media accounts went dark for 24 hours last Monday to make the point. Music fans visiting their home pages saw a completely black window except for a grey light bulb and the message, "Don't be in the Dark about Legal Highs".

Would that governments were sending such a clear message. It is needed.

England alone has suffered 154 deaths linked to legal highs in the last five years and an 80 percent increase in just the last year. In Scotland there has been a 300 percent increase – deaths that arguably are the result of government inaction or inadequate action.

From where exactly are these drugs being sold and who is allowing their sale? No, they are not from some secretive, backstreet drug den, but from a high street shop in full view, near you or me.

Yes, “headshops” as they are called, knowingly, are in many countries openly selling drugs with names like Dr. Death, Annihilation and Toxic Waste to anybody who wishes to experiment with this recently evolved and dangerous form of drug abuse.

Yet in the UK, as in many other countries, there has been no concerted drive to stamp them out.

What the UK decided to do instead was to proceed by identifying the chemicals in reported and suspected products and, once their harms had been proven, to add them to the list of controlled drugs (under our Misuse of Drugs Act) to be banned.

It was all very correct but far too slow. One of the legal high drugs called “Spice”, for example, took scientists nine months just to work out what the drug itself contained. Even the UK’s introduction of generic bans (to catch compounds of one class like cathinones – an amphetamine mimic) has not been enough to inhibit the trade.

Far from it; the authorities here have been playing a losing game of catch-up with the producers and suppliers. As soon as one product is banned another is concocted for them to set about deciphering.

That’s one reason why New Zealand decided to go it alone and lead an experiment in regulating this trade.

The idea of its “pioneering” Psychoactive Substances Act (unsurprisingly much praised by the legalizing drugs lobby), passed last year, was to reverse the onus of responsibility from the government to the manufacturers and suppliers to prove that the substances they traded were “low risk”.

As a part of the transitional stage of this legislation, interim approval was given for 41 products that had not come to notice as causing harm prior to the Act being passed. The rationale was that by providing these with interim approval a black market in the sale of all the other withdrawn products would be avoided. The assumption was too that the suppliers of the remaining 41 would ensure their safety.

It was optimistic, if not naive.

New Zealand soon found its young people – always the least risk averse of age groups and the most vulnerable – were still the guinea pigs of the legal high manufacturers’ scientific experimentation. Within weeks of the legislation, these licensed products were causing major problems with users. Calls to the National Poisons Centre spiked and accident and emergency wards around the country were inundated with individuals suffering all manner of severe physical and psychological reactions.

The very real harms caused by these licensed products had exposed the New Zealand approach as a non-starter. What is more a furious and frustrated public had had enough. Their outcry culminated in organised protests marches up and down the country and calls for all products to be banned.

So last week, finally, in response to public disquiet, the government amended its legislation: cancelling all interim licenses; removing all psychoactive products previously given interim approval from sale; and making it illegal to possess and supply these product until they can pass the requisite clinical trials to prove they are “low risk”.

How they are to do this remains a moot point, especially if animal testing as used by pharmaceutical testing is banned.

That aside, the moral of this tale is clear: any naive hope that this legislation would act as a ban by other means is dead. The idea that drug makers would be put out of business by having to spend millions of dollars on clinical trials was and is pie in the sky. So too is any idea of regulation delivering only safe products that, passing the “low risk” test, would be incapable of causing the “high” that ultimately leads to addiction. 

Who, anyway, would want these?

All this should be a wake-up call to governments around the world. The lessons are that regulation will inevitably allow ongoing sale of highly dangerous substances; there is no public appetite for the regulation of these poisons; and nothing should compromise clear messages as to their dangers.

Several governments have yet to pay attention to these lessons.

In the UK legal high retailers have formed a trade body to press for regulation to sell "low harm" versions of drugs. And thanks to a BBC that is very uncritical as far as drugs legalisation is concerned, they recently won prime news airtime to promote their cause.

Last week, too, the UK’s very liberal crime prevention minister, Norman Baker, beggared belief by stating, "We haven't got a closed mind about any option and all are still being considered,” though at least the Home Office has ruled out the licensing of headshops.

So far it appears he has not considered the one viable alternative -- the one that takes a leaf out of the music industry’s book. It is, to ban all trade and close down all headshops. It is an approach already adopted by Portugal and Ireland where it has had a significant impact. 

Yes, it means that Governments are condemned to be ever vigilant in fighting this noxious trade. They are anyway. But the alternative is not on, as New Zealand now proves, if young lives are not to be abandoned to experimentation with these hideous "highs".

Kathy Gyngell is Editor of The CONSERVATIVE WOMAN  



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