Pubdate: Tue, 29 Apr 2014
Source: New Zealand Herald (New Zealand)
Copyright: 2014 New Zealand Herald


New Zealand's nine-month experiment with "legal highs" is over. The
Government's decision to cancel interim licences for synthetic
cannabis is a response to a public outcry that has left all sides
wiser. Nearly all parties in Parliament voted for the licensing regime
last July. The Psychoactive Substances Act passed by 119-1. The
solitary MP who has been vindicated by events is Act's John Banks.

All other parties accepted the idea that drug regulation was
preferable to prohibition and that some of the manufactured "party
drugs" that have appeared in the past six years would be capable of
passing a reasonable safety test. The lawmakers were so confident on
that score that they wrote an interim licence into the legislation so
that not all brands would be taken off the market while rules for
clinical trials are finalised.

Of about 200 brands of synthetic cannabis previously on sale, 42 have
been granted interim licences since July. It is not clear how health
officials decided the 42 were relatively harmless.

If they were not among the products whose users had previously arrived
at hospital emergency clinics, reports of human damage have not ceased
since July.

The mother of a Tauranga youth who committed suicide after smoking the
drug had nearly 30,000 supporters on her Facebook page calling for a
ban. People have marched in the streets of 23 towns around the
country. Newspapers and television programmes have featured pitiable
cases of addicted users and damaged families.

In the face of the mounting evidence, the Government is right to
retreat. Its mistake was to listen to advice that some untested
products could be assumed to be safe. It may be that the number of
synthetic-cannabis casualties is no greater than the ratio of alcohol
users who cannot safely consume society's most popular recreational
drug, but legalisation should have waited until the risk could be assessed.

The Ministry of Health was given a year from July to finalise its
clinical trials. They are expected to be as rigorous and expensive as
those for medicine, though the bar will not be as high. To be
approved, they can carry "low risk" which, the ministry says, will not
mean no risk.

Associate Health Minister Peter Dunne insists the backtrack on interim
licences does not amount to prohibition, which he has argued does not
work. But prohibition does work in so far as it deters some people
from using a substance that could do them harm. Mr Dunne wonders why
he did not hear of the harm done by these products in the years before
they were regulated. Quite likely, users were on the stronger products

When Parliament next week passes a bill revoking interim licences for
these substances, they will be prohibited for the foreseeable future.
It will take years for any of them to be proven low risk, if indeed
the ministry can devise a testing regime. That task is taking an
eternity. It will be more difficult if the use of animals is properly
forbidden for trials of recreational drugs.

Licensing can be effective when it is limited to standards of safety
or quality for a product and its suppliers. But if licensing also
seeks to control the number and location of outlets for the product,
perverse consequences can follow. Councils tend to approve outlets for
the likes of drugs and gambling in poor communities, and limit the
number so severely that users become highly visible in the few
unfortunate places.

Parliament took a brave, experimental step nine months ago. When it
takes a step back next week, all parties will be obliged to admit they
misjudged the community's tolerance of this unseemly trade.
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MAP posted-by: Matt