New Zealand shrinks away from legal high limelight

Manufacturers aim to reap maximum profit in the minimal time before it is banned, so poorly developed NPS are thrown on the market in vast quantities with little regard to their effects. Meanwhile, prohibition simply forces a black market.

E. Rice
27 May 2014

New Zealand announced at the beginning of May that they were removing all legal highs from the shelves within the next couple of weeks.

The announcement came after repeated lobbying from the public in regards to the new Psychoactive Substances Act that was passed last year. The Act aimed to regulate new psychoactive substances (NPS) by restricting sales to those substances that can be shown to be of low risk to users. It was passed with almost total consensus.

In the interim period, while the exact regulations, such as how to measure ‘low risk’, were ironed out, 41 new psychoactive substances (NPS) that an expert committee deemed to have caused little harm were allowed to remain on the shelves. But an increase in harm-related reports since this time was, apparently, what caused health secretary Peter Dunne to revoke these interim drugs.

NPS also known as ‘legal highs’, ‘designer drugs’ and ‘research chemicals’ are designed to produce similar effects to common illicit drugs such as cocaine, ecstasy and cannabis. A plethora of NPS exploded during the 2000s, providing a legal, cheap and accessible method of drug taking.

The United Nations estimates that there are now more than 250 NPS on sale. European law enforcement agency, Europol, found NPS had tripled in three years, and were arriving on the market at the rate of one or more each week. These drugs have become fashionable, with surveys suggesting one in 10 Britons, for example, try them each year.


Legal highs on sale in London. Image: Flickr/ Aleks Biocko

They are sold on the internet and in shops, often disguised under obscure names like ‘bath salts’ and ‘plant foods’. They don’t show up on drug tests. And if one gets banned, another is right there to take its place. Drug consumers all over the world have found an answer to their problems.

Except they are a problem. Because nobody really knows what these substances do.

According to The Office for National Statistics (ONS), 52 deaths in England and Wales were linked with NPS in 2012; that’s an increase of 80% since 2011. In the US, more than 11,000 emergency visits have been specifically linked to NPS.

Last year’s survey of US teenagers by the National Institute on Drug Abuse found K2 and Spice to be the second most used illicit drug. K2 and Spice are types of synthetic cannabinoids, an NPS designed to mimic cannabis. They have been known to bring on numerous side effects, including, but in no way limited to psychosis, seizures and dependence. The Global Drug Survey (2014) found that compared to traditional cannabis, the user was 30 times more likely to seek emergency medical treatment. The implications of acute use on health remains badly understood, and even less is known about the long-term effects. This leaves a gap in direct treatments for problems.

Stephen Bright, who teaches addiction studies at Curtin University, Australia, believes the extra health risks occur because synthetic cannabinoids do not contain the naturally occurring anti-psychotic and anti-convulsive chemicals that cannabis does. Yet despite the mounting evidence to support cannabis as a safer choice, the law remains at conflict with the evidence.

Whatever the dangers of cannabis, ecstasy and cocaine, at least they are better known. Years of research has provided a far better knowledge of how they affect users than that of NPS. Research takes time, and it is struggling to keep up with the constantly changing compositions of these psychoactive substances. These popular drugs are easier to obtain, but they are potentially more harmful, with their risks unknown. If there is any link between perceived safety and legality, NPS are doing a sterling job of blurring it.

Mephedrone, the drug that really put NPS on the map, was banned in 2010. Instead of disappearing from use after it was made illegal, it moved to illicit street trade. A development of unsanctioned alternatives appeared, with increased range, potency, profile and availability. Two years after its embargo, the ONS recorded triple the amount of deaths involving cathinones such as mephedrone.

Policy makers all over the world are struggling to deal with the influx of NPS because the chemical compositions are adjusted so that manufacturers can fit within the constraints of the law. As soon as one substance is banned, another is released, and a cat and mouse game has ensued, with producers always staying one step ahead of the law.

Ireland’s response has been to blanket ban the sales of NPS, but an EU survey found, a year after the ban, the Irish had a higher proportion of young people trying NPS than any other country.

In Australia, NSW have also made it easier to ban a substance, as long as it can be shown to have psychoactive effects. Weeks after the ban, NPS were still to be found online and shipped into the country.

The UK has introduced a Temporary Control Drug Order, which can quickly ban a substance for up to 12 months, allowing the government time to take control of it. Manufacturers aim to reap maximum profit in the minimal time before it is banned, so poorly developed NPS are thrown on the market in vast quantities with little regard to their effects.

New Zealand has a longstanding problem with NPS. Their global placement means that conventional illicit drugs are not easily come by, and homemade ones, like BZP, or ‘party pills’, have always played a major hand. Seasoned failures at the prohibition game, New Zealand tried a new approach.

The Psychoactive Substances Act (2013) means that not only will NPS be subjected to rigorous testing before they can be sold, restrictions are placed on licensed sellers. Dosage and strength limits are exacted. Drug manufacturers and suppliers names and addresses are published. Advertising is banned and packaging carries health warnings. The NPS are labelled with exact ingredients, implications of use, and what to do should things go awry. Basically, they can be treated like a drug you might find in the pharmacy.

The interim license, which reduced 200 types of NPS to 41, was feebly explained to the general public, and has resulted in protest. The reduction in outlet stores from 3000 to 170 has led to a concentration of areas involved in drug taking. Communities and local newspapers have responded by rallying against their continued sale.

But revoking these interim licenses means that the NPS are going to be driven into the black market and will result in stockpiling, according to the New Zealand Drug Foundation. Users are more likely to binge prior to the ban, and rehabilitation centres have reported that they are unarmed for the expected increased need of services.

The increase in harm-related reports that supposedly provoked these changes are not going to be helped by banning the substances. Since the Act, a helpline has been placed on NPS. More people are seeking help, but instead of providing aid, the government’s response is to force them underground, into criminal acts, taking unknown substances.

Immediately after the announcement, a central store was broken into and an unknown quantity of legal highs stolen. This is a direct example of how prohibition forces a black market. The act of crime comes from those who need help or aim to profit from those who do.

In other words, revoking the interim licenses will generate the kind of consequences that the Act aimed to minimise in the first place. The contradiction of messages will do little to help the public believe in the Act. For many, it will look as though they have succumbed to the misguided notion that the legislation is soft on drugs.

The move, however, came just prior to September general elections, and was timed to burst Labour’s bubble, who were set to propose the same thing a day later. Political, much?

Focusing on a media and politically led approach to drugs rather than an evidence based one is exactly what started all this trouble. In all likelihood, NPS would never have even found such a market if it wasn’t for prohibition. But while there is a demand for NPS, there will be a supply, legal or not. Prohibition certainly doesn’t stop drugs. It never has, and never will. But if the drugs can’t be eliminated, it makes sense to gain control of them.

Regulating the market means safer drugs will be developed through a legal framework. This minimises the harm caused by them because it endorses protection of everyone involved. New Zealand was the first to prioritise this over the futile attempt to ban NPS.

Many around the world looked to their innovative attempt with baited breath, spurred on by the dismal failures of their own prohibition. But it seems the spotlight was too much for New Zealand to handle, and they’ve recoiled at the first hurdle. Their yellow-bellied move has served only to cause embarrassment, reduce belief in the government, and harm the people it is supposed to be protecting.

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