Local businessman Brent Adamson stirred up controversy when he opened up shop in Queenstown earlier this year. His private life, his sense of integrity, his character and even the color of his store were called into question by local media in a succession of stories.
So what is it exactly that Adamson does, or has done? Is he a wanted fugitive, struggling to assume a new identity and thereby elude capture by making Central Otago his new home? Does he drug innocent victims who later wake up in a bathtub full of ice with their missing body parts for sale on the black market? Or perhaps he simply enjoys throwing on a satanic costume and terrorizing small children of a Saturday night. In fact Brent Adamson owns and runs a small Shotover Street store that sells legal party pills, or ‘herbal highs’ as they are otherwise known.
Adamson is not the only retailer in Queenstown that stocks these pills. Other stockists include local bars Tardis, Subculture and Surreal, bottle stores Cow Lane Liquor and Betty’s Liquorstore and local music shop Play it Again. And he’s not the first either - party pills are nothing new. Entrepreneur Matt Bowden introduced them to the New Zealand market in the mid ‘90s after developing party pills as a safer, non-addictive alternative to illegal drugs. Yet despite the availability of party pills in Queenstown prior to the opening of Adamson’s store, he was singled out for media attention. Adamson, who has been involved in adventure-tourism businesses in Queenstown since 1998, speaks animatedly about his latest venture as his most risqué.
‘It’s because I was coming out from under the rug. I went centre stage with it. It was always there but people just didn’t see it, or they pretended they didn’t see it.’ Adamson says. He attributes a lot of the negative attention his store has been getting to the stigma attached to the word ‘drugs’, and the link automatically made between party pills and illegal drugs. ‘It’s the fear that arises from the unknown, and from lack of education. You do have a lot of opinionated people. Fair enough if they are going to be that way, but I find it very narrow minded.’
Adamson has a point. Alcohol and nicotine kill 5000+ Kiwis every year, and caffeine is the world’s most widely used psychoactive substance, yet is rarely even referred to as a drug. Society’s acceptance of a drug does not necessarily mean that the drug is safe; it simply means that it is popular. Party pills have not been accepted, but the statistics so far suggest they are safe.
The Expert Advisory Committee on Drugs conducted an inquiry into benzelpiperazine or BZP, the main active ingredient in party pills, and its effects in 2004. The report took into account evidence provided by the Ministry of Health, New Zealand Drug enforcement agencies and other sources. Yet media coverage in the past couple of years has ignored the evidence provided in this report in favour of sensationalism. Stories that sell get printed rather than stories that tell the facts.
A recent Gisborne Herald article entitled “Party pills a ‘huge danger’ to children” links party pills to illegal drugs speed and ecstasy, without distinguishing between the effects, and suggests that party pills are both dangerous and addictive. A search of the TVNZ archive found numerous articles highlighting the dangers of BZP; and on the home front, local media recently printed an article predicting ‘mass hospitalizations’ due to overdoses following Adamson’s decision to sell a party pill with an unusually high level of BZP.
If the media is to be believed, taking a party pill could be akin to signing your own death warrant. But the EACD report found there has been only one reported case in the world of a woman dying following the ingestion of BZP; later autopsies showed that it was the large amount of MDMA or ecstasy that she had also consumed, along with a large volume of water that resulted in her death. According to a 2004 Supplementary paper presented to the Health Select Committee by The Social Tonics Association of New Zealand (STANZ), a regulatory party pill industry body chaired by Matt Bowden, the majority of admissions to hospital emergency departments in relation to BZP are self-referrals, and most people are reassured and sent home. Almost all hospital admissions with BZP involved have occurred when BZP has been consumed simultaneously with alcohol.
Adamson knows these facts, and he says party pills are comparatively safe. ‘When we say not to consume them with alcohol - this is a warning statement. A lot of overdoses come from not knowing what to take and how to take it.’ The highly visible labeling that adorns the walls of Adamson’s store can be seen from the opposite side of the street. Information sheets detailing the various pills, the ingredients in them and their effects are displayed behind the counter, on both walls and on the counter itself.
‘They don’t give any warnings on alcohol bottles. An 18 year old can walk into a shop and buy a bottle of the strongest whisky, with no questions asked.’ Adamson is passionate when he speaks about the necessity of education. ‘My motto is to be proactive rather than reactive. I train my staff as much as I can to educate the people who are coming in as to what they are taking, and recommend different doses to different people.’
Adamson, who was raised in rural Southland on a dairy farm, has an 18 year old daughter and he says he will let make up her own mind about whether she wants to try drugs. ‘That is her prerogative. I have said to her; the ball is in your court, you kick it. I have done my job to educate her as much as possible.’
Adamson defends the opening of his business on the grounds that he believes in the safety of what he sells. ‘I went into this thinking yes, this is a business. And yes, hopefully I will make some money, but how about incorporating a sense of responsibility along with it?’
Yet a controversial step reported by local media was Adamson’s decision to supply a pill known as the “Big Red”. This pill contains 500mgs of BZP, but an average dose of BZP (as defined by the EACD) is only 100mgs. Negative side effects from high doses of BZP include nausea and insomnia. Adamson defends the Big Red by saying that these pills are not for everybody, and that he would never sell them to a customer if they did not understand the possible effects of taking them. He likens taking the pills to someone who is just beginning to drink alcohol - it’s all about knowing your limits.
‘When you first start drinking, you are not going to get straight into the whisky and spirits. You’re going to start with a beer or something light, then a couple of years later you might develop the taste for a single malt whisky. The same goes for these Big Reds. It’s something that you might work up to, and it’s definitely not for everybody.’
So what about addiction? According to a 2004 EACD report, the use of BZP may cause the user to spiral into a pattern of abuse, or to move on to more powerful illicit substances that produce similar effects. This is known as the ‘gateway drug’ theory: young people try party pills, like them, and go on to harder drugs. Adamson believes the incidences of this happening are few and far between. ‘You’re always going to have people that abuse party pills, just like any drug. It would only be a very small percentage of people, and is purely psychological. It’s all related to whether you have that type of addictive personality - that kind of makeup or metabolism, and unfortunately there is nothing anyone can do about that.’
In fact the EACD does goes on to say that party pills can have positive effects in that they can help keep users away from harder drugs, and reverse abuse patterns relating to more powerful and harmful illegal substances. STANZ claims that admission figures taken from Auckland hospitals show a correlation between the growth in popularity of party pills and decreasing incidences of admissions for illegal drugs such as Ecstasy and GHB. Adamson is a firm believer that this is the case. ‘Every second tourist that comes in here asks if I can help them score an illegal drug such as marijuana and cocaine.’ His answer is a resounding no, but that he can help to provide them with something that is legal and less harmful.
Adamson thinks that making party pills illegal would only worsen the situation and accomplish nothing. ‘It is far more sensible to regulate. Throwing them into the illegal basket isn’t going to do anything – look at all the problems with illegal drugs already. If anything, it is only going to heighten people’s interest’. He supports the R18 age restriction as a measure put in place to protect easily impressionable youth still going through developmental phases without the resources to make properly informed decisions. ‘Children grow and develop a level of responsibility. Their brain is developing right up to when they become an adult. Our age restriction reflects this.’ In fact there have been a few surprises in regards to age since the opening of Adamson’s store – it seems that young people aren’t the only ones keen to give party pills a go. ‘We have had 50, 60 and 70 year olds coming in here and trying it. Its people that have always wanted to try this kind of thing and now that it’s legal, its brought them out of the woodwork. We have a lot of fun with it’.
Adamson’s personality and sense of humor shine through when he is asked what he thinks of journalists who have sifted through his private life in order to piece together some sort of a story for local media. ‘When I see them I am going to buy them a cask of wine, kiss them on both cheeks and I might even take them out to dinner. They have done me more good than anything else.’ He laughs, a big toothy grin. It turns out that Adamson’s store has proved that old adage, that all publicity is good publicity.