New Zealand's radical new approach to drugs may be stumbling at the first hurdle. Politicians have cancelled the first phase of a programme to legalise many recreational drugs, by banning all "legal highs" currently sold in the country until they have been proven to be low risk.
The plan is still to legalise drugs that are shown to be safe – but some are worried that the government has been spooked by a flurry of media reports about addiction and drug harm.
Designer drugs, also known as legal highs, have been a headache for policy-makers around the world as new drugs are invented faster than they can be banned.
Last year, New Zealand introduced pioneering legislation that would legalise the sale of any new drugs that could be proven to carry a low risk of harm. The move away from simple prohibition is being watched around the world because it could provide answers to long-running arguments about whether banning drugs makes things better or worse.
However, because the legislation would take a year or more to be fully operational, an expert committee recommended that in the interim, rather than banning all the legal highs currently being sold, the ministry ought to give temporary approval to those that appeared to be the least harmful. Of the hundreds previously available, 41 were given temporary approval.
Then, on Sunday night, the government announced that it would amend the legislation to end the interim period, and ban all legal highs until they are proven to be low risk.
"Reports of severe adverse reactions continue to be received by the National Poisons Centre and Centre for Adverse Reactions Monitoring," said New Zealand's associate health minister Peter Dunne. "It has been impossible to attribute these adverse effects to any particular products and, in the absence of that, ministers accepted my recommendation at Cabinet last Tuesday to end the transitional period, taking all products with interim approval off the market." He said the plan is to pass the amendment through Parliament on 8 May.
Leo Schep from the National Poisons Centre in Dunedin supports the move, and confirmed that there have been more calls relating to adverse reactions since the drugs were approved. But Schep said it was impossible to tell whether that was a result of the poisons hotline number being put on all the packets, or because there were actually more adverse reactions as a result of the temporary approval of some of the drugs.
But the interim period was put in place to avoid forcing products onto the black market where consumers would have no idea what they were taking.
"There's been no thought of what the consequence of this is," says Ross Bell from the New Zealand Drug Foundation, which aims to minimise harm from drugs. "I thought that New Zealand was at a point where we were able to talk about drug policy in a different way – a more scientific, measured way. But that's obviously not the case."
The government's announcement comes in an election year, and follows a slew of media reports of problems related to harms from legal highs, such as addiction. Bell suspects that the decision to introduce new legislation is about looking tough on drugs, because the existing legislation already gave the government the power to ban any specific drug that causes problems.
Bell also points out that media reports about harms from legal highs are inevitable when a government is pushing through such radical legislation – and that politicians will need to keep cool heads as the reforms are rolled out. The new amendment to the original legislation casts doubt on their ability to do this: "This could potentially be a big setback to good progress of drug law reform," he says.
19:08 28 April 2014 by Michael Slezak
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