Legal highs

By Eric Crampton 16/01/2015 2


NZ had something beautiful in its framework for sale of psychoactive substances that hadn’t already otherwise been banned. Show that they’re safe, and you can sell them.

Ross Bell shows how it went wrong from there.

The number of retail outlets for “legal highs” was slashed, from as many as 4000 to fewer than 170. The number of products fell from around 200 to fewer than 50. There was evidence that related hospital admissions fell, along with reports to the National Poisons Centre.
The purge also magnified attention on the remaining outlets, largely unwelcome in their communities. They became a focus for the media. Some looked disreputable when journalists visited. In addition, personal stories of chaos and woe received widespread coverage. That these problems had developed in the unregulated market or were caused by products already removed were of little consequence.
On top of this, an already under-resourced regulatory authority was sluggish to respond. The interim regime was left carrying more weight, and for longer, than had been anticipated. Imports could not be checked for purity as required, and obtaining and delivering certificates of analysis proved a challenge for all concerned. It became difficult to say exactly what was in some products – the very opposite of what had been intended.
Despite these problems, perhaps the real damage was done before the act was even passed. The early, relatively benign synthetic cannabinoids had beenbanned for years. When the act passed, only so-called third-generation cannabimimetics were still legal. Their harms were poorly understood.
In May, amid the media panic, the government rushed through an amendment ending the interim licensing period and removing all the drugs from sale. The act remains in place. Indeed, it’s in good shape. The long-awaited regulations for manufacturing, importing and research and product approvals were signed off in July and are in force. Those for wholesaling and retailing are on track for the second half of 2015.
But one part of the amendment has thrown a bomb into the works. It banned the use of animal testing results, in New Zealand or elsewhere, to show that a product met the “no more than a low risk of harm” standard. But a senior Ministry of Health official said recently that “at this point in time, it is not possible to have a product approved without animal testing”.

As I understand things, there are still a few potential ways through. If something has been proven safe overseas in human trials, that might be good enough.

But it remains profoundly disappointing that New Zealand’s liberal ACT Party, under John Banks, helped to kill substantive real drug law reform through its advocacy for a ban on animal testing. John Banks cares a lot about beagles and that’s lovely. But he, and ACT, did very real harm here.


2 Responses to “Legal highs”

  • a) how does this relate to the post?

    b) there is the world of difference between (animal & in vitro) trials that show some efficacy (the report you linked to uses the word ‘may’ rather a lot) and evidence that the same chemicals have the same effect in humans.

    c) there’s also a world of difference between someone self-medicating by smoking pot, and the research summarised in that report that used one or more active ingredients in carefully controlled doses & concentrations. It’s like claiming that using paprika (or whatever) in cooking will lower eg cholesterol (this is a hypothetical example!): dosage, concentration, & purity are all uncontrolled & likely too low to have any effect.