New Zealand Pulls Plug on Legal Highs Regulation ... For Now

New Zealand's experiment with the legal high market has come to a grinding halt after the government enforced the removal of all products from shelves, a move seemingly based on political survival rather than scientific evidence.

As soon as the clock passed midnight on May 8, all legal highs in the country were outlawed, bringing to an abrupt -- though temporary -- end New Zealand's attempt to regulate this ever evolving narcotics market. Simple possession will now incur a fine of NZ$500, while being convicted of intent to supply could bring a two-year jail sentence along with a NZ$500,000 fine, reported the New Zealand Herald.

The move is a significant volte-face from a government which passed the groundbreaking Psychoactive Substances Act in July last year, a move carried out to address New Zealand's comparatively high rate of legal high use. This can be partly explained by the fact that the country sits far from most trafficking routes for traditional illicit narcotics, meaning drug users have had to turn their attention elsewhere.

Following the passing of the law, the previously hundreds of available New Psychoactive Substances (NPS) were decreased to just 41* permitted temporary approval by an interim expert committee. This measure allowed the government breathing room to create a testing regime for NPS which could finally determine those that are "low risk" to users, and would thus become permanently available. Carrying out these tests are likely to incur a cost of over NZ$1 million per product to the manufacturers.

However, on April 27, Associate Health Minister Peter Dunne revealed that continued uncertainty over the safety of the 41 remaining products means that no legal highs will be able to be sold until the government has designed its testing regime -- something which still could be some way off.

The obvious question surrounding this sudden move has to be: why now? One perhaps only need look at Dunne's April 27 comments that, "the public concern of recent weeks," had helped push him to take a more conservative approach. Was this decision simply the result of media-generated fear, therefore, or scientifically based?

According to New Zealand Drug Foundation Executive Director Ross Bell, Dunne's move has little to do with the evidence. "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," he told the New Scientist. 

As the New Scientist highlights, news reports on the harms of NPS on the country's youth have picked up steam in recent weeks. It is unclear at the moment, though, if the rise in reports is related to an actual uptick in adverse reactions, or other factors. Leo Schep of the National Poisons Center admitted uncertainty on the issue, stating that the introduction of the center's hotline number on to NPS packaging could be a reason behind it's increased use. Therefore, it could simply be a question of increased dissemination. 

Perhaps the most damning factor against the government's motivation in all of this is the fact that New Zealand is in an election year. The ruling minority government of the National Party, propped up by Dunne's United Future party, is clearly aware of how tenuous its hold on office could be and may be politicking to maintain this. Evidence of this can be seen, to a degree, in the news that had Dunne not made his announcement at the end of April, the opposition Labour Party were lined up to promise the electorate a total ban of NPS if placed in government.

There are a number of risks associated with the ban, primary among them the danger that this market will now retreat underground where a plethora of far more dangerous substances than the 41 removed are available.

Furthermore, 3 News notes that this ban will simply mean a return to the very game of "cat-and-mouse" that the government was trying to avoid with the initial passing of the Act. One shop owner interviewed by 3 News explained this, stating that products can simply be relabelled as something "innocuous" to circumvent the law, and perhaps more worryingly, sold in non-specialist shops not geared toward the retail of NPS. "They can be repackaged again and put out under another name, then they're banned again, then they're repackaged again. The substance will be the same," he said, adding that the government's ban is the worst possible way to approach the issue.

Of course, the foundation of the Act is still very much in place, but it seems unlikely that any significant regulatory progress will be made until after September's election; therefore, we're likely looking at well into 2015 before change is enacted.

Dunne insisted in a May 9 op-ed on the need for calm heads when confronting this issue and "not grandstanding local and national politicians seeking to make short term capital." Sadly he appears to have become a victim of this very game, and as Ross Bell laments, "This could potentially be a big setback to good progress of drug law reform."

*Immediately prior to NPS becoming illegal, there were reports that this number was in fact 36, not 41.