Synthetic Cannabinoids, P and Utensils

On the 9th August New Zealand’s Associate Health Minister Peter Dunne announced that all synthetic cannabis products, of which there are currently 43 on the market, will be taken of shelves nationwide within seven days. This recent announcement is the first response following the passage of the Misuse of Drugs Amendment Bill on 4 August 2011, and the ban on a popular Kronic product “Pineapple Express” in June after it was found to contain a controlled anti-anxiety drug. Dunne explains that the new procedure where "the temporary class drug notice will be able to be made available to any psycho-active substance where there is a risk, or a perceived risk or an apparent risk to, if you like, human safety.” Furthermore, he condemns the current system whereby “products are untested as demonstrated by two recent recalls, and suppliers cannot experiment on our youth." The ban on synthetic cannibinoids will be a 12 month interim measure during which time a committee will assess of the risk of harm of a substance and recommend whether it should be classified as a controlled drug, scheduled as a restricted substance, or remain unregulated.

Many critics suggest whilst the new legislation will not remove the products from the market completely it will make them less visible and harder to obtain- currently they can be found in local dairies and corner shops.  The problem of loopholes for new products to become available is a frequently raised issue, but Labour MP Damian O’Connor described the bill as “an attempt to stay ahead of the innovation, the evolution, and the creativity of drug manufacturers”. Drawing comparisons with the 2008 reform which banned the production and sale of benzylpiperazine-based pills, he says “we have seen it before, through what we call party pills. We saw harm, and we changed legislation; we had to change the law of the land to try to stay ahead of that problem.” Whilst the bill has been welcomed overall, National Poisons Centre Toxicologist Dr. Leo Schep feels that the decision required greater research into the impact of cannabis products on health. Due to the absence of safety guidelines in the manufacturing of cannibinoids he fears consumption may increase risk to public health. “We don't know what a toxic dose is, we don't know what a safe dose is, but if they (users) are going to take it as a binge, we are going to see more people being admitted into hospital.” Having discussed the impact of the ban upon users, in terms of the industry, Matt Bowden, a cannabinoid importer from Auckland-based Stargate Operations explains that through effectively paralysing a “legitimate industry, you empower a black market of supply, where you have no quality control at all, and you empower organised crime.” Thus the ban on the import, export, manufacture and supply of cannibinoids, as a temporary measure, will need to evolve as further debate in the coming months combat loopholes for new products, ensure safety guidelines regarding toxic levels and the curb black market activity.

The second notable feature in the bill is that of the reclassification of pseudoephedrine and ephedrine (the precursors to methamphetamine) as class B2 drugs, shifting it from an over-the-counter to prescription-only drug. Traditionally found in medicines such as decongestants, antihistamines and paracetamol, Peter Dunne explains that “The harms posed by the diversion of pseudoephedrine to the manufacture of methamphetamine outweigh the need for the ongoing over-the-counter availability of preparations containing this substance.” Methamphetamine (commonly known as P) is the only illegal stimulant commonly manufactured in New Zealand and it has high prevalence rates in the country, in a 2008 study, approximately 2% of the population have used the drug in the last year. Furthermore, a Massey University research published in 2004 found that of frequent P users 34% had either considered or attempted suicide, 65% binged for more than 48 hours on average fortnightly and 53% rated level of harm to work, or work opportunities as very, or extremely harmful. The ability to domestically manufacture P coupled with its remote geographical location; may contribute to its relatively low levels of opiate and cocaine abuse compared to other developed countries. The manufacture of P occurs in clandestine laboratories across the country, and the Health Committee reports that the market for P is worth about NZ$100 million per year (over £50.5 million), of which 10% is derived from domestic pseudoephedrine. Thus the question is if 90% of the precursor product is imported (primarily from China) shouldn’t Customs Service and police be focussing on border controls rather than domestic diversion?

Moreover, the most overwhelming criticism of the bill was due to the ban on the sale and importation of drug utensils, whereby 59 out of the 65 MPs present, opposed this clause.  The ban on pipes and pipe parts undoubtedly obstructs the supply of harm reduction equipment to drug users. Labour MP Kris Faafoi, stated in parliament “We do not agree that they should be used, but the fact is that the filters within those utensils put a barrier between those who are smoking drugs and the drug.” In addition the health committee had no evidence to suggest such a ban would lead to a decline in drug use.

In the last decade, New Zealanders have become some of the highest users of P in the world and the explosion of synthetic cannabinoids of which are so accessible today endangers not only its users but the youth to whom this is becoming a normalised situation. The positive effects of this bill will arguably be minimal, if not detrimental. What New Zealand needs is to do away with this stopgap measure and create a completely new statute which focuses on the contemporary challenges it faces in substance use with innovative solutions. A law that in based on harm reduction not punitive action, this bill seemed to have been conducted without the appropriate research and consequently it isn’t robust enough to deal with New Zealand’s escalating drug problem. The new bill aims to combat harmful cannabinoids, the production of P and, views drug utensils as encouraging drug use? Overall this rather clumsy document reflects a disproportionate reaction to the real harms that exist and that will be created by the measures.