From the outset, let me say that I don’t have much of a stake in the questions of recreational drugs; legal or otherwise. I’m not a user. I drink alcohol usually moderately and usually pretty expensively (I like microbrewery IPAs). I’ve smoked pot once three decades ago, and didn’t like the effect on my coding for the following two days. So I have never smoked or ingested it since. Like so many of my generation, I used to smoke about 30 cigarettes a week but finally had to give them up for health reasons.
However I agree wholeheartedly with Tim Watkin’s description of the silliness of the previous regime of prohibition and the new regime of control. “Legal highs leave MPs dazed & confused“.
Less than a year ago MPs voted 119-1 in favour of the Psychoactive Substances Act, creating a regulated market for approved synthetic drugs. (The only vote against was from John Banks, who didn’t oppose a regulated market approach, but merely the fact the new drugs could be tested on animals). It was a controversial move for parliament to endorse a legal drug market in New Zealand; previously the drugs had been legal, but only because they were new creations that got around existing laws.
For more than a century, our politicians have maintained a prohibition on mind-altering substances (alcohol being the obvious exception) as a way of expressing social disapproval and protecting people from themselves. New Zealanders have tended to respond by not taking those laws terribly seriously; a large proportion of New Zealanders have used marijuana, for example, by international standards. Yet at the same time there has been no public appetite for decriminalisation, so politicians have maintained the bans.
Now that is something I can testify to. The laws were completely ignored by many people in my extended family, and by most people that I knew. Most of them didn’t have my addiction to programming and happily puffed away wherever and whenever they felt like it. It wasn’t seen as being anything except as a sop to more conservative in our society, and something that would hopefully disappear over time.
Then, last year, they took a new approach. New chemical compounds not covered by any laws were being used widely and attempts to ban the products were not stopping their use. Every time the government added a product to the banned list, a new one was invented by the legal high chemists. What’s more, the MPs accepted the argument that to ban legal highs was to simply drive customers from legal retailers to the black market.
They decided to try something different.
But they butchered the process along the way. The new law banned almost all the legal highs available, leaving for sale just the 41 considered to carry the lowest risk. The Ministry of Health was to devise a testing regime which determined an acceptable safety threshold for any new drugs created. That regime was slated to be introduced in early-mid 2015. Long story short, that was far too long to expect the public to wait and pressure has built to the point where the government was caught on the wrong side of strong public opinion. Just five months from an election, that couldn’t stand.
And that is the key to this stupid mess. To take a couple of years to devise a testing regime for testing drugs in humans is (to put it mildly) outright farcical. This is something that drugs companies and governments have been doing for decades and for which there is a hell of a lot of accumulated knowledge. It doesn’t even have to be fully valid on the first pass. Initially, pulling an overseas standard off the shelf like the ones that are used on my medical drugs would have been sufficient.
The test should have been similar to that applied to alcohol. We want to quality control how it is produced so we don’t wind up with nasty additives like methanol. It isn’t inherently bad in moderation, but we accept that people can over-indulge, and as a society we tax for prevention and bottom-of-the-cliff programmes as well as a disincentive to over-indulge.
Bearing in mind that prior to the Psychoactive Substances Act there appeared to be a complete lack of testing on “legal highs” except on recipient humans, then anything would have been better, even a temporary standard. As new standards were developed based on programmes to systematically get statistically significiant data at emergency rooms and other medical facilities (something that still hasn’t been done!), then new standards could have been formulated. All that would have been required is that the sellers of such substances would require recertification under the latest current standards periodically, and that their production would have been subject to random checks to ensure that they were in fact producing what they were certified for.
But all of these substances should have been pulled from the shelves until the testing was done. While I’m sure that the black market would have still been there supplying the remaining demand. But who really cares? Most people would have gone back to the illegal tinny houses that are scattered everywhere around the country to buy their old stand-by – marijuana. Hell I see one every time I visit my parents. It isn’t like they are particularly hard to find, and there are a damn sight more than 150 of them throughout the country. And those with green thumbs would have just continued grown their own.
What we would have be spared is the haphazard banning, concentration of supply, and legal challenges that this poorly written legislation left the country wide-open to. All that was bound to do was to produce a public hysteria in an election year with the inevitable results.
Here’s what’s most likely to have happened: The number of shops selling legal highs has reduced from over 3000 to just over 150. The number of sales has concentrated to just a few areas and therefore those sales have become much more visible. Hence the queues down the street in Palmerston North and elsewhere that have so shocked public sensibilities.
But is that a sign that demand has grown? Or that addiction rates are higher?
No, it’s a sign that the law is doing exactly what it was meant to do – drive the sale of drugs out of the dark and into the light. A regulated market had been created at a few approved shops, police knew exactly where the sales were taking place and a small marketplace had been created, as per the will of parliament.
Is there any evidence of increased sales? No. Of any greater harm? No. Perhaps the opposite in fact.
I’d take a bet that if we reduced the number of liquor outlets down to even 3000 country wide, then we’d have seen frigging queues outside them as well. In fact when I was working as a underage barman back in the 1970s I often saw queues forming at the bottle store around closing time. There were a hell of a lot more pubs and bottle stores than 3000 even then.
Quite simply there is a simple way out of this farcical muddle that the idiots in Wellington have gotten themselves into. Personally I wouldn’t trust any of the synthetic drugs. The potential for disaster always lurks inside any chemical manufacturing processes. If anyone cares to look at what happens with medical drugs, they’d find that a hell of a lot of the testing cost is simply to get the processes to produce it nailed down.
But we already have a substance around that has had decades of testing in this country on the target animal that I know of. Marijuana/cannabis savita is a massively well-tested drug just waiting to be made a “legal high”. We should just treat it like alcohol, regulate its production, tax and regulate its supply, and monitor the effects statistically and systematically. Sure we’re going to get people who over-indulge just as they do now with both illegal marijuana and legal alcohol. But at least they will wind up paying for their care – something that we taxpayers are doing right now.
Frankly after decades of seeing people close to me using pot, I can’t see any real problems with it if people use it in moderation. Sure I have seen other people with problems with excessive indulgence. But hey, I’ve helped neighbours who have subsequently died from alcoholism as well. There is simply no way to definitively and fully protect everyone from themselves.
What we can do is to ensure that they have the support when and if they decide to try and beat whatever addiction – that means taxes.The best taxes in this case are consumption taxes in exactly the same way that we tax alcohol and tobacco for the damage that they can cause. In the meantime we need to make sure that whatever they’re using is as safe as it can be. That means complete regulation over the production.
What we don’t need is fools in government and the rest of parliament pissing about looking for a testing standard that they can pick off any pharmaceutical law or regulation that is already in existence. To have them pussy-footing around avoiding simply decriminalising cannabis, which would almost kill the whole legal high market anyway, certainly just wanders you into a kafkaesque farce