10 April 2014
A year ago the country was up in arms about the sale of synthetic cannabis in corner stores, dairies, groceries and convenience stores around the country. There were no restrictions on who could purchase these substances, and there was a cumbersome procedure in place which allowed me as Associate Minister of Health to temporarily ban products shown to be harmful. Since 2011, I had banned just over 50 different products under that regime.
But it was clearly not enough. Every time a product was banned, the chemical combinations were manipulated and a new product emerged, often within days of the first ban being applied. It was a never ending game of catch-up which no-one found satisfactory. It was time to turn the situation on its head to ensure that only those products proven to be low risk through a testing process equivalent to that for registering new medicines, could be sold, and even then in restricted circumstances. And so, the Psychoactive Substances Act was conceived.
Since its passage in July last year its impact has been dramatic. The number of outlets selling these drugs has been reduced from around 4,000 to just over 150; the number of products being sold has fallen from about 300 to 41 and is likely to continue falling; and, sales have been restricted to persons aged 18 and over, with no advertising or promotion permitted. The Police and hospital emergency rooms confirm the availability of these products and the number of cases of people presenting with problems associated with their use have fallen sharply. Yet still there are people up in arms.
How can this be? After all, the market has shrunk; the number of products is down over two-thirds and retail outlets numbers have fallen over 95%. The present situation is far more tightly controlled than ever before, even at the time we were banning psychoactive substances. And I have already foreshadowed more regulations are coming in the next couple of months.
Sadly, one of the major reasons has been the inexplicable tardiness of local authorities in implementing their local plans to regulate the sale of psychoactive substances. And some Mayors have shown an ignorance of the issues that borders on breathtaking stupidity. The facts are these: as the Act was being developed various local authorities and Mayors pleaded with the government to give them local powers, similar to those they already have to regulate the sale of alcohol in their areas, to control the sale of psychoactive substances. Parliament listened to their pleas, and by a vote of 119 to 1 gave them the powers they were seeking. But – and here is the rub – despite the grandstanding and tub-thumping of the Mayors (just before last year’s local elections significantly) nine months later only 5 of 71 Councils have implemented the local plans the Mayors said they needed so desperately. That delay is unacceptable. It is time for them to stop bleating, and start using the tools they implored Parliament to give them.