The recent deaths of eight people in Auckland from using new psychoactive substances are appalling.
Inevitably, they have caused much speculation and comment, and a lot of that has been widely inaccurate, and off the mark.
At the risk of repeating some of the remarks I made a couple of weeks ago, a brief history lesson is in order. Psychoactive substances, legal highs, have been around for a very long time. Their origins internationally date back to various medical formulae developed in the 1960s as potential cures for common diseases which, although not effective in that role, were found to have a psychoactive effect, and hence created a market opportunity for those wishing to promote them as such. They first appeared in New Zealand in the 1990s but it was during the first decade of the 2000s that the explosion of legal highs on the international market, and the problems they were likely to cause, first became apparent. At that time, they were being sold freely at convenience stores up and down the country, with absolutely no regulation or control over product content, or to whom they were being sold.
I took the first significant step to control the spread of these substances in 2010 when I put legislation through Parliament to allow bans of up to two years to be imposed on psychoactive substances considered to be dangerous, or to contain illegal substances. Under the temporary ban regime, 43 substances and many more product combinations were banned between 2011 and 2013. But it soon became clear that the international pyschoactives industry was so extensive that we, along with most other countries, were going to have difficulty keeping ahead of the game.
Our 2013 Psychoactive Substances Act set up a system whereby registered manufacturers must submit their products for testing to prove they of low risk to users, before being permitted to sell them in a highly regulated market. When the legislation was passed, there were around 4,000 convenience stores up and down the country selling more than 300 different legal high products, without any control or restriction. The day the legislation took effect, as an interim step, the 4,000 stores were immediately reduced to around 150 R18 stores only, and the product range slashed to around 41 products. That interim step was always intended to be just that and I removed it altogether a few months later, leaving no legal stores, and no products to sell. Because Parliament prohibited at the same time animal testing as a way to verify the low risk of products (a proper decision in my view), no manufacturers have subsequently applied for manufacturing licences, no new products have been submitted for testing, and none have been approved for sale.
However, the absence of a regulated market has had the undesirable – and as I said at the time, inevitable – consequence of driving the psychoactive market underground. What we are now seeing emerging in Auckland are completely unregulated illegal products, the precise composition and toxicity of which are not known, because they are not able to be tested, being sold on the black market. Some concoctions may have been prepared overseas and smuggled across the border, others may be local mixtures, but all are lethal. The claims being made that this awful situation is all the fault of the Psychoactive Substances Act regime, because it opened up the market, when in reality it closed it down, are palpably ignorant, and show a wilful and deliberate misunderstanding of the facts.
Right now, my immediate concern is the current situation, which seems to mirror what has been happening in other countries in recent months. I have set up an emergency response team in Auckland, involving the Ministry of Health, Auckland’s District Health Boards and the Police to work together to identify the particular substances being used, have them tested, and provide appropriate treatment for affected persons.
In the longer term, though, we need better information about the flow of new psychoactive substances potentially coming over our borders. There are potentially hundreds more such substances yet to be released. That is why New Zealand is working with other countries to establish an early warning system by which we can share information with others on current developments. That system is likely to be in place next year.
And then there is the question of the Psychoactive Substances Act. The regulated market it sought to establish is still the best way forward, but the issue of animal testing has to be overcome. I have therefore asked Ministry of Health officials to review this matter to see if credible alternatives have yet been developed internationally that we can draw upon.
Now my critics say that all this is merely displacement activity – that there would be no problem with psychoactive substances if we simply legalised natural cannabis, and that my efforts are really just flapping around the edges, so I should grasp the nettle of cannabis law reform. Well, I have two responses to that. First, since 2013 I have set out consistently, more so than most politicians, a framework for reforming cannabis law, based around the Psychoactive Substances Act and Portugal’s health centred approach. The Drug Foundation has now proposed a similar approach. My second response is that, contrary to what some might naively imagine, I cannot do this by the stroke of a pen. Change requires support in Parliament, and with National and Labour staunchly opposed, that is unlikely any time soon, no matter what I might think.
So, in the meantime, my very strong advice to people is to stay well clear of any psychoactive substances – they are dangerous, potentially fatal, and best avoided completely.