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Kiwis should have another look at their drug laws, writes Ross Bell, Drug Foundation executive director

The clarion call to change the legal status of ecstasy reported in the Dominion Post last week may have surprised many. Yet, for those of us working in the drug policy and treatment fields, revisiting why this dance party drug is banned merits serious attention.

Spare a thought for Dr Paul Quigley and the team at A&E. All too frequently people arrive there in a state of distress after a bad experience with illegal drugs. Bound by the Hippocratic Oath, Quigley and his team administer relief.

This situation is not unique to Wellington. A&E departments around the country report adverse reactions after people take a bad batch of the newest drug doing the rounds or something unexpectedly powerful.

Festival organisers and dance club owners report seeing the same sort of thing.

The effects will wear off for most, but some people will suffer ongoing physical and mental health problems – some may even die.

The recent spike in A&E admissions serves as another wake-up call about how the laws on the statute book are out of sync with what's happening on the streets. With the Misuse of Drugs Act (MoDA) coming up to its 40th anniversary, it's high time we looked seriously at how our legislation says we should deal with drugs. It'd make sense to do this in a systematic way, as outlined in the 2010 Law Commission report, rather than picking off one drug at a time.

The Psychoactive Substances Act had minimising health problems at its heart and that's a good foundation to build on. Robust debate about a health-focused replacement to MoDA is timely. There is definitely willingness amongst the public to join in.

All this will take time, as Associate Health Minister Peter Dunne said last week. Understandably politicians are nervous about doing anything further in this area, but it's no longer an issue for the too hard basket. The clock is ticking while still more people are ending up at A&E.

So, what can be done now?

Provide good information and people will act on it. People partying in clubs in many European cities can have their recreational drugs discreetly tested so they know what they're actually taking. This offers an opportunity for warnings about dodgy drugs to circulate.

The Drug Foundation observed health authorities in the Netherlands issue warnings about the so-called Superman ecstasy pills early this year. Broadcasting televised alerts meant fatalities were averted. Regrettably UK health authorities had the same information but chose not to pass it on. Days later four young men died after taking the pills in Britain.

Early warning systems that identify doctored drugs and disseminate information amongst a network of professionals is something most EU countries now have. The successful WEDINOS project in Wales offers a free service to which anyone can anonymously submit pills for testing, with the results publicly shared.

Such a system in New Zealand would ensure A&E staff, drug and alcohol workers, GPs, and others could access alerts about drug scares. This would go some way toward addressing the challenges Quigley and his staff regularly face.

New Zealand is not alone in experiencing the harmful side effects from an increasingly prolific supply of novel drugs. More are being synthesised all the time, some of which slip through our vigilant border protection. Results from the Global Drug Survey 2015 show the rate for seeking emergency medical treatment after taking new psychoactive substances is at least three times greater than for established illicit drugs.

Acknowledging that people will use recreational drugs may be seen as a slippery slope. Yet, the experience of people in countries that have grappled with how people really live shows it is not. The health-focused approach in Portugal is paying big dividends. Since 2001, 90 percent of public drug expenditure has been directed at treatment and prevention, with the remainder allocated to enforcement. As a result, overdose rates have halved. With stigma and fear of prosecution removed, more people are coming forward to seek help. The Portuguese experience is just one of many we can draw on.

So, yes, we do want to see a shift towards health-focused drug laws, which may mean looking at drugs differently. One idea we are exploring is how it may be better from a health standpoint to make some drugs available under strict regulations, rather than leaving their provision to the black market. Under the current regime, those selling drugs illegally have little incentive to ensure protection of public wellbeing.

There are things we can do to avoid having people regularly arrive at A&E suffering from seizures after taking a dodgy drug. Let's talk about it and not freak out.

 

This opinion piece first appeared in the Dominion Post on 24 June 2015.

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