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It’s a glaring and obvious anomaly that substances like cannabis are illegal in New Zealand while “synthetic cannabis” – that has much the same effect – is openly for sale in dairies and service stations.

The main reason for this bizarre situation is that the modern drug manufacturing scene is much more complex than it was when our existing drug control laws were drafted.

Currently, we make certain psychoactive substances or chemicals illegal under the Misuse of Drugs Act if they have proven harms that can’t be controlled by regulation. Cannabis is banned, not because it gets you high, but because it contains chemicals which have been classed as harmful and therefore illegal to possess or use.

This means if you can produce a “designer drug” containing psychoactive chemicals that are significantly different from anything under the Misuse of Drugs Act, you can distribute and sell it with few restrictions until it is proven too harmful to be legal. In the case of synthetic cannabis, the best the government can do right now is use tobacco control laws to restrict its sale to people 18 years and over.

What our ancient drug laws failed to anticipate, of course, was the current situation where we are inundated by a wide range of new psychoactive substances that we actually know very little about. And because they don’t appear under the Misuse of Drugs Act (or any other Act), we don’t have any legislation with which to ban them until we can prove they are harmful, and that takes considerable time.

And, of course, as soon as one substance is made illegal the newly sophisticated designer drug industry will just introduce a new (and not yet illegal) substance to take its place. This is exactly what happened when the BZP in party pills was banned.

This constant game of playing catch-up with the designer drug industry is an ass-backward way of doing things that will never achieve the desired end of protecting society from drug harm. To assume an unfamiliar psychoactive substance is safe until proven harmful makes no sense when we have no idea what long- or even short-term effects it will have on the consumer.

That the Misuse of Drugs Act is woefully inadequate for controlling modern designer drugs is just one of the many reasons it has recently been reviewed by the Law Commission. It’s woefully inadequate in many other areas as well.

In its review the Law Commission suggests establishing a regulatory body to oversee the introduction of new psychoactive substances. Anyone wishing to manufacture, import or distribute such a substance would first require approval and have to provide all available information about what’s in the substance and what its health effects are.

The regulator would then assess its risks and either approve it subject to some tight and sensible regulations, or ban it altogether. Approved substances would have to be labelled with health warnings and a full list of ingredients.

The best thing about such a system is that it puts the onus on the designer drug industry to prove a product is safe before it can be sold. For too long this industry has been able to masquerade as some sort of responsible party providing safe and legal alternatives to prohibited drugs. The reality is it is simply exploiting holes in our drug legislation to market substances to our young and vulnerable with little knowledge of or regard for any long-term problems they may be causing.

There is growing evidence linking adolescent mental health disorders in young people to the psychoactive ingredients in cannabis. The effects these unknown substances may have on the developing minds of our youngest and finest are troubling to contemplate, and the increasing number of young people turning up in emergency departments after using them makes it clear they have plenty of potential to harm.

The government has proposed some minor law changes around synthetic cannabis that will restrict the way they can be packaged and marketed, and prohibit its sale in places where children gather. But fundamentally we need an approach that says no psychoactive substance should be sold at all until we know it is safe.

We also need our politicians to grab our outdated drug laws by the scruff of the neck and drag them into the 21st century as the Law Commission has recommended.

The decision not to fully accept the advice of some of the wisest legal minds in the country would be one we may all live to regret when it comes time to pick up the pieces. And in the case of synthetic cannabis we don’t even know yet what those pieces will be.

Published in Manawatu Standard

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