Hard News by Russell Brown


Not so insane

In a Herald  column that rages against the "insane" regulatory regime taking shape under the Psychoactive Substances Act, Pam Corkery compares New Zealand's response to the proliferation of novel drugs with that of the state of New South Wales, which is passing an extraordinarily broad law prohibiting all present and future psychoactive substances from sale or possession.

The NSW ban is so broad that it is set about with exemptions to avoid foods and herbal teas being captured. It will potentially be a criminal offence to even talk about synthetic drugs, or to attribute psychoactive properties to a substance that does not in fact have them. Exactly how it works will be left to the discretion of state police, who could hardly have asked for more power to their arms.

At this point it might be helpful to recall the event that sparked this prodigious response: the death of 17 year-old Henry Kwan, who fell to his death after taking what he thought was LSD. It wasn't LSD. It was probably 25i, one of a class of drugs called NBOM-e, which is thought to be implicated in the deaths of three other people in the state.

Technically, the NBOM-e drugs are "legal highs", in that they are not specifically outlawed in NSW. But they were not being sold by any of the legal high stores now prevented from selling psychoactive substances (one drug from the class was briefly sold legally in New Zeaand last year, but was quickly deemed to be in breach of the analogue provisions of the Misuse of Drugs Act). They were sold, and bought, as illicit drugs. Kwan thought he was buying LSD -- what he got was something much more dangerous.

Drug advisories have been warning since last year about a flood of 25i and similar drugs masquerading as acid. They're easier to synthesise and obtain than real LSD, but poorly understood and, according to Erowid present acute dose-response problems:

Due to its potency, misjudging the dose of 2C-I-NBOMe carries very real risks. A substantial dosage error could lead to undesirable or dangerous effects. If 2C-I-NBOMe is in pure powder form, small breezes, accidental inhalation, or touching the eyes or mouth after handling could result in full-blown effects or dangerous overdoses. Because of these dangers, 2C-I-NBOMe powder should be labeled clearly and handled with laboratory methods (goggles, gloves, mask) to minimize risks.

Unfortunately, they're being supplied in an utterly uncontrolled fashion, as something they're not -- and New South Wales' new laws will do absolutely nothing to prevent that happening. 

New Zealand's response has been to immediately restrict the sale of psychoactive substances -- get them out of dairies -- without completely shutting down the potential for licensed retailers to sell substances that have been assessed as low-risk. Licensing has reduced the number of retail outlets from about 1000 to about 100. As part of that process, 28 products (mostly, but not exclusively, synthetic cannabinoids) already in the market for some time have been licensed on an interim basis pending the publication of protocols for trials -- as you may have read in a breathless Weekend Herald lead story.

So things that were for sale yesterday are for sale today. But things have changed. For the first time, product labels must accurately reflect contents, and sales to minors and advertising anywhere but at the point of sale have been banned.

Pam says:

When the protocols are ready, the designers are given another month's grace to decide whether to submit their products for examination.

It's not a big leap to suggest they will simply withdraw their drugs du jour from the market, avoid paying the nearly $200,000 just to get the approval process started, then whip up a slightly altered batch, and apply for another temporary licence. On to the market will come a new wave of untested drugs.

Not by my reading, they won't. The Ministry of Health's information page says this:

No new psychoactive products may be introduced to the New Zealand market until approval has been obtained.

The Ministry FAQ also includes this Q&A:

Why aren’t you banning all substances right from the start?

There are potentially thousands of synthetic psychoactive substances, many of which have not been identified in New Zealand as psychoactive substances. If a substance has not been identified, it cannot be banned. An immediate ban on all psychoactive substances is also likely to result in an active black market, with inherent risks associated with it.

What's being done here looks a lot less "insane" on close inspection. It's an attempt to no longer surrender the safety of users to the illicit market -- the same market that supplied the drugs that killed those kids in Australia. If banning drugs stopped people using them, becoming addicted to them or suffering harm from them, things would be far simpler for the authorities. But it doesn't. Pam should know that.

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