Hard News by Russell Brown


Illegal Highs

The odd thing about both the Labour Party and the government promising bills yesterday to ban synthetic cannabis products is that this doesn't really need a law change. The Psychoactive Substances Act gives the Psychoactive Substances Regulatory Authority the power to withdraw product approvals very quickly, in response to evidence of harm.

The problem was, there wasn't evidence associated with any particular product granted interim approval under the Act. In his press statement yesterday, Peter Dunne said that while there have been reports of severe adverse reactions (the benchmark for immediate withdrawal under the new law):

It has been impossible to attribute these adverse effects to any particular products and in the absence of that ministers accepted my recommendation at cabinet last Tuesday to end the transitional period, taking all products with interim approval off the market.

So along with all the synthetic cannabis products on the list, the goverment will ban a bunch of basically harmless pep pills. Cosmic Corner stores are going to be fairly quiet places. I don't actually buy the claim that it was impossible to associate adverse reactions with any product. Not one report included the name of a particular product? Not even true.  In the undated sample of records of calls to the National Poisons Centre that I received last week, most callers named a product. (Two of the products named in the list I got, AK47 and Anarchy, have already had their licences revoked.)

The chatter amongst users has been that two particular products, Lemon Grass and Choco Haze, both made by the same company and both containing AB-FUBINACA, have been problematic. If so, that may be the product and the ingredient or just the ingredient. The Ministry of Health has only just introduced purity testing standards for AB-FUBINACA and similar chemicals. That's pretty poor.

On the other hand, on the basis of what Leo Schep of the National Poisons Centre told told Kathryn Ryan this morning, it appears that the latest synthetic cannabinoids have much worse implications for withdrawal than those banned before we had a regulatory structure. It really does seem that we've already banned the less risky products over the past five years. It may simply be, as I suggested that week, that synthetic cannabinoids were always a poor option for regulated sale.

And yet, as Tim Watkin notes in a good post, information provided by the Authority to The Nation indicates that the number of severe presentations to emergency departments and severe issues reported to the National Poisons Centre have reduced since the Act came into force. So by that measure, the law was working.

As far as the politics goes, senior Labour people are convinced that Dunne moved only after becoming aware of their draft bill, which was circulated within the caucus early last week. You can speculate on who they might suspect of leaking it to the government.

Peter Dunne for his part insists that the government had already decided to ban everything butwas delaying an announcment to prevent stockpiling. He now says any consequences of the hasty ban will be on Labour (and New Zealand First, which was also preparing a bill). But Opposition parties are quite entitled to bring bills to do things the goverment isn't. If he didn't want them to do so, there was nothing to stop Dunne talking to the other parties and letting them know about his supposed plans. Indeed, that would have been the responsible thing to do. Someone should ask him why he didn't.

But here's the thing: had the interim approvals grace period run its course until the ministry got its regulations for testing in place next year, there would have been a much longer run-up, but the synthetic cannabinoids would all have been withdrawn from sale pending testing. Dunne -- and everyone else -- knew this all along. 

It's all happening now in a twitchy environment and I think it's inevitable that there will  now be firesaling and stockpiling and some leakage to the black market. After BZP was banned in "party pills", it turned up in so-called ecstasy tablets for a year afterwards. Thanks to the Psychoactive Substances Act, there should be better tracking of supply than there was with BZP, but it'll happen.

I think the real risk isn't from the cannabis-lookalike products, but if the pure chemicals get out into the illicit market. Perhaps from existing channels, but also illicitly imported from places where they are legally manufactured. As Campbell Live helpfully pointed out to its viewers, this stuff is easy to import, and people will.

The problem is that you can't eyeball doses with this stuff -- doses are in the low milligrams. The relevant Erowid vault has some pretty scary stories from people overdosing with pure synthetic cannabinoids.

I think there's some merit in the view that this has been a good bill poorly implemented. Even given that it's all new territory, it has simply taken too long to get in place. On the other hand, we're undoubtedly dealing with the mess of nearly five years of cat-and-mouse bans before the Act became law. 

Local councils share some blame too. The nasty little hole-in-the-wall shop at the mall in Naenae, as shown on Campbell Live, would have been gone had Hutt Council published a Local Approved Products Plan (LAPP). That's what happened in Hamilton after the council there published a LAPP in March.

The suppliers themselves are drug dealers, but I suppose drug dealers who obey the law are better than drug dealers who don't. They insist their products are low-risk, but they must have had an idea about where the problems were.

The immediate issue is what happens to those users who had become dependent on the cannabinoid products. If there is a plan to offer them addiction support services, Dunne was keeping it to himself this morning.

In the long-term, this morning's interviews speak of a depressing retreat from a conversation we had to have, particularly around cannabis itself. The Psychoactive Substances Act ordained a regulatory structure that could easily have been portable to a legalised cannabis market -- it's stricter, but not that different from what's operating without any notable problems in Colorado.

Yet both David Cunliffe and (more emphatically) John Key told Morning Report today that they and their parties were both opposed to the decriminalisation of cannabis. Not legalisation, just a move away from trying to deal with psychoactive drug use by criminalising users. So we keep on doing what we do, because it's election year.

How much would it have hurt either of them to say the following words?

Drug use is a health issue.

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