The use of psychoactive substances has existed in societies across the world for centuries – ranging from caffeine to morphine, kava to opium. And all cultures hold strong pervasive beliefs that dictate which substances are acceptable and which are not, and how substances used by members within their own culture are ok but the use of drugs by outsiders is condemned.
“The psychoactive drugs of my people are transcendent and sublime, while those of yours are base, crude, and sinful. My drugs give me wisdom and foster creativity and spiritual insight; yours are merely feeble crutches that reveal your lack of fortitude and willpower.”
So why is drug use so prevalent in human societies? It’s in part due to how our brain is wired for experiencing pleasure. All psychoactive drugs have an effect on the brain and some of them activate the pathways responsible for pleasure. Orgasms, sweet foods and monetary rewards all have a role in activating this pleasure pathway. Similarly, voluntary exercise, meditation, social approval, and donating to charity can also equally feature in our neural pathways of pleasure.
At various stages in the recent past, alcohol, cannabis, nicotine, heroin, and cocaine have all been legal, banned, taxed, and regulated by governments. Drug policies are created amongst competing interests like the profit driven tobacco industries; the medical perspective who want to limit those which cause harm and addiction; and the legal system which would rather punish addicts than support them when they most need it.
Experts in drug policy and social and community health suggest a public health approach to drug use instead of a justice approach. And they have proposed that a good place to start would be by decriminalising drug use – drawing parallels to the AIDS epidemic in and how decriminalising homosexuality was important to addressing HIV.
There exists a strange paradox where some drugs are banned and others are allowed. This leads to people inferring from the legal status that these substances are less harmful than the ones that are banned, like how, statistically, alcohol and tobacco are more dangerous than LSD. Legal highs further complicate the situation as their legal status is a misnomer – just because they are legal does not mean they are safe. New Zealand’s Psychoactive Substance Amendment Act which came into effect May last year means that legal highs and synthetic cannabis need to pass a testing regime and be sold with a license.
“The one thing that we can pin our hopes on is the likely testing regime that is put in place. At present no legal high has been tested and approved for sale in New Zealand under the new regime, but full details of that regime are not yet known.
It is understood the regime will require proof the product is not addictive, doesn’t have serious side effects and is made to the right quality. If this is so, then it will be hard for any retailer to be able to stock the harmful substances. However, as we all know, where there is a will, there is a way.”
People and organisations were rightly concerned that a blanket ban on all legal high products would create an underground black market and recent reports in the media would suggest that this is a reality. There have been cases reported of at least five houses selling synthetic cannabis in Tauranga which has brought new problems for social and health agencies to deal with. A market of unregulated synthetic drugs is exceptionally dangerous as there is no common standard for synthetic drugs as a wide range of psychoactive chemicals are present in each different type of legal high.
The current future of legal highs remains underground until the Ministry of Health develops regulations which are expected around June. Local councils are also working on Local Approved Product Policy which will determine where products can be sold once sanctioned by the government.
“Objectively, the Act had sharply curtailed a market that had sprawled on unregulated for years. According to the Ministry, the number of retail outlets for legal highs was slashed about 95 percent after the Act, from as many as 4,000 to fewer than 170 licensed premises nationwide. The number of products was cut from around 200 to fewer than 50. There was also evidence that the number of severe presentations to emergency departments and severe issues reported to the National Poisons Centre had reduced since the Act came into force.”
Sale of legal highs
- Proposed exclusion zones for sale of synthetic drugs, including but not limited to: Otara, Manurewa, Henderson.
- Separate rules for the CBD.
- 1454 written submissions on Auckland Council’s draft policy on location of outlets.
- 128 submitters for hearings starting in February.
- 73% of submitters support separate location rules for city centre.
- 94% agree on banning sales licences in neighbourhood centres.
- The main feedback has been strong support to limit where the sale of psychoactive substances can be sold across Auckland in order to protect the most vulnerable members of our community. These areas include neighbourhood centres and schools, as well as mental health and addiction centres.
- The final Legal Approved Product Policy is to be adopted in June 2015.
For more information on Local Approved Products Policy follow the link here.