Monday, 12 January 2015

Legal highs

NZ had something beautiful in its framework for sale of psychoactive substances that hadn't already otherwise been banned. Show that they're safe, and you can sell them.

Ross Bell shows how it went wrong from there.
The number of retail outlets for "legal highs" was slashed, from as many as 4000 to fewer than 170. The number of products fell from around 200 to fewer than 50. There was evidence that related hospital admissions fell, along with reports to the National Poisons Centre.
The purge also magnified attention on the remaining outlets, largely unwelcome in their communities. They became a focus for the media. Some looked disreputable when journalists visited. In addition, personal stories of chaos and woe received widespread coverage. That these problems had developed in the unregulated market or were caused by products already removed were of little consequence.
On top of this, an already under-resourced regulatory authority was sluggish to respond. The interim regime was left carrying more weight, and for longer, than had been anticipated. Imports could not be checked for purity as required, and obtaining and delivering certificates of analysis proved a challenge for all concerned. It became difficult to say exactly what was in some products – the very opposite of what had been intended.
Despite these problems, perhaps the real damage was done before the act was even passed. The early, relatively benign synthetic cannabinoids had beenbanned for years. When the act passed, only so-called third-generation cannabimimetics were still legal. Their harms were poorly understood.
In May, amid the media panic, the government rushed through an amendment ending the interim licensing period and removing all the drugs from sale. The act remains in place. Indeed, it's in good shape. The long-awaited regulations for manufacturing, importing and research and product approvals were signed off in July and are in force. Those for wholesaling and retailing are on track for the second half of 2015.
But one part of the amendment has thrown a bomb into the works. It banned the use of animal testing results, in New Zealand or elsewhere, to show that a product met the "no more than a low risk of harm" standard. But a senior Ministry of Health official said recently that "at this point in time, it is not possible to have a product approved without animal testing".
As I understand things, there are still a few potential ways through. If something has been proven safe overseas in human trials, that might be good enough.

But it remains profoundly disappointing that New Zealand's liberal ACT Party, under John Banks, helped to kill substantive real drug law reform through its advocacy for a ban on animal testing. John Banks cares a lot about beagles and that's lovely. But he, and ACT, did very real harm here.


  1. John Banks was never a very liberal person, at any stage. But the one thing I (and thousands of others) do think he got right was to stand behind those seeking to prevent experiments when the results would be of such little consequence

  2. Sure, and Banks should get a lot of credit for faithfully fronting the party despite his ideological differences with some of its positions.

    I would disagree pretty strongly on "little consequence" though. Getting a legal market for safer highs would be pretty consequential.

  3. Dont have any disagreement about the benefits of a legal market. But that does not require animals to suffer so that dope-heads and others can get their jollies. For instance, consuming a party drug could be treated exactly the same way as mountain climbing - totally at the users risk. I thought Ross Bell wrote a good article there, possibly illustrating the benefits of leaving well alone.

  4. Except that the legislation now requires it be proven safe while forbidding the only method that in NZ could provide such proof!

    I think you're getting dangerously close to weighing others' utils based on your preferences rather than theirs. Perhaps there's an alternative framework that could work better: a per-animal testing tax that varies with the harm the animal experiences, and is the same whether you're testing food colouring, antibiotics, hallucinogens, or cold medicine. Harming animals is bad, but not a bad that cannot be outweighed by other goods.

  5. Right, except that the harm done to animals via testing is so great that the offsetting benefits would have to be pretty substantial, a criterion certainly not satisfied by any ruling in or out of dodgy narcotics.

    As VMC points out, the simple, and economically efficient, solution is to change the legislation so as to remove the need for animal testing. Internalise the problem by letting the dope-heads test it on themselves.

  6. I wonder whether we mightn't need a broader change where instead of it just going to an ethics committee that decides whether the benefits outweigh the costs, the ethics committee would decide only on whether the harms inflicted on the animal were trivial, moderate, substantial, or oh-my-gawd-awful. Map that to a by-animal-sentience fee schedule, and let the testers decide for themselves whether it passes cost-benefit. Fees collected under the scheme would be put to some kind of benefit-animal programme - ideally something to rehabilitate and give a happy retirement for those lab animals that weren't killed in testing.

  7. The other thing that doesn't get discussed is the rabbit fuckup. From what I've heard, there seems to be a non-negligible possibility that an animal-testing compromise could have stuck if it hadn't been built on the assumption that rabbits are rodents and then publicised before the mistake was found out.

  8. If only the darned things had two incisors rather than four...