The remote location of New Zealand means that it does not have drugs continuously flooding into it via smuggling operations, a problem many other parts of the world have to contend with. This fact, however, does not mean the rates of drug abuse are lower than they are in other countries. In fact, as of a 2007/2008 study, drug-use rates in New Zealand were some of the highest in the developed world. The type of drugs that are abused, though, are different. The drugs of choice in New Zealand are synthetic, manufactured locally, and designed to mimic the effects of conventional drugs. These mimics, in New Zealand and other places, operate in a legal grey area because they are not listed as an illegal substances. Therefore, synthetic drugs can be sold online or in convenience stores without limitations, including minimum age requirements. Manufacturers simply label them as a fragrance or similar innocuous substance that is “not for human consumption.” They are called spice, bath salts, or herbal essence. New Zealand has chosen to legalize these drugs in order to regulate them, but the U.S. does not seem inclined to do the same.
Synthetic drugs are a nightmare for drug enforcement agencies. Once they become aware of the existence of a substance that was previously unknown, and the government deems it harmful and adds it to the list of illegal substances, chemists simply modify the composition of the drug ever so slightly in order to move it back into the unknown and therefore legal grey area. In a 2013 report, the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime described the synthetic drug industry as “hydra-headed” and said that the system for international drug control system is failing because of the creativity and speed with which manufacturers produce new variants of the drugs. New Zealand, with the world’s highest rate of synthetic drug use, lost patience with the game of cat-and-mouse it was playing with drug manufacturers. So, in July of 2013, its parliament passed the Psychoactive Substances Act. It is the first law in the world of its kind, and it regulates the importation, manufacture, and supply of psychoactive substances. Drugs that are already illegal remain illegal. For example, while real cannabis remains illegal there, many of New Zealand’s 47 legal synthetic drugs are presumably synthetic marijuana, given their brand names of Kush Pink, Choco Haze, 4:20, and the like.
Manufacturers in New Zealand who choose to sell their synthetic drugs legally can, provided the drug undergoes and passes tests similar in nature to what new medications have to go through in order to get a government’s stamp of approval. As it is for new medications, the process is not cheap or fast; it takes about a year and about $1.6 million. The Psychoactive Substances Act mandates that approved drugs cannot be sold in supermarkets, convenience stores, or gas stations. This caused the number of legal outlets to go from 4,000 down to 200. Approved drugs can only be sold to people over the age of 18, and advertising is restricted to the point of sale. Harmful products lurking in the legal grey area were removed from the market. Instead of 200 products for sale, there are now 47.
At the recent United Nations Drug Summit in Vienna where the topic of psychoactive substances was an important topic of discussion, attendee Ross Bell of New Zealand Drug Foundation reported that he believes many countries will follow New Zealand’s lead. Indeed, the policy has gotten global attention. But the U.S. and Britain do not seem moved. A group of British parliamentarians proposed adopting a similar policy in 2013, but last month the Home Office said that they had ruled out the licensing of shops selling legal highs. And in the U.S., President Obama signed a federal law in 2012 banning 26 new synthetic substances. While New Zealand’s innovative approach aims to reduce the harm to users, the U.S. continues to play catch up with wily synthetic drug manufacturers.
By Donna Westlund