Emergency Amendment Made Legal Synthetic Drugs in NZ Illegal Again

Synthetic drugs

New Zealand’s government has changed its mind about regulating party pills and synthetic cannabis. Associate Health Minister Peter Dunne said 2013’s Psychoactive Substances Act, considered a bold experiment that captured the world’s attention when it was passed, did not go far enough. Since July 18 of last year, interim product approval was granted to the manufacturers of 41 psychoactive products. Certain stores were also issued interim retail licenses to sell those products. According to Health Minister Tony Ryall, the temporary licenses were given out to manufacturers “because there’d been no complaints, no records of harm, no belief that any of these substances caused any concern.” Ryall said that in the subsequent nine months it has become “quite clear…that they were causing harm.” Since July, tens of thousands of New Zealanders have signed petitions opposing the drugs, calling them addictive and saying they cause violence and disorder within their communities. In addition, health authorities have reported increased reactions such as vomiting, seizures, and psychotic episodes to synthetic drugs. As a result, Parliament passed the Psychoactive Substances Amendment Act last week “under urgency.” The Amendment revoked all interim product approvals and cancelled all retail licenses that had been issued through the Act.

The option still exists for synthetic drugs to become legal again, but manufacturers must first prove the substance to be low-risk. Synthetic drug manufacturers who had been issued interim approval were always required to go through a stringent approval process deeming the substance low-risk in order to gain full approval. Now manufacturers need to obtain government approval without the simultaneous influx of funds from sales that had been enabled by interim approvals and licenses. As with new medications, drug approval processes are neither fast nor cheap. It costs manufacturers time and money, roughly eighteen months and $1.6 million, respectively, in order to obtain government approval for medications. More importantly, the testing protocols for synthetic drugs are not yet fully in place. There is one protocol, however, that has been settled: there will be no animal testing. The Amendment stopped all animal testing for manufacturers of psychoactive products. Many say the Amendment is likely to have rendered the approval process nearly insurmountable. That is fine with Ryall, who said he did not mind if the cost or animal testing restrictions deterred manufacturers. “I don’t think we should have these substances if we can avoid it,” he said.

New Zealand received global attention when it passed the Act last year. The government’s acceptance of the innovative legislation speaks more to its frustration than progressive attitude. The country has been plagued by synthetic drugs more intensely and longer than any other country. New Zealand’s remote location means that known drugs are not continuously being smuggled into the country, which led to the rise of locally-manufactured substances designed to mimic known but unavailable drugs. When synthetic drugs first came onto the market around 2001, the substances were chemically similar to known drugs. When those substance would eventually get banned, chemists would ever-so-slightly tweak the composition of the drug to remove it from the banned list. It has not been possible to create one all-encompassing definition to prevent this cycle, nor has it been possible to prevent manufacturers from selling synthetics by mislabeling them as bath salts, potpourri, or plant food. The Psychoactive Substances Act dictates where and to whom synthetic drugs can be sold. Upon its enactment, the number of products lurking in the legal gray area went from 200 to 41. Last week’s Amendment took 30 products off the market while 11 substances were removed prior to that time per Section 40 of the Act, which calls for revocation of approval “if the Authority considers on reasonable grounds that the product poses more than a low risk of harm to individuals using the product.”  What effect the innovative and novel drug reform Act and its subsequent Amendment will ultimately have on the high levels of drug use in New Zealand remains to be seen.

By Donna Westlund


New Zealand Herald
Washington Post
New Scientist

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