Hard News by Russell Brown


Drug Intelligence

Newshub's Michael Morrah got a good scoop in obtaining a copy of the National Drug Intelligence Bureau's cutely-named report Psychoactive Substances Amendment Act: One Year Through the Looking Glass.

The report is seven months old – which actually makes it 17 months rather than a year since the Psychoactive Substances Act was amended to pre-emptively ban all substances presumed to be psychoactive – but it still makes for interesting reading.

The headline is that, as you've heard here before, synthetic cannabis products are still being sold and used. Moreover, the report says – contra Morrah's news report – that although helpline calls have decreased since retail was shut down, at least one hospital is reporting a similar flow of presentations after the Act was amended as before.

A decrease in calls to the National Poison Centre and the Alcohol and Drug Helpline following the Amendment Act is promising, but should be tempered by the probability that users would have become less inclined to seek help once psychoactive substances became illegal. This data is also somewhat skewed by the sharp, but unusual, increase in calls to these numbers in the months leading up to the two legislative changes (the Act and the Amendment Act), which almost certainly reflects an increase in public awareness and need for information about these changes at the time, not just use. Conversely, staff at Middlemore Hospital report no noticeable change in presentation numbers from pre- to post-Amendment.

Worse, the expectations of that market are now so twisted that that criminals are now selling plant matter sprayed with actual poisons like acetone. [Edit: as Thomas Lumley points out in comments, acetone isn't likely to be a poison in the dose and state implied, but some of the other substances cited are; the dose maketh the poison and all that.] It doesn't really matter to them what's in it, or how much.

Black market manufacturers typically have little concern for quality control, with poor measures for controlling dosage when mixing cannabinoids with plant material, and it is likely that high dosages were responsible for the adverse reactions seen in Auckland.                      

The report bitches repeatedly about how the low penalties for selling such substances make it attractive for criminals to sell the stuff. To which it might be said:

1. There are penalties in the Act for selling an unapproved substance. Section 70 provides for two years' imprisonment and/or a half-million dollar fine for a "body corporate" doing it. One such case under the Act has resulted in a cumulative three-year sentence. Maybe Section 71, making an offence of possession, isn't a great idea if it deters people in trouble from calling for help.

2. Harsh penalties really stop criminals selling drugs, don't they?

3. There has never been any penalty for selling the likes of acetone, weed killer or flyspray for human consumption. The Act potentially imposes one for the first time.

4. Maybe making synthetic cannabis a legally more attractive product than natural cannabis isn't such a great idea?

In truth, the report isn't so illiberal. Its concluding 'Outlook' section says:

The regulated psychoactive substance industry is effectively at a standstill, with the ban on animal testing introduced in the Amendment Act making it unlikely that any products will be able to meet approval requirements for at least the next five years. With a single exception, the only entities that have applied for licences to date are academic or testing institutions; that is, entities with no interest in actually developing a product or putting it through the approval process.

The black market industry will therefore remain the primary concern for enforcement and health agencies for the foreseeable future. Even once approved products do return to the licit market, it is unlikely that they will resemble the kind of products available under the interim regime, and a black market demand for those products will therefore continue, as will the issues associated with such products. Although synthetic cannabis is our predominant issue at present in terms of availability, demand, and harm, the constant evolution of the designer substance industry makes it likely that other substances, not controlled under the analogue provisions in MODA, will continue to emerge. With NBOMes, a common LSD substitute, likely to be rescheduled under MODA shortly, a new LSD replacement may emerge.

There is also potential for non-analogous mimics of ecstasy or other substances popular in New Zealand to enter the market. Once approved products return to the market, it is inevitable that at some point the question of running those substances currently controlled under MODA through the low risk of harm tests will be raised. Already there has been suggestion that such a process should be considered for MDMA. The long term implications and likely outcomes of the Act providing a successful framework for regulating drugs need to be considered and planned for.

There is also the question of what should happen if a product is submitted for approval but does not pass the criteria; should that product then remain an ‘unapproved psychoactive substance’ regulated under the Act, or should a process be put in place for such products to then be scheduled under MODA? Arguably, products that have been confirmed as having substantial risk of harm should not be treated in the same way as substances that are unknown. Although such products will likely be referred for MODA scheduling, there is currently no actual requirement for this to occur.

The final paragraph is redacted with thick, black lines, as is a final page of recommendations. But yes, the police Drug Intelligence Bureau is contemplating drugs currently scheduled under the Misuse of Drugs Act being submitted to the PSA approval process and sold under regulation without having a blue fit. It's saying we need to think about and plan for how that will work. That's fair enough.

"Synthetic cannabis" – it's not cannabis and its array of poorly-understood ingredients are, at best, cannabinomimetics rather than cannabinoids – is a terrible class of drug. No one should be using it. It was a terrible first candidate for regulation under the PSA, and that, along with botched execution by the Ministry of Health, seriously damaged the experiment.

But the Psychoactive Substances Act is still there. A panicky Parliament making it all but impossible to use for the time being has not made the issues it seeks to address disappear. And the fact that even the police are contemplating its use to regulate the sale of some drugs currently prohibited under the Misuse of Drugs Act suggests it may be useful yet.


PS: Journalists, please stop using the term "synthetic drugs". It's meaningless.

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