Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Colour of Markets

In the high and far off times when the world was new and all, before Monteiths went to the Dark Side, my friends and I purchased a 6-pack of their beers (the Summer Ale, if I remember correctly) to consume on our back porch. On getting home and opening the first beer, we noticed a strange "chemical-y" taste.

Naturally enough, we rang the supermarket where we'd just bought the aforementioned beers and told them what had happened. Commendably, they invited us to return the beers and take away some others in place of the tainted batch, which we did. All in all, it was a fairly satisfying transaction.

This is the same basic event as that which befell users of the "legal high" Kronic Pineapple Express recently, but with two important differences:
  1. Because we were drinking the beer, we noticed the odd taste immediately, and ingested so little of the contaminant (whatever it was) that it had no noticeable effect on us. Kronic smokers would, on average, have had a just-lower-than-therapeutic dose of the contaminant (in this case the sedative phenazepam) before they even felt the effects.
  2. Because we were indulging in a white-market drug, we knew pretty much what was in it (the makers, after all, had put the ingredients on the packaging) and what we could expect from various levels of dosage. In the case of Kronic, there is information about the ingredients and expected effects, but it's not available from the manufacturers - you need to have internet access and know where to look.
People were doing the equivalent of drinking meths while expecting beer, but without the twin protections of a) being able to taste that it was meths instead of beer and b) knowing what beer was in the first place without having to look it up.

This is the advantage of indulging in a white-market drug, where the manufacturers feel no particular need to obfuscate regarding their ingredients and methods (you can go on guided tours of breweries and distilleries if you want to - try asking Matt Bowden if you can tour his factory and see what happens!) and there are widely understood qualities that the finished product is supposed to have.

The factors that led to the Kronic debacle have their roots in our current Misuse of Drugs Act (which labels specific substances as being illegal, therefore marking all others as legal by implication). Specifically, I think the secrecy regarding the ingredients of legal highs flows directly from the historical situation where the government have banned substances like GHB, BZP, the 2Cs etc., and the grey market have had to go out and find alternatives. By not mentioning the active ingredients up front, I suspect the manufacturers are hoping they can spin their window of tenuous legality out that little bit longer. Often, these novel substances are marketed as a safer alternative to illegal drugs (for example BZP being touted as "safer, legal ecstasy/speed") but in the case of Kronic and its sister products it's abundantly clear that the only selling point over actual cannabis was their legality.

This is why I tentatively support the current proposed law change that would put the onus on importers and producers of novel psychoactives to prove their safety and chemical composition before they can be marketed and sold in New Zealand. However, in order for the new law to function, it needs to be possible for someone to demonstrate that the new recreational drug they wish to manufacture is safe. If all novel recreational drugs are going to be viewed as inherently unsafe, then all novel drugs will go straight to the black market - which, as any junkie will tell you, is far worse than the grey market when it comes to product safety and quality control.

And once again, I think we will be back to the question I raised in my last post - namely "on what basis do we decide that these drugs should be legal, and these other ones should not?"

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