Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Well, fuck.

So the Psychoactive Substances Amendment Bill went through under urgency last week. For those not in NZ, that means a) all the synthetic cannabis products excluded from the previous version of this legislation (about 40 products from the previous about-a-gazillion) are now banned until they can be proved to be of "very low risk" and b) the government might well have shot a giant gaping hole in what could have been the first thing to approach sensible drug legislation in this country.

Russell Brown has a good post about this over at Public Address, but here's my take on what happened. There are two "official" narratives, one from the government and one from grassroots anti-drugs people which are both wrong, or at least, they're quite selective in the ways that they're right.

The anti-drugs crowd seem to believe that the passing of the original Psychoactive Substances Act put a bunch of synthetic cannabis products on the market as "safe". These products were anything but, and caused massive problems, with addiction and emergency visits becoming rife (see the horrifying photos of queues around the block from legal high stores for evidence). Eventually, in response to public outcry, the government finally acted (after too long) and put a stop to it. The moral tenor of the marketers of these drugs can easily be determined by the fact that they proposed to test this stuff on innocent animals.

The government contend that they were on the right track, but overlooked the risk posed by the synthetic cannabinomimetics that they allowed to remain on sale. They have now rightly removed these products from shelves, and put the burden of proof back where it belongs - with the manufacturers.

Actually, these drugs have been around for a long time. Ten years at the very minimum. The first ones appeared all over the place in little metal single-smoke cylinders, and seem to have been pretty close to inactive. The recipe quickly got refined and they started to sell by the packet. The attraction at this point was pretty clear - these products seemed to fairly closely mirror actual weed (which has a strong social niche in New Zealand culture) and were all legal to buy. It's important to note that all through this story, legality has been the main drawcard with these drugs - along with the ability to get high and still pass drug tests for pot.

Four or five years in, there was the first surge of media attention addressed at these specific "legal highs". I talked about that here. As a result of that, a large number of these products (if you're a New Zealander you'll probably recall the brand names "Spice" and "Kronic") were banned, along with their active ingredient. Because we were still operating under our original drug legislation which required the government to ban individual chemicals one by one, a raft of new products sprang up to take the place of the banned ones.

It's probably at this point that the real damage starts to get done. The evidence suggests that it's at this point that the chemicals on the market start to be seriously habit-forming and people start having panic attacks, heart palpitations and the like. However, these things are available everywhere - corner dairies all over the country stock this stuff, so if you're an addict it's fairly easy to stay under the radar.

When the government passed the Psychoactive Substances Act, they did two things. They gave councils the power to control where these substances could be sold, and they reduced the products available from hundreds to around 40 (considered to be "low-risk") which were allowed as an interim measure until councils finished deciding where their OK zones for legal high sale were going to be. Unfortunately at this point councils decided more or less en masse to throw all their toys out of the cot at once. Many protested at not just being able to ban the sale of non old-white-men drugs entirely and refused to zone, while others zoned as punitively as they could get away with.

As a result, the number of outlets selling these new more habit-forming drugs dropped dramatically. Can you imagine the queues that would appear if, tomorrow, all supermarkets and dairies were banned from selling alcohol and liquor stores were cut down to 2 or 3 per hundred thousand people? Do you think that it might look as though there was a sudden plague of alcoholism all around the country?

I must stress that this is not to claim that this newest batch of cannabis substitutes were good drugs. They appear to be very bad for their users both mentally and physically, and the people who sold them are probably not nice people.

The issue is that we're now back in blanket-ban territory, and these drugs have probably been bought up cheap by people who intend to stockpile them and sell them for vastly inflated prices on the street (they still get around drug tests for pot, and there are still addicts out there - money to be made...) Why? Because we had a media panic. I also want to restate that the reason we have this particularly vicious and addictive batch on our hands in the first place is because the previous safer generation were also banned as the result of a media panic. And we got that generation because we swallowed someone else's media panic about cannabis way back in the '50s. This is not a sensible way to make laws - look at the Sex Offender Registry in the US, and its many many abuses if you want a stunning example.

There are two consolations here. The first is that we do have the Psychoactive Substances Act, which has probably got the government out of playing whack-a-mole with drug designers for the time being. It's been mauled (the government is now in the bizarre position of being legally forced to ignore all data from animal tests, conducted anywhere in the world unless they prove a drug is unfit for sale) and drugs are going to be inhumanly hard to pass through it in the short term, but it's still around - so that's something.

The second is that this whole debacle does seem to have reopened the debate on which drugs should be legal and why. Let's hope we can actually talk about that this time, eh?