MPs need to front up on legal highs

MICHAEL CUMMINGS
Last updated 12:17 01/04/2014

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OPINION: Palmerston North police are calling on the city council to push the legal boundaries as it considers restrictions on where legal highs can be sold, but our elected leaders would be wise to proceed with a degree of caution.

Speaking yesterday to councillors hearing submissions on a policy that would restrict where legal-high retailers can be located in the city, police crime prevention manager Brett Calkin called on them to take as hard a line as possible - even if that meant having to defend it in court.

Calkin urged councillors to "put your money where your mouth is". That money, of course, is ratepayers' money, and it's the wrong weapon to be employing in the fight against legal highs.

And that fight absolutely must be fought. As Calkin outlined to councillors yesterday, legal highs are an absolute scourge in this community, as they are in communities all over the country. They are, quite simply, destroying young lives, and taking a huge toll on health, social and law enforcement agencies.

But this problem is not one local authorities can solve. Councils all over New Zealand have been thrown a hospital pass by central government in a shameful act of abdication of duty by the nation's MPs.

Faced with the admittedly complex problem of regulating psychoactive substances that can be constantly reinvented to sidestep restrictions, Parliament has passed the buck to local authorities. Councils now have to set boundaries, but are not allowed to be so restrictive that any bylaw would, for all intents and purposes, amount to a ban.

Calkin pointed to the Hamilton City Council as an example Palmerston North should follow, when in fact it should serve as a cautionary tale. Hamilton took such a hard line on where legal highs could be sold that the council's policy is facing a judicial review. Hamilton ratepayers will have to pay the cost.

Anger at the damage legal highs are inflicting runs deep in towns and cities all over New Zealand. Targeting that anger at local councils, while tempting, will achieve little.

This is an election year, and MPs are getting a free ride on an issue that is of deep concern the length and breadth of the country. The psychoactive substances legislation passed last year was a fundamentally inadequate measure in ridding communities of the trade in dangerous, mind-altering chemicals.

In drafting a local policy, the Palmerston North City Council can and should only do what the law allows it to. We need to move the debate away from council chambers, and restart a national discussion that can lead to a genuine, enduring solution.

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- Manawatu Standard

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