Researcher questions if 'safe legal high' feasible

JOHN HARTEVELT AND JODY O'CALLAGHAN
Last updated 05:00 17/07/2012

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Even with tighter controls on party pills, there may be no such thing as a "safe legal high", according to a leading national drug researcher.

Associate Health Minister Peter Dunne yesterday announced world-first legislation will set manufacturers in New Zealand's $35 million party pill market jumping through medical hoops to prove the safety of their "legal highs".

Every product now for sale would be removed when the law took effect next year. Only those cleared as "low risk" after testing would be allowed back on the shelves.

A new unit would be set up in the Health Ministry to vet all party pills before they went on the market.

"We'll be looking for evidence of the pharmacology and toxicology risks involved [and] we'll be looking for evidence of clinical trials. It won't be a sort of once-over-lightly process," Mr Dunne said.

"If that deters some people from bringing products to market that they think might not pass muster then so be it, that's a good thing."

Mr Dunne's announcement was welcome news for Greymouth father Kevin Rodden, whose son Ben collapsed after taking a pill called Torque in 2007.

He was placed in an induced coma in Christchurch Hospital's intensive care unit, with high levels of the stimulant BZP and caffeine in his system.

Mr Rodden said yesterday that he believed all party pills should be banned.

Chris Wilkins, head of the drug research team at Massey University's Centre for Social and Health Outcomes Research and Evaluation, said any drug making it on to the market could be a potential health hazard.

"The great hope and the intention [of the legislation] is that the arrival of this new regime will get safer legal highs on the market and ban the other ones. But that's not going to be easy identifying the safer ones.

"Is there such a thing as a safe legal high? People tend to find out they're unsafe only after they've been using them for a while."

 

Wellington emergency medicine specialist and toxicologist Paul Quigley said it was "stupid" that people had to be harmed before products could be proven unsafe.

He saw patients with bizarre withdrawal symptoms and insomnia after taking party pills, and surges in admissions that had led to contaminated products being banned.

"Instead of closing the door once the horse has bolted, it's not opening the stable door to start with.

"If [manufacturers] really believe in this stuff, then they would prove how safe it is. I would be surprised if any of them actually step up and put their product under that level of scrutiny."

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Party pill industry expert Matt Bowden said he had been fighting for 10 years for changes like these. New Zealand now had legislation to be proud of.

"Everybody else in the world has used prohibition to their detriment, handing party pills over to the black market. For the first time, Peter Dunne has taken back control."

New Zealand Drug Foundation executive director Ross Bell said the announcement was a "world first" in overcoming the major loopholes in outdated drug legislation.

"It is quite a pragmatic solution - a system of regulation that puts the onus on the industry to jump through certain hoops.

"While it took us 10 years to get to this point, I think it's quite a smart way of dealing with these substances. The old way of doing it has not worked."

Last year, amid concern over the sale of legal cannabis-like products such as Kronic, the Government introduced temporary bans on any psychoactive substances causing concern.

 

 

Party pill retailers say their customers come from all walks of life, but a 20-year-old user says seekers of legal highs are mainly teenagers.

Staff at Cosmic Cuba Mall said they would struggle to identify a target demographic for their party products as they sell to a varied customer base.

But Laura Foley, a 20-year-old communications student at Massey University, said she was already considered too old to be taking the pills. "When I started taking BZP I was 16 - I imagine it's the same age [now]. This is the kids that can't get their hands on ecstasy, or are too scared to try it," she said.

A 2008 survey found that 13.5 per cent of New Zealanders aged 16 to 64 had tried BZP at least once while it was legally available. That compared with 46.4 per cent for cannabis and 6.2 per cent for ecstasy.

About 28 substances and more than 50 products that contained them were banned, contributing to a 75 per cent drop in the number of emergency callouts relating to synthetic cannabis products, Mr Dunne said.

But Cabinet papers state such bans "cannot keep up with the emergence of new psychoactive substances".

Mr Dunne said the new test would reverse the onus of proof, making all psychoactive substances illegal until approved.

He would personally like to see all party pills removed from sale.

"But I respect that in an open society people have got choices."

- The Dominion Post

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