Use our legal high law, says Labour

STACEY KIRK AND MATT STEWART
Last updated 08:35 28/04/2014

Synthetic drugs: do we need the ban?

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Labour has the legislation drafted and is offering the Government its own proposal in full to ban synthetic cannabis from shelves on Parliament's first day back in session.

Leader David Cunliffe said the Government could take its legislation and cut down the time before the new law takes effect by half, if it wanted.

Associate Health Minister Peter Dunne yesterday announced the Government would introduce legislation that would remove synthetic drugs from shelves within three weeks until they can be proven low-risk.

But the emergency law banning legal highs will lead to binge-buying, fire sales, a boosted black market and addicts withdrawing without support, warned the New Zealand Drug Foundation.

Dunne pre-empted Labour with his announcement, which planned to announce its own policy banning psychoactive substances today.

"We can help. We have legislation that is already drafted - it could be introduced and passed under urgency through all stages the day Parliament opens which is next Tuesday," Cunliffe told Firstline.

He said Labour's legislation was "almost identical" to the Government's, in that it would ban all products immediately. But their bill also included a ban on animal testing which the Government has so far refused to rule out.

But critics claim the Government U-turn and the policy announcement from all parties was political posturing, and Cunliffe's offer was unlikely to be seen as anything different.

Prime Minster John Key denied it was a U-turn.

"The act is still in place and it will stay there. The challenge with all these things is how do you ban them?" he said on Breakfast.

He admitted it was a "mistake" for the Ministry of Health to list the small number of products still available as having a low-level of risk.

"We should have just said 'let's take them all off' and the burden of proof goes to the manufacturers to prove any of them are not harmful for you."

Foundation boss Ross Bell said the political parties were "playing silly buggers" with the issue because they had all agreed to stagger the implementation of the Psychoactive Substances Act, introduced in July last year, meaning a testing regime had still not been developed.

Under the act licensed retailers can sell drugs deemed to pose a low risk of harm.

But the Ministry of Health can ban approved products based on reports of adverse effects.

"If all the laws and regulations had been done at the same time the act was passed we would not be in this position. We'd be in a much happier place," Bell said.

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Neither the public nor politicians really understood the law and it was unfortunate politicians were reacting to recent negative media coverage rather than taking a measured approach, he said.

Minnie Ratima was part of a group that protested outside shops selling legal highs in Napier and said she was "rapt" with the new ban, but warned of users moving to a black market.

Napier legal high user Rome Lambert said he had been addicted to various drugs, both legal and illegal, for 50 years and warned that "black market concoctions" could make people sick. Once synthetic supplies ran out, he said he would return to smoking marijuana.

Napier mayor Bill Dalton has clashed with Dunne before and said the Government had dumped the issue on local councils.

"I'm pleased Minister Dunne has finally removed his head from the sand to take note of what a devastating effect these products are having on our youth.

"It's criminal they were ever legal in the first place."

Last week Dunne appeared on TV3 outside the so-called 'Naenae Tea Shop' - the area's only legal high retailer.

"This is extraordinarily depressing; it's a different world," the minister said.

The policy Labour planned to announce today involved introducing a bill to the house on the first sitting day to remove all psychoactive substances from shelves.

Yesterday Dunne said a "mad rush" to bulk-buy synthetic cannabis before it's pulled off the shelves lay squarely at the feet of the Opposition.

Cabinet gave the go-ahead for a law change two weeks ago. Dunne will introduce the legislation to Parliament under urgency on May 8. "It had been my intention to hold the announcement to much nearer the time to prevent panic-buying and stockpiling."

He admitted his decision to bring the announcement forward was a political one, sparked by Labour's planned announcement.

"The consequence is going to be there will be a period now of binge-buying over the next couple of weeks and they have to bear the responsibility for that."

The Act left 41 products still on the shelves, which Dunne said had previously had no issues identified with them.

"They've suddenly become the cause of problems in the last eight months since the legislation was passed.

Labour leader David Cunliffe said the substances had been "ruining too many young lives".

"I think we've all been shocked and saddened by it, and also by reports that young Kiwis have been turning to prostitution to fund the habit that these highly addictive drugs create."

He said the Government had "fallen asleep at the wheel" over introducing a testing regime.

"Had we known 18 months down the track that no regime would yet be in place, we would have insisted back then that all drugs had to go through the testing process before they were allowed onto the market."

But Bell said Labour had been spurred on by media coverage of the issue and had "decided to jump on the bandwagon".

The new law will take effect as soon as it is given royal assent by the Governor-General, which would happen within a few days of it passing. At that point, all retailers would have to remove the products from shelves.

- The Dominion Post

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