City seeks option of full ban on legal highs

The Nelson City Council has written to the Government to ask for the option of an outright ban on legal highs, but leading experts say the request misses the point of New Zealand's new drug laws.

The Psychoactive Substances Act, passed last year, prohibits outright bans, but does allow councils to draft a locally approved product policy (LAPP) controlling where approved legal highs can be sold. This includes a minimum distance from sensitive areas such as kindergartens, schools, churches, and health facilities.

Councillor Ian Barker said councillors were disappointed they could not ban the sale of substances altogether.

New Zealand Drug Foundation executive director Ross Bell said the act creates a "very different environment" than New Zealand previously had.

"If you are going to sell these products you have to first jump through some fairly strict and expensive hoops and the only products that will ever be allowed to be sold are ones that have been tested and approved by experts that know these things to be low risk," said Mr Bell.

Changes in the law came about after a 10-year losing battle against the drugs.

When legal highs such as BZP party pills first popped on to the New Zealand party scene they did not fit into any government regulation. Senior associate at public law firm Chen Palmer, James Dunne, said they sat in a "never-never land" where no-one knew what to do with them as it was not clear what their risks and harms were.

In 2005 and 2008 the Government tried to control the drugs through regulation, which treated the highs much like alcohol - buyers had to be 18, packages had to be labelled.

It failed, because the drugs sat outside clear definitions so, while some drugs were in the process of being defined and regulated, manufacturers would alter the original recipe, bringing another drug on to the market while the Government played catch-up.

Mr Dunne said eventually the Government "lost patience and wanted to find a regime that would be a solution once and for all". It decided to regulate and control every new psychoactive substance so if manufacturers wanted to sell them they would have to go to the Government and prove the substances posed no more than a low risk of harm and then they could sell them, but subject to strict conditions, said Mr Dunne.

Mr Bell said bans around the world had failed to work and a ban would be repeating that history.

"What the new law says is, OK, this whole thing we've tried for 10 years just hasn't worked so let's try something new," said Mr Bell. "I think the council needs to take a breath and remember the last 10 years of many attempts by governments Labour and National to ban these products and no government was ever successful in doing that."

He said the products that eventually will be able to be sold will not be the same as those sold in the past.

Mr Dunne said the community should think about "sensible balance" recognising demand for legal highs and the desire to have no products in the community.

"Frankly, the stores wouldn't be there if there wasn't demand so we've got to recognise we live in that real world and saying how do we control those harms most effectively," he said.

Associate Minister of Health Peter Dunne expressed his disappointment in local governments earlier this month.

"To say I have been disappointed by the response of the vast majority of local authorities to the act is an understatement. Instead of getting on with developing and implementing LAPPs, the vast majority of local authorities opted instead to engage in media debate over the merits of the Psychoactive Substances Act, passed 119-1 by Parliament less than eight months ago," he said.

The Nelson City Council is waiting for more information from the Ministry of Health before it proceeds with its local policy. Since the new act was implemented nationally, the number of retailers selling legal highs has dropped from an estimated 3000 to 4000, to around 156, and the number of products available from an estimated 300, to 41.