Editorial: Government failure in legal high debate

Last updated 11:25 29/04/2014

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The people have spoken and the minister has finally listened. Or the cynics will say that Peter Dunne has banned legal highs due to pressure from the media and Labour's plans to do the same.

Whatever the reason, it is a win for many communities around New Zealand. Dunne was obviously feeling the pressure of constant lobbying that he reacted in such a way, despite repeatedly arguing that bans do not work. As recently as Saturday, he stated on TV that bans on selling legal highs did not work in Ireland or New South Wales. He even quoted the Irish minister of health telling him that the banning of the drugs was the worst decision his government had made. This was a message he repeated time after time. So, why the change of heart?

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

On Sunday, 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 New Zealand Drug Foundation has criticised the decision, saying it will lead to stockpiling and black-market sales. Unfortunately, what has been evidenced in many cities and regions is that the Government's failure to deal with the issue has led to a growing demand for the product, with queues outside shops selling the highs. If the sales do, as suspected, go underground then that is a consequence of the policies and is better than young children witnessing drugged people on the streets early in the morning.

The decision to not legislate against legal highs was flawed from the beginning. The Government should have started by banning all products until they were proved to be safe. Instead they came up with the psychoactive substances legislation which was passed last year. It largely left councils with little power to solve the issue. The Nelson City Council should be congratulated for writing to the Government to ask for the option of an outright ban and awaiting further information from the Ministry of Health before proceeding with a policy.

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Dunne has been woeful in his leadership of the issue and has been reactive rather than proactive.

What happens next will be crucial. The next fly in the ointment is the sensitivities around the testing of substances on animals. Prime Minister John Key has ruled out tests on rabbits and dogs, but animal activists don't want testing on any animals. How the Government deal with this issue will also be crucial.

Banning legal highs may not be the perfect solution, but something had to be done.

- Nelson

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