'The whole thing's a political stunt'

MATT RILKOFF
Last updated 05:00 29/04/2014
John Key
DAVID WHITE/Fairfax NZ
Prime Minister John Key conceded it had been a "mistake" for the Ministry of Health to list the small number of products still available as having a low-level of risk.

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A sudden move to remove legal highs from shelves has been slammed as an election year stunt by a New Plymouth retailer of the controversial products.

Unwilling to identify themselves for fear it would put them in breach of the licence to sell legal highs, they said banning the products would simply mean they would be sold at illegal "tinny houses."

"The only thing they have done is taken away the Government's only control of the market. They have done exactly what the Psychoactive Substances Act 2013 was trying not to do. It's just going to create a huge problem.

"The whole thing is a political stunt because Labour were going to announce a plan to ban it today [Monday]. So National just jumped in a day earlier," they said.

On Sunday, Associate Health Minister Peter Dunne made the surprise announcement the Government would introduce new legislation to get legal highs such as synthetic cannabis off shelves within weeks.

The products would only be allowed back when it was proven they posed no more than "a low risk of harm" to consumers.

Such level of proof is expected to cost $1 million for each product and significantly reduce the number able to be sold.

Prime Minister John Key conceded it had been a "mistake" for the Ministry of Health to list the small number of products still available as having a low-level of risk.

"The health department gave the advice that 41 of these products were safe, and had not previously demonstrated concern," he said. "So they were given a waiver but I think in hindsight that was a mistake.

"They should have taken the ultra conservative view and said all of them were off until they could go through the full regime and prove that there was no harm."

Key also admitted another problem with the legal high legislation, saying he was not prepared to authorise testing the drugs on rabbits and dogs.

Angela McInerney, of the drug law reform lobby group The Star Trust, said Dunne's move took the industry by complete surprise.

"We are currently investigating options now. Customers are extremely disappointed, as most users of synthetic cannabis did so responsibly, with no adverse reactions or trouble.

"Those who have been paraded out in the media are mostly young people who abuse the product. This knee-jerk reaction to media hysteria means that those who want to use low risk products will now have to find criminals to buy from," she said.

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Despite that, New Plymouth police sergeant Terry Johnson, who took an active role in getting the products out of Taranaki dairies last year, said the removal of the products was a step in the right direction.

"There is a bit more to come out in the wash but it is on the right track," he said.

Taranaki area commander Inspector Blair Telford had no comment on Dunne's move. They were here to police whatever laws the Government put into place, he said.

Dunne's about-face is an embarrassment for the Government, who had earlier ruled out such a ban and described their Psychoactive Substances Act 2013 as "one of the best in the world".

Dunne now acknowledges the law did not go far enough.

There are currently five licensed retailers in Taranaki selling legal highs. Three of those are in New Plymouth, one is in Hawera and one is an online only store.

Preceding Dunne's change of heart, New Plymouth Mayor Andrew Judd had called for a ban of the products.

Next week his council will meet to discuss their policy dictating where legal highs can be sold when, or if, they ever make it back onto retailers' shelves.

Many users of the products have reported negative effects such as kidney stones, psychosis, racing heart, vomiting and paranoia.

- Taranaki Daily News

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