OPINION: In the space of about 10 years the party-pill industry grew from nothing to a turnover estimated at more than $25 million.
If the pills had been entirely innocuous, this would not have been a cause for much concern but as ever more exotic concoctions of synthetic substances hit the market, a growing number of young people began showing up in hospital emergency rooms with alarming symptoms as a consequence of ingesting them.
The Government responded with notices banning a pill containing this or that particular ingredient which provided some protection from potential harm. It was only a stopgap, however, as manufacturers were adroit in changing the recipe to exclude the banned ingredient.
Now, following a Law Commission recommendation last year, the Government has decided on a new approach requiring distributors and producers to show that their products are safe before they are allowed on to shop shelves. This seems such a sensible and effective move, the only wonder is why it took so long to arrive at it.
At present, if the Government wishes to control a new product it must prove that it has a risk of causing harm. In most cases, that means it has not been able to act until after a product has come on to the market and produced some adverse effects. By reversing the onus, so that manufacturers and marketers of the products have to show they are safe before they can reach the market, the risk of adverse reactions should be practically eliminated.
Party-pill manufacturers have, of course, always insisted that their products are safe and that any bad outcomes that have been reported have arisen from other factors. That has been largely nonsense - they have often simply not known the effects of the synthetic concoctions or combinations of them that they have created and sold. Without any reliable testing, the assertions of safety were matters of faith rather than proof.
Given the number of party pills consumed around the country over any typical weekend, the number of bad reactions may not have been great but it has been alarming. Emergency medicine specialists reported many cases of bizarre withdrawal symptoms and insomnia and the occasional more serious case in which patients have collapsed and come close to death.
Since temporary bans on synthetic products were introduced last year, some 50 products have been prohibited. According to the Associate Minister of Health, Peter Dunne, this has contributed to a 75 per cent drop in the number of emergency callouts related to such products.
Some critics have called for an outright ban on all synthetic recreational products. The Government has rejected that approach and rightly so. Bans are hard to enforce and there is no need to legislate where there is no possibility of harm.
The new regime will certainly cause the party-pill business some inconvenience and considerable cost. The Government has estimated that the cost of testing any product will be between $1 million and $2 million and take one to two years.
It may put many manufacturers and markets out of business, but they can hardly complain. No pharmaceutical drug would be allowed on to the market without rigorous testing and even ordinary food nowadays must show its ingredients. There is no good reason why party pills should be allowed to be marketed without similar requirements.
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