Legal high battle lines drawn
Chamber full as both sides of debate airedAARON LEAMAN
Opposing sides in the debate over where legal high sellers should be located in the city went head-to-head yesterday with warnings the city's vibrancy could rest on the outcome.
Hamilton City Council began a public hearing into its draft psychoactive substances policy with 525 submissions received by Monday's deadline.
The council's draft policy identifies Te Rapa and the central city as the options for where synthetic high dealers may be located.
At times every seat inside the council's chamber was filled as residents and business owners spoke of the damaging effects the sale of synthetic highs was having on their communities.
Incidents of intimidation, theft and verbal abuse were shared by submitters alarmed by the spike in anti-social behaviour since the passing of the Government's psychoactive substances act last year.
The legislation limits the supply and sale of these products but critics say an inadvertent effect has been to concentrate anti-social behaviour around the city's synthetic high outlets.
Garry Phillips, who owns a hair salon on Victoria St, said customers were regularly intimidated and abused by people frequenting a nearby puff shop.
Mr Phillips said his customers were too scared to use a bus stop outside the puff shop and would walk up to a block to avoid the area. "We'd prefer it [outlets] in an industrial area if it has to go somewhere . . . the CBD has become something of a ghetto," Mr Phillips said.
Some submitters requested the Waikato Times not photograph them at the hearing, fearing reprisals from synthetic high users.
Hamilton East resident Sarah Peterson said her submission was based on "a mother's point of view" and described the surge in anti-social behaviour linked to the opening of Grey St puff shop U njoY. A tearful Ms Peterson said trees and letterboxes in her street had been attacked and recalled being confronted on Grey St by two men demanding money.
Young children were warned to keep away from the Steele Park toilets because of drug users who congregated around the park.
"My family and I have been put in incredible danger because you didn't act swiftly to close down the [puff] shop," Ms Peterson told councillors.
Speaking in support of synthetic high dealers, Star Trust general manager Grant Hall said New Zealand was "leading the world" in its efforts to regulate the sale of legal highs. Star Trust is an industry body representing the majority of retailers licensed under the psychoactive substances act, including eight of the nine retailers in Hamilton.
Mr Hall said prohibition did not work and only 1 per cent of users of synthetic highs were genetically predisposed to react adversely to the product.
The debate over synthetic highs had been captured by journalists, Mr Hall said, and he preferred the products were referred to as "social tonics".
"We're talking about low-risk products. Social tonics is a term we'd like to bring into the vernacular because it doesn't carry all the negative connotations of some of the language used in the past," Mr Hall said.
"Drugs as a word comes with a lot of baggage and that's not helpful when you're trying to have a rational discussion."
Mr Hall said Hamilton's experience of anti-social behaviour linked to puff shops wasn't mirrored in larger cities such as Christchurch, Wellington and Auckland or centres such as Palmerston North.
He didn't favour imposing a bylaw to force a lawful synthetic high retailer to shift location.
The hearing resumes tomorrow.
February 18-22: Council hears presentations on submissions.
February 26: Council to make decisions on submissions.
February 27: Council to adopt psychoactive substances policy.
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