Drummond: Why legal highs should not be banned

JOSHUA DRUMMOND
Last updated 14:25 24/01/2014

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OPINION: Apparently there is a legal highs shop open in Hamilton East.

It might be possible for a Hamilton resident not to have noticed this over the last month or so, but that would be difficult. The wave of publicity has resulted in some interesting sights. A few days ago I was treated to the sight of several different couples (older people in their late 50s - 60s, mostly) curiously peering into the window of U njoY, Grey Street's very own legal high retailer, perhaps hoping to catch a glimpse of whatever demons lurked within. Or maybe they just wanted some drugs.

One has to wonder if the barrage of media coverage has led to a boom in business for U njoY, which is, it has to be said, a really crappy name. If you take out the space the name becomes "Unjoy," which seems an accurate neologism for the unhappiness suffered by the shop's immediate neighbours. There's no doubt about the problems neighbours have been suffering, ranging from the mere presence of the sort of people relatively well-to-do persons might like to label "vagrants", to panhandling, full-on harassment and street brawls.

Then there's the question of what's actually in the stuff the shop is selling. The ones that seem to be getting the most attention are THC substitutes, which are chemicals that mimic the effects of tetrahydrocannabinol, the psychoactive ingredient in cannabis. Synthetic THC substitutes have a bad reputation, with severe adverse effects being reported by medical staff at emergency rooms. Most alarmingly, these include seizures and psychosis.

So what's the obvious solution? Well. It's obvious. The indisputable facts are that the shop is causing problems, and legal highs themselves are dangerous. Ban them outright! It's the common-sense thing to do. Obviously.

Except this would be a terrible idea.

If there's one fact that shines bright throughout human history it's that we love to create substances that make our neurons go "ping." In recent history, prohibition has been the method of choice for dealing with these substances - even those which, when used in moderation, don't result in serious harm. This simply doesn't work, as demonstrated by the United States in the 1920s.

What's being attempted here, and what is culminating in problems for a few places where legal high vendors are attracting unwelcome customers, is a legislative and regulatory approach that focuses on harm minimisation, rather than the fantasy that making a thing illegal makes it just kind of go away. Until the passing of the Psychoactive Substances Act last year, the Government was involved in a game of legal whack-a-mole with the dickheads who peddle legal highs. They'd ban something, for often good reasons. A slightly altered substance would just pop up - and the effects were usually worse.

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The new legislation puts the onus on the producers of these things to make sure they're at least minimally harmful, if not safe (and no drug is safe). It makes sure that the only places allowed to sell the stuff are places with a license to do so. It also allows local councils to set boundaries on where legal high shops can actually be. Believe it or not, this is something that the Hamilton City Council is well and truly on to. The rules currently being mooted for legal high retailers would forbid them from operating in close proximity to locations like parks and schools. When the changes go through it's likely U njoY's days, at least in its current location, are numbered.

The true nature of the problem isn't simply the availability of legal highs. It is one of visibility. Before the Psychoactive Substances Act passed, any shop could choose to stock whatever non-illegal, unlicensed substance they damn well wanted. Many did. People bought them. Many were law-abiding folk who just like to get good and high sometimes. Other were people for whom getting wasted is a major problem. Now the trade is restricted to the Internet and certain interim license-holders, and that's resulted in queues outside the one "puff shop" which has been featured on the front pages of the local paper several times a month. For an analogy, imagine shutting down every single liquor store in Hamilton, except for one, at the same time. The queues would stretch for miles, and the social disorder would make U njoY's problems look utopian.

Of course, what would make even more sense would be legalising proper pot. THC isn't the only thing in actual cannabis. There are a number of other chemicals of interest present, including cannabidiol, which is an anticonvulsant. It's possible that the lack of this moderating ingredient, or anything like it, in synthetic THC substitutes is contributing to their alarming effects. Free the weed, and I'm pretty sure the bottom would drop out of the legal highs market overnight.

Joshua Drummond is a freelance writer and illustrator who took a party pill once. It made him uncomfortably energetic. His website is cakeburger.com


- Waikato

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