New Zealand’s Parliament enacted a landmark law two weeks ago that will regulate and control – rather than criminalize – so-called “bath salts” and other new synthetic drugs.
The first-of-its-kind law, the Psychoactive Substance Act of 2013, came into effect on July 18, after being approved in Parliament by a 119-1 margin, with the support of seven different political parties from across New Zealand’s political spectrum.
The legislation creates a new government agency, the Psychoactive Substances Regulatory Authority, within the Ministry of Health that will be charged with ensuring that synthetic psychoactive products meet adequate safety standards before going to market. The new regulatory body will also implement and administer a licensing system for potential importers, manufacturers, wholesalers, retailers and researchers.
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The law immediately establishes several regulatory restrictions:
- a minimum purchasing age of 18;
- restrictions on retail outlets, including a ban on sales in convenience stores;
- requirements for labeling and packaging, including mandatory health warnings;
- and a ban on advertising except at the point-of-sale.
“This represents a potentially transformative breakthrough in the legal regulation of drugs that typically have been criminalized with little forethought,” said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance. “ It pokes an important hole in the edifice of drug prohibition.”
In recent years, several countries have adopted less repressive drug policies, including harm reduction approaches and decriminalization. In Latin America and many other parts of the world, momentum is currently building to explore less punitive measures that would reduce the economic, social and human costs of the war on drugs.
However, following sensationalized media reports, the U.S. Congress passed legislation in 2012 that completely prohibited many of these synthetic drugs.
As an island nation that produces (rather than imports) most of the illegal drugs it consumes domestically, New Zealand has struggled with the emergence of unregulated synthetic drugs. Unlike other countries that have passed laws to criminalize new synthetic drugs, though, New Zealand will now allow manufacturers to sell such products – but only if they can prove their product has a low risk to the consumer.
Individuals and companies who wish to apply for approval of a new drug product must demonstrate that the product poses a low risk of harm to the consumer. The application process requires the product to undergo rigorous clinical trials to examine toxicity and addictiveness (at the expense of the producer/importer), followed by an evaluation of the results by an independent expert advisory committee.
“Simply banning these drugs only incentivizes producers to develop drugs that get around the law – regardless of what they will do to the people that take them,” said Ross Bell, executive director of the New Zealand Drug Foundation. “This model incentivizes producers to develop drugs that are safer. We think that’s a much smarter way to go about it.”
Supporters of the legislation have argued that outright criminalization is likely to drive these products to the underground market, which provides no age restrictions or other regulatory controls. What is more, attempts to ban one new substance after another have proven futile – each time one gets banned, another new, untested and oftentimes more dangerous drug fills the void to replace it. According to the New Zealand Ministry of Health, “Regulating psychoactive substances will help protect the health of, and minimize harm to, individuals who use these substances.”