Kiwis on drugs: A blueprint for the future?

New Zealand drug bust 2006 Evidence from a New Zealand drugs operation, 2006

Want to know what the future for global drug control looks like?

This week New Zealand publishes its Psychoactive Substances Bill, legislation which some believe will transform the international debate on drugs policy when it comes into force in August.

The new law is a response to the problem of "legal highs", but is being seized upon by reformers because it crosses a Rubicon - designing a legislative framework built upon regulation rather than prohibition.

As in Britain, the New Zealand government had attempted to control the influx of new psychoactive substances by imposing emergency restrictions under existing misuse of drugs legislation.

Unlike Britain, they have concluded that a "long-term and more effective solution" is to license the importation, manufacture and sale of all new psychoactive products.

In the same way as pharmaceutical companies must apply for a licence to sell a drug after extensive testing, so suppliers of legal highs will be able to market products in New Zealand if they can demonstrate they present a low risk of harm.

Rather than trying to ban every new drug that turns up, the legislation shifts responsibility to the manufacturer and the retailer.

Just as a bottle of aspirin can only be sold in certain outlets with all the warnings of the risks on the label, so recreational drugs will be available over the counter in New Zealand later this year.

There will be restrictions on sales to vulnerable consumers, particularly young people, and breaches of the rules could see manufacturers fined up to $500,000 (£275,000) or jailed for two years.

The legal highs dilemma reminds me of the panic that preceded the introduction of the Misuse of Drugs Act in the UK in 1971.

The home secretary at the time, Jim Callaghan, told Parliament how Britain faced a "pharmaceutical revolution" which presented such dangers that if the country was "supine in the face of them" it would quickly lead to "grave dangers to the whole structure of our society".

Jim Callaghan, 1969 Jim Callaghan argued drug abuse should be tackled through state prohibition

"Stimulants, depressants, tranquillisers, hallucinogens have all been developed during the last 10 years, and our society has not yet come to terms with the circumstances in which they should properly be used or in which they are regarded as being socially an evil," he explained.

Callaghan concluded that the answer was state prohibition - the criminal justice system would be the main tool to fight drug abuse. Those who argued that Britain should retain its traditional harm-reduction model were drowned out.

The New Zealand legislation comes at a key moment in the debate about global drugs policy, returning us to that moment in the late 60s when Britain and others took the fork in the road marked "prohibition".

This year has been designated by the United Nations as the start of an "intense preparatory process", before the General Assembly holds a special session in 2016 to "review the current policies and strategies to confront the global drug problem".

There is very little intensity or preparation in the UK, where the prime minister recently reiterated his opposition to even questioning the prohibition model.

When the Home Affairs select committee recommended a royal commission to consider alternatives in December, David Cameron instantly dismissed the idea arguing "we have a policy which is working in Britain".

United Nations General Assembly United Nations General Assembly

You may recall, however, that in an interview with me, the Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg broke coalition ranks to demand a fundamental review of Britain's drug laws as part of Britain's preparations for the UN General Assembly meeting in three years time.

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The new law is being seized upon by reformers because it designs a legislative framework built upon regulation rather than prohibition”

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His aides told me Mr Clegg believes the UK needs to have at least considered the issues and how they might shape the EU's negotiating stance ahead of a UN session that has the capacity to rewrite the international drugs conventions.

What principles should guide Britain, Europe and the UN in considering a possible new approach to the problem of dangerous drugs?

The former head of the UK government's Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD), Professor David Nutt has sent me his thoughts.

Prof Nutt, of course, was sacked by the last Labour government after publicly questioning the wisdom of the prohibition-based policy, but has subsequently been involved in helping the New Zealand government design their Psychoactive Substances Bill.

He has a wish list of principles for laws on drugs:

  • They should cover all drugs including alcohol and tobacco, and any new/future synthetics
  • Health should be the defining principle
  • Interventions should be proportionate to harm (and be as evidence-based as possible)
  • Human rights should be respected
  • They should minimise unexpected consequences
  • They should be globally balanced (ie take account of effects in all countries)
  • Local/national autonomy should be allowed as far as possible.

This is an interesting starting point for a debate ahead of the global drugs summit (UNGASS 2016 in the jargon) and I would be interested in readers' reaction to it.

How Britain and the European Union line up at the special session will probably be less important than the stance of the US, who were the architects of the current key international drug conventions.

Just before Christmas, President Obama was asked for his response to the decision of two US states, Washington and Colorado, to legalise the recreational use of marijuana. "It would not make sense for us to see a top priority as going after recreational users in states that have determined that it's legal," he said. "We've got bigger fish to fry."

Cannibis smoker in Uruguay

While President Obama has re-stated his personal opposition to the legalisation of marijuana and maintains the official US government position, some have noted that he said he does not "at this point" support a change in direction.

With Uruguay announcing its intention to breach UN conventions and legalise marijuana under state control, Obama's stance on Colorado and Washington makes it very hard for the US to justify sanctions against such countries and provides ammunition for those who argue global drugs policy is no longer sustainable.

Could New Zealand's legislation to control legal highs be a blueprint for the future?

Mark Easton Article written by Mark Easton Mark Easton Home editor

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  • rate this

    Comment number 108.

    @101 Fully agree. It's the only sensible option left when faced with the failure that is the 25 year "war on drugs". And it's cost i measured in $Trillion+, not billions. Imagine how the US could use a piece of that right now!
    Bring it under state control, regulate it. Tax it. Save hundreds of billions worldwide currently wasted trying to stop the shady manufacturers and dealers. No brainer?

  • rate this

    Comment number 107.

    At least legalize marijuana for goodness sake! It would have a huge effect on the economy and crime and we can finally sake off the myths of "only chavs and hippies smoke and it turns your crazy" when this is just not true. Any report about someone who looses it tries to blame cannabis when its just not so. It simply cannot be justified to have legal alcohol with problems that creates

  • rate this

    Comment number 106.

    Resources should not be wasted going after drug users/abusers. Regulate all drugs -prescription & otherwise.
    Tax them = revenue.
    Destroy profiteering of criminals.
    Treat drug abuse as a "sickness" that needs attention, including encouragement into rehab.
    Get pushers off the streets & if you want to prosecute, prosecute this bunch of scum.

  • rate this

    Comment number 105.

    104. No the gun argument is not the same. Guns are to harm other people not the user. Drugs very rarely physically harm anyone but the user.

    Legalise all drugs and cut out the cartels and street dealers. Drug use should be decriminalised and treated as a health problem.

    101. Well said

  • rate this

    Comment number 104.

    Down the back of the sofa
    28th February 2013 - 13:59

    This is sanity. Legalise all drugs. Just because Heroin is legal won't make more people take it.

    Apply the same argument to guns. The Americans sells guns and ammunition in local supermarkets. Apparently this has no effect on rates of firearm ownership.

  • rate this

    Comment number 103.

    As a military-trained addiction/trauma psychiatrist, I am strongly in favor of ending the drugs prohibitions and regulating each drug based on its harm to public health. In America, a good start would be to move all drugs in the Drug Enforcement Agency's Schedule I to Schedule II or lower and take marijuana completely out of the controlled drug schedule.

  • rate this

    Comment number 102.

    Mr Cameron perceives the Drug policy to be working, as it keeps a lot of the legal system , the police force and the prisons in business...How many jobs could be cut if we "prescribed" these at present illegal substances. More importantly, if the unfortunate drug user's had to collect their supply's from a clinic, they could be offered "Support" and possible psychotherapy if they desired. Saftey

  • rate this

    Comment number 101.


    Ah, my apologies. Let me explain.

    We can either a) abandon this "war" and look for alternatives such as decriminalising them and therefore taking the power out of the hands of pushers and dealers. Start approaching it from a different angle. Or b) we can carry throwing billions at it in the vain hope that some miracle happens.

  • rate this

    Comment number 100.

    We are really getting their.
    Goverments all over this world are starting to worry about people power and their right to use substances that have not been taxed.
    Alcohol and smoking are taxed high and they are so called legal substantces.
    They think we are subserviant to their so called wise words about the harm and affects of non taxed and so called illigeal drug
    We are the electorate beware!.

  • rate this

    Comment number 99.

    Freedom, Ism'isms - A world slowly coming round to equality, individual rights, changing silly antiquated laws which make no sense in todays world > Most would call this "progress".

    World struggling in debt but drug cartels VERY affluent - makes sense?!

    Never try or use drugs is the BEST choice for a great life, but it is not everyones choice.

    Accept and manage or criminalise and ignore?

  • rate this

    Comment number 98.

    Voice ( if I may be so bold, we've been through a lot togther ..)

    Rob was all man/goblin. How do you think we got the Lord of the Rings gig? They saved a fortune on make-up by using some of our locals.

    Richie McCaw is part Elf and one of the Conchords is 1/4 Orc on his father's side.

    A lot of people thought Helen Clark was Vulcan somewhere along the line..

  • rate this

    Comment number 97.

    #96 VoiceofReason - drugs were legal in the Uk in the 19th and early 20th century - viz, the option of buying a cocktail of various, now illegal, substances, that could be sent to "our boys at the front" in a special presentation tin bought from Harrods (info courtesy of QI) .

  • rate this

    Comment number 96.

    93. panamaroadtohuhu2

    Your ascertation that you were governed by a goblin for years is not helping the case for relaxing the drug laws, besides the goblin may have been your first transgender MP, it is hard to tell with goblins you know.

    94. PaulRM

    See post 81, besides people never stop moaning about the tax on booze and fags and I can't stand the thought of more whinging.

  • rate this

    Comment number 95.

    No 91. To add, I didnt know in December, David Cameron instantly dismissed the idea arguing "we have a drugs policy which is working in Britain".

    I dont want a Prime Minister - who is content to make comments that are not truthful.
    He is the spokesperson for our Country but hides behind lies/misrepresentation (not on our behalf only to substantiate his clown policy decisions and the costs)

  • rate this

    Comment number 94.

    The lesson of USA alcohol prohibition was clear for all to see; so the consequences of substance prohibition should not have come as a surprise - to anybody. Legalise, regulate,& tax - along with a statutory obligation imposed on the supplying industries to be responsible for the creation & maintenance of facilities to treat & rehabiltate those lives ruined by their products (incl fags & booze).

  • rate this

    Comment number 93.


    He can't come to the phone right now as he is laughing hysterically at the size of his mate's eyebrows/scoffing his 12th Al n Pete's donut.


    I forgot to add we also had the first transgender MP. There were a couple before her we weren't sure about but Georgina Beyer was the real McCoy and good on her.

    PS we were run by a goblin from 1975-1984 - another first!

  • rate this

    Comment number 92.

    88. GravityBeckons

    So let me get this right....
    The argument is that a war failed so we must legalise drugs.

    It's just that I am not really following the logic.

  • rate this

    Comment number 91.

    Can see an influx in hospitalisations while some try, too much.. Then gradual decline to a controlled provision, and overall less usage. Well done Kiwi's.

    As for David Camerons dismissal - saying we have a policy which is working in Britain. - WHAT A LIAR!! How is it working?? - I think if you understood the situation you will see it is more not working, than working Mr D for deceitful Cameron.

  • rate this

    Comment number 90.

    Some of the psychoactive drugs can cause harm long after they were taken. Back in the 60's some people were having "tripping" moments days after taking LSD. How would you track that back to the retailer if someone had a moment like that when driving down a street with crowded pavements.

  • rate this

    Comment number 89.

    Would love to know what panamaroadotahuhu1 thinks on it?


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