Southern mayors seek to ban legal highs – good luck with that…

Three southern mayors have written an open letter to the Minister and Associate Minister of Health, Tony Ryall and Peter Dunne. The three mayors – Tim Shadbolt, Gary Tong and Tracy Hicks – are seeking “psychoactive substances (synthetic chemicals) to be banned in New Zealand”.

Do these three mayors not remember what the legal position was prior to the Psychoative Substances Act 2013 being passed? That’s right – synthetic highs were banned. At least, some of the were – the ones that had had their chemical structure analysed and been placed on the list of banned substances.

But here’s the problem. You can’t ban a substance that doesn’t yet exist, which meant that manufacturers of synthetic highs simply had to tweak the chemical structure of their product, so it didn’t match anything already on the banned list, and they were back in business. Customers had no idea what they were buying, as the chemical makeup of the available products was continually evolving to stay one step ahead of the regulators.

Do these southland mayors really believe that the current system is worse than a return to attempts to ban synthetic highs? Let’s look at the stats:

  • In the couple of years prior to the Pschoactive Substances Act being passed, nearly 300 different synthetic high products, the vast majority of which were synthetic cannabis of some stripe. Currently, only 42 products have received interim approvals, having been deemed to be low risk under its assessment guidelines. That’s over 250 products that have disappeared from the shelves.
  • With the new requirements that stores be licensed and strictly R18, approximately 95% of stores that used to sell synthetic highs have now ceased to do so.

And that’s just the interim process. Once everything fires up properly and a full approval process is underway, each and every one of those currently available products will be banned, pending their passing a rigorous testing procedure, thus satisfying the Psychoactive Substances Regulatory Authority that the product is low risk.

Do the southern mayors really want to go back to the old model? Or is this just a case of Shadbolt and Co playing politics and damn the facts. If local councils really want to get rid of legal highs, they should do what Peter Dunne has repeatedly told them they should do – follow Hamilton District Council’s lead and set up bylaws that so constrict the sale of legal highs that it becomes almost impossible to set up a legal outlet.

Of course, does anyone want to hazard a guess as to what will happen then? Black markets? Unlicensed products flooding the streets, with all of the safety risks that entails? That’s the problem with policy created by hysteria; it tends to have unintended consequences…



  1. Surely their wording of “psychoactive substances (synthetic chemicals) to be banned in New Zealand” includes things like prozac and all other mental health related chemical treatments?

  2. Do you what the story is over the ditch? Someone was saying they banned the whole lot in two weeks and then put out a law that banned anything that would imitate the drug. You can legislate around the majority of the problems if you are clever enough to really think outside the square.

    You’re right, there are unintended consequences to laws, but tell me, where is the line? I mean, surely you don’t propose to legalise P so to minimise the black market? Or perhaps you actually do? I mean with all the publicity about the bad things that synthetic cannabis is doing to people I think it will turn away a lot of otherwise open minded (young) people. Lots of information and difficulty obtaining harmful drugs (difficult in one way or another) is possibly a better way of dealing with a problem. Maybe even take it a step further, to buy it you need to have had a free psychological assessment from your doctor first? Or an hour meeting with a social worker to help you deal with issues causing you to want to escape your overwhelming reality. A stitch in time saves nine down the line. Take an opportunity to put needy people in the system with helpful people before it’s a problem that we all regret. Perhaps that would really be thinking outside the square.

  3. Over in New South Wales, in about September 2013 they adopted a system where whole classes of drugs are added to Schedule 9 of the Commonwealth Standard for the Uniform Scheduling of Medicines and Poisons (

    The NSW government has tried to paint their new laws as simply banning psychoactive substances / synthetic highs, but the different classes of legal highs still need to be added to the schedule in order to be declared illegal.

    On the face of it, it certainly seems like a far better system than what they had (they followed the old NZ system of banning each individual compound, once it was created). However, it doesn’t appear to have been in place long enough for anyone to have analysed just how easy it is to accurately describe classes of synthetic drugs to the level where Police can seize them, and whether it’s resulting in more outlandish (and probably dangerous) categories of synthetic highs being created.

    More data is needed! Especially as no other Aussie state has followed them, which you’d think would have happened fairly quickly if it was such a silver bullet.

    Unintended consequences and the line? Well, I would argue that the synthetic highs that are currently available for sale are safe for the vast majority of people who use them. Just as with cannabis, those who are predisposed to mental illness (or have already mulched their mind thanks to other drug use) may suffer mental illness triggered by use of synthetic highs. Banning these relatively safe mental highs will likely simply result in those people using something far worse. Low risk drugs (and I include cannabis in that category, as I see it as a safer alternative to the currently legal synthetic highs) should be available in a regulated environment, as currently happens.

    Meth is in a far different category to cannabis and synthetic highs. There’s no way it could be considered even remotely close to being a ‘low risk’ substance, as is the case with most other recreational drugs.

    My stance is that cannabis should be decriminalised and available in licensed R18 stores. What currently provides a vast cash black market should be taxed, with the tax take going towards drug education and rehabilitation. A far more sensible solution to prohibition.

    Basically, banning things at the lower level of risk doesn’t help society. Just look at Prohibition in America back in the day…

    Your ‘outside the square’ ideas are certainly interesting, and perhaps they’d be able to be funded if cannabis were being taxed…

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