Legal high knee-jerking: Deconstructing the angst

Well, after three weeks of almost-daily pressure from Campbell Live, the government has finally folded and announced the imminent removal of legal highs from the shelves. All interim approvals will be cancelled.

However, the government (and indeed the opposition, since every MP but John Banks voted for the Psychoactive Substances Act 2013) got almost exactly what it had wanted from the new legislation – the number of products on shelves was cut dramatically; the number of outlets stocking legal highs dropped by 95%; and according to the Ministry of Health anecdotal reports demonstrate “the number of severe presentations to emergency departments [due to problems with psychoactive substances] has reduced since the Act came in” (see Tim Watkins’ Pundit post). As far as I can see, the law was and is working precisely as Parliament intended.

So why has this knee-jerk policy announcement happened? Let’s look at some of the culprits.

1. The ever-pervasive laws of supply and demand: As Parliament intended, the number of shops stocking legal highs was slashed. The demand for the product was not. Therefore, the buyers of legal highs, once spread thinly across a far greater number of suppliers, now congregate at a select few supply locations. What was once a largely unseen trade has now become extremely visible, with queues forming down streets in a number of locations. The public has suddenly gone from blissful ignorance to a state of squalid knowledge.

2. Local councils: As Peter Dunne has hammered endlessly in almost every interview for past three weeks, Parliament gave local councils exactly what they had asked for, namely, the ability to pass local plans regulating where legal highs could be sold (just as occurs with the sale of alcohol). Only Hamilton and Hastings councils passed such plans. The remainder, such as the southern mayors, simply whinged about the government passing the problem on to them.

(Admittedly, having the councils relegate the sale of legal highs to just one or two locations would only intensify the public perception problem at those few locations. And a de facto ban, which is essentially what Hamilton and Hastings had put in place, simply results in a black market, creating its own brand of problems.)

3. The government: The approval regime for testing proposed products and ensuring they are low risk was not due to be announced until 2015. How long does it take to set up a testing framework and clarify what is low risk? While in the meantime, the more the moral panic grows…

4. Parliament and partisan politics: Despite voting for the Act just last year, the moral panic has been such that Labour have been unable to resist putting the boot into the government, secretly preparing a bill to overturn the interim approvals. Unfortunately for Labour, their plans were leaked and Peter Dunne announced the government’s plan to overturn the interim approvals one day ahead of Labour. Peter Dunne says that Cabinet gave the green light to the government’s bill two weeks ago, but that he was planning to hold off on making any public announcements “to prevent panic-buying and stockpiling”.

Despite Dunne admitting that his early announcement was political, he sanctimoniously stated:

“The consequence is going to be there will be a period now of binge-buying over the next couple of weeks and they [Labour] have to bear the responsibility for that.”

No, Mr Dunne – you made the call to announce your bill weeks early, for your political purposes. The responsibility is yours.

If Dunne really cared about the issues of binge-buying and stockpiling, he would have picked up the phone to the Labour party weeks ago and come to a bipartisan accord. After all, did he really think that Labour wouldn’t have been preparing some anti-government lines of attack on the issue, with an election fast approaching? Instead, here’s Dunne’s response on Twitter to Labour’s Iain Lees-Galloway, who had been criticising Dunne for not picking up the phone to Labour:

“and do you really think the government would have given you a victory on this?”

If National, Labour and Dunne had worked together on this issue, a number of harms could have been ameliorated. A pity Dunne couldn’t resist the allure of egotism and grandstanding, as opposed to principle.

 

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