ADF article

Here is an article Catherine McCullough and I wrote for the Australian Drug Foundation’s magazine.

New Zealand’s novel legislative approach

Like many other countries, New Zealand faces the challenges associated with the increasing prevalence of new and emerging drugs. And, like other nations, the legislative environment contains a loophole that has allowed these substances to be legally sold without any regard for the harm they may cause. But new legislation will change that by requiring manufacturers to prove that their products are ‘low risk’, at their own cost. This innovative policy response, which will be passed in August, is being watched by other countries for its effectiveness and to see if it might become a template for use elsewhere.

At present, new and emerging drugs are banned in New Zealand only after they have gone to market, and generally after harm becomes apparent. There is a minimum lag time of six weeks between a product appearing on the market and a temporary ban being established. During this time, manufacturers can generate millions of dollars in profit with no financial or criminal risk. This system encourages producers to create new substances and release them to the market without knowing the effects.

The new legislation changes that situation. It reverses the onus of proof onto the manufacturer to show that the psychoactive substances (as the bill terms them) are ‘low risk’ before they can go on sale. To do this, a regulatory authority will be established that will develop guidelines about pre-clinical toxicology testing and clinical trials, and then administer applications for approval to be sold.

The definition of a psychoactive substance is purposefully broad so that it includes any substances that could be used for psychoactive purposes. It excludes alcohol, tobacco and substances already banned.

The bill creates basic restrictions on who can import, manufacture and sell psychoactive substances, as well as anticipating future regulation about where the products can be sold, who can sell them, packaging, marketing and health warnings – in a similar way to tobacco legislation.

The regulatory authority will create a code of practice; issue licenses for importation, manufacturing and sale; conduct post-market monitoring; and have the ability to fine people who breach the legislation. There is some concern that there is no apparent health focus in the bill, and that it does not specifically define ‘low risk’. There are also questions about whether an excise tax should be levied on the products.

The New Zealand Drug Foundation’s advice to people considering tackling new and emerging drugs is to start the conversation. A wide consultation process is imperative and the proposed system must be evidence-based. Building cross-party political consensus about the problem at the outset will increase the likelihood of success.

All stakeholders must accept that the current drug laws are ineffective in dealing with the realities of new and emerging drugs.

Final word: watch this space. Monitor the New Zealand experience, learn from our mistakes and build on the positives that eventuate from the new system.

The legislation can be accessed at

Jackson Wood and Catherine McCullough are senior advisers for the New Zealand Drug Foundation.

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