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Call for legal high prosecution amnesty

Wednesday 7th May 2014

The Drug Foundation is calling for a six-month amnesty on prosecutions for possession of psychoactive substances to remove a “barrier of fear” to people seeking help.  

From midnight tonight, it will be an offence to to sell, supply or possess synthetic drugs. Possession of even a small amount of the so-called legal highs will attract a $500 fine. Parliament passed the legislation under urgency, after what the Ministry of Health calls “continuing concerns about the harms associated with the use of products with interim approvals, largely in relation to synthetic cannabis.” (The Wireless reported on the change to the law in Longwave last weekend.)

Drug Foundation executive director Ross Bell said in a news release that “an amnesty would be a pragmatic and compassionate move which will assist people to access help services.” He said “one of the biggest barriers for people asking for help for themselves or others and getting into treatment is the fear of getting busted.”

The Ministry of Health advised, in a regulatory impact statement, that addiction issues are an important consideration. “An estimated 150 to 200 people may be dependent on products they can no longer obtain, and could suffer withdrawal symptoms.”

It said it is confident that any increase in demand for treatment services can be met through current arrangements, but added that “specialist treatment services have experienced increased demand from people using psychoactive substances.”

We asked people on the streets of Wellington what they thought of the new ban. 

Dr Tom Flewett, the head of addiction services at Capital and Coast District Health Board, told Nine To Noon that the overall impact of legal highs has been relatively minor. “We continue to see alcohol as the major problem and then cannabis as the next most common problem, but the impact when we do see it has been relatively impressive, with people suffering greater degree of disability when they do develop episodes of illness”

He points to patients saying that the drugs are legal, so they must be OK. “No drug is safe – you know that as well as I do, as you sip your coffee there,” Dr Flewett told Kathryn Ryan.  “Every drug has side effects, downsides, and to focus on the use of the word safe really means we have no option but to revert back to this idea of prohibition as being the ultimate way of ensuring safety. Which of course we can’t do. As soon as we go back to prohibition, then the illegal use of the mind altering substances for the hedonistic effect will pick up.  


The ministry says it has no information yet about the prevalence of use of the products being made illegal. It estimates, based on data obtained from licence holders, that around 3.5 million packets of products with an interim approval have been sold since July 2013. People who use these products are expected to stockpile them for their own personal use and the black market is assumed to stockpile to supply future demand.

“Because these mechanisms will provide for the continued supply of these products irrespective of legal status, use and associated harms amongst dedicated users is expected to continue. However, the cessation of legal sale can reasonably be assumed to reduce the use of these products amongst casual users,” the ministry says.

Businesses selling the substances have been trying to get rid of stock, with some offering discounts of up to 75 per cent. But those spoken to by Radio New Zealand News said trading was slow and they suspected users had been bulk buying in the two weeks since the law change was signalled.

The Drug Foundation’s Ross Bell says the Government could further aid people looking for help by running a promotion campaign for the Alcohol and Drug Helpline. The Ministry of Health also has information on how to get help.

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Megan is a former senior producer for The Wireless. She has worked in Radio New Zealand News, Sport, and Radio New Zealand International, has an extensive library of animated gifs, and spends too much time on the internet.
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