Regulation better than bans, why not for cannabis too?


The Economist looks at the recent legislative changes regarding regulation of ‘legal highs’…where the government has gone for regulation rather than out right banning. Sure the bar is set high, but if a manufacturer is determined to pass those tests then their product can be sold.

AS THE world’s drug habit shows, governments are failing in their quest to monitor every London window-box and Andean hillside for banned plants. But even that Sisyphean task looks easy next to the fight against synthetic drugs. No sooner has a drug been blacklisted than chemists adjust their recipe and start churning out a subtly different one. These “legal highs” are sold for the few months it takes the authorities to identify and ban them, and then the cycle begins again. In June the UN reported more than 250 such drugs in circulation.

An unlikely leader in legal highs is New Zealand. Conventional hard drugs are scarce in the country, because traffickers have little interest in serving 4m people far out in the South Pacific. Kiwis therefore make their own synthetic drugs, which they take in greater quantity than virtually anyone else. The government shuts down more crystal-meth labs there than anywhere bar America and Ukraine. But the business has adapted. First it turned to benzylpiperazine, which a third of young New Zealanders have tried. When that was banned in 2008, dealers found plenty of other chemicals to peddle. Today the most popular highs are synthetic cannabinoids, which pack a harder punch than ordinary cannabis. 

And people use them because they don’t want to deal with gang members and the other assorted scum that infest the illicit drug trade.

Sick of trying to keep up with drugmakers, the government is trying a new tack. Last month a law was passed which offers drug designers the chance of getting official approval for their products. If they can persuade a new “Psychoactive Substances Regulatory Authority” that their pills and powders are low risk, they will be licensed to market them, whether or not they get people high. Drugs will have to undergo clinical trials, which the government expects to take around 18 months—much less than for medicines, because the drugs will be tested only for toxicity, not for efficacy. Drugs that are already banned internationally, such as cocaine and cannabis, are ineligible. Only licensed shops will sell the drugs, without advertising and not to children.

Why not use the same legal prescription for cannabis? …it seems ludicrous that someone can make and sell synthetic cannabis but not pass the same tests and sell “organic” cannabis.

The arguments for legalisation—that it protects consumers, shuts out criminals and saves money while raising tax—are familiar to readers of this newspaper. Yet it requires careful regulation to ensure that its outcome is not worse than widely ignored prohibition. New Zealand must now get the details right. The government has yet to define “low risk”. Set the bar too high and the policy will be prohibition by another name; too low and potentially lethal products will be on sale legally. (They are already, in the form of alcohol and tobacco, but consistency is hardly a feature of drug policy.) Nor does anybody know what level of taxation will most effectively deter consumption without encouraging a black market. Similar debates are under way in Uruguay, which is poised to legalise cannabis, and in Colorado and Washington state in America, which voted to do so last year.

The same arguments, protecting consumers, shutting out criminals and saving money while raising taxes apply just as much to canndabis as they do to synthetic chemical cocktails.

If only we had a mainstream politician in either Labour or National that would be prepared to head us in this direction. The first party to pick it up stands to gather up an extra few percent in popularity, particularly from the middle and upper echelons of society who use cannabis but don’t like dealing with criminal drug dealers.

While New Zealand and Uruguay are discussing what level of toxicity or what dosage is acceptable, every other country is leaving the matter to drug dealers, who do not care about quality control and who peddle to children on the same terms as adults. As New Zealand ponders what rate of tax to levy, in the rest of the world the business is tax-free. A hard road lies ahead for New Zealand and its fellow policy innovators. But every dilemma they face is a reminder that, unlike other jurisdictions, through government they are regulating the drugs business, not the gangs.

The easiest way to deal with gangs is to take their money off them but providing legal competition to their illicit cannabis production.

All it needs is a few politicians with some courage. It is clear that prohibition doesn’t and hasn’t worked. Time for something else.


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  • OrphanIsland

    Well said Cameron, I don’t use the synthetics, made me dizzy.

  • Rex Widerstrom

    The irony is that as the lawmakers chase the drugmakers round the chemical spiral, desperately amending legislation to cope with the repositioning of a molecule here and there, it’d be far easier if they were to regulate cannabis. Then they’d simply be able to define what it is, and pass a law stating “any substance created for general sale to the public and aiming to mimic the effects of said plant is hereby illegal”.

    But no, because then the police can’t justify dozens of extra coppers, helicopters, night vision cameras, rappelling gear (and training) and all the other goodies they get given by cynically inflaming the moral panic against all drugs, regardless of the truth.

    • Mr_Blobby

      Might be wrong on this but I believe that there are only 6 factories around the World that manufacture contact NT, the precursor ingredient for Methamphetamine.

      Now if Governments were really serious about stopping synthetic drugs, then at the source would be the best starting point.

      Strange how the production of heroin has gone through the roof since the US invaded Afghanistan, most of which is used in the US. That makes them the Worlds largest drug and arms dealers.

      • Rex Widerstrom

        Contact NT is but one OTC cold and flu remedy containing pseudoephedrine, which is the precursor to methamphetamine, or ‘P’ as it’s called in NZ.

        The reason Contact NT is such a problem (out of proportion to all other precursors) is because it’s made in China, which refuses to regulate its export.

        Within the last five years, Customs interceptions of Contact NT have increased by 1200%.

        NZ Police Association, May 2009.

        But since most of those who comment here have no problem with our letting Asian nationals do whatever they want in our economic sandpit, I’m sure they’ll have some good reason why we’ll be free trade pariahs if we object to this and ask China to at least make some effort to stop this stuff flooding across their borders. Or something.

      • Mediaan

        Yes. A couple of years before the Afghan invasion, a small group of stories on BBC World website were saying the Taliban had banned heroin production. Since the invasion, those stories have disappeared.

    • Mediaan

      And they (police) are presumably listening to officials in the USA who are said by Americans to be involved in the drug trade. Who naturally favour keeping others out of it. Plenty of books written about it.

  • Day Day

    Some of the synthetics are quite useful, they don’t contain chemicals mimicking CBD. So there isn’t the residual “dopiness” once it’s worn off. Usually in an hour or two.

  • blokeintakapuna

    Amen to that!
    A prime example of dogmatic adhearance to ideology that only proves the law is an Ass sometimes. The hypocrisy, cost to the individual and enforcement is just so not needed in 2013 New Zealand.

    Mr. key. You promised a pragmatic government.. And so far you’ve delivered …. And delivered under exceptional and trying circumstances, but we can do more as a country.

    First mover advantage on medicinal marijuana butter to the World… And associated hemp bio fuel industries, would allow every single town in NZ to eliminate unemployment by virtue of the cottage industry self employed.

    Legalise, tax it, encourage self employment in far flung corners, and provide the World with a natural medication. The terminally and chronically I’ll will forever thank NZ for it.

    The political propaganda surrounding this medicine plant is so astounding and so completely out of step with reality AND the World in 2013…

    Mr. Key… Legislator’s… Please sponsor an open debate about the merits of the herb to prove, or otherwise… the medicinal, social and individual merits of it… Or not.

    • Mr_Blobby

      Don’t know about all that Bloke.

      Legalizing is better than decriminalization.

      With legalizing it becomes like alcohol and tobacco. You can TAX it to a. make money and b. offset the social harm. Tobacco is a billion dollar plus tax grab the social harm is 500 million. The illegal drugs trade is estimated at about a billion dollars, nothing to offset the social harm and massive enforcement costs.

      Have you ever wondered with the price of tobacco with its 90% tax that the gangs don’t grow and sell it.

      Try the penalties for growing Cannabis, stuff all. Then look what happens when some one grows and sells Tobacco. Absolutely staggering.

      • Rex Widerstrom

        Decriminalisation, though, is a relatively safe first step. Since the moral panic is now ingrained so deep (“reefer madness” etc., as Harvey Wilson mentions) the thought of the dairy selling a pack of “Hiza Kite” (or whatever brand name the marketers come up with) alongside their 40 B&H “mild” is too scary for most.

        Decriminalise it to begin with, so we do away with all this political and police posturing and stop filling our jails with non-violent offenders. Then after a few years to demonstrate to the populace there isn’t madness in our streets, burning cars, looting and raping by demented cannabis addicts, there might be a majority for legalisation and our timid pollies will find the revenues of which you speak irresistible.

        And yes, while we’re at it, let’s allow anyone who wants to grow a bit of chop chop to apply for a licence at a reasonable cost. That way hopefully it won’t be laced with Roundup. Or sheep dag dust.

      • Muffin

        You are allowed to grow your own tobacco. Just can’t sell it

        • Mr_Blobby

          True but check out what happened to the few who did dare to sell it. Massive fines and excise tax.

          • Muffin

            I agree with that.

  • Harvey Wilson

    Reefer Madness and non user ignorance still prevails in the corridors of power. When I become PM things will change. You’ll be able to take whatever the fuck drugs you want, BUT, random screening will be allowable in the workplace, on the roads, and at WINZ.

    Employers will be able to choose whether or not they hire (or continue to hire) anybody testing positive to any drugs, including alcohol and tobacco.

    Road users caught with it in their system will be banned from driving until they are clean, with compulsory blood tests weekly forever.

    Beneficiaries will lose their benefit as per above.

    Medical use of drugs will be the only acceptable challenge to my policy.


  • BobaJob

    There is plenty of evidence out there that Real Cannabis is less harmful than the designer drugs being passed off as synthetic cannabis. Drug pushers are lying scum bags dealing misery and death. In my opinion they’re right their with the lowest form of live on the planet – lower even.

    I’ve had a good read of the message board out there and the this one is pretty typical

    I support the medical use of cannabis – it’s a medicine in my opinion. But having read so many of these truly horrible stories of misery I wouldn’t object to those wanting to smoke it recreationally having easy access to it.

    • Muffin

      The only problem I see is that if you legalise weed then you can’t cut benefits for those that use it.

      • BobaJob

        Maybe make some a trade off i.e. reduced benefit cash for weed coupons or a Weed Card. Add to that some compulsory drug and life education and work skills programs – no getting high while you’re doing those. Really go all out to give the youth hooked into it a helping hand up and away from it.
        Only the real chronic hopeless cases would stay locked into that lifestyle, but at least this would benefit the tax payer by reducing the costs for policing, courts and legal, reduce the petty crime rate. Give give the users some safety around the product etc…

        Just some thoughts……

  • JamesH

    Excellent topic, well done WO for an “even keel” approach to such a sticky subject. Exactly why this blog is my daily read,

  • robert

    You had a politican who said this not so long ago. Short memories you lot.
    Name of Dr Don Brash.
    Remember him. well ya knifed him in the back.
    You got what you deserve. key ain’t got what it tkes.

  • Mediaan

    “The easiest way to deal with gangs is to take their money off them but
    providing legal competition to their illicit cannabis production.” Well said. They make lots of money out of it, so they push young kids towards drugs as hard as they can.

  • ButcombeMan

    Legalization emphatically does not “shut out criminals” how could it?

    Why should criminals give up a share of the market?

    There is a logic failure at the heart of the article.

    There is huge market in illegal and counterfeit tobacco in many countries