New Zealand’s psychoactive substances legislation

31 August 2013

On 11 July 2013, the New Zealand Parliament passed the Psychoactive Substances Act. The legislation enacted a new legal framework for the testing, manufacture, sale, and regulation of psychoactive products with the responsibility on manufacturers to prove a product 'low risk before it could be sold.' The expectation is that the adoption of new modern drug policies will ensure that the drugs people do take are safe, and that help can be accessed easily for those who need it. If the New Zealand approach is successful, other countries might follow lead, or even improve on what has been have done so far.

As with many western countries, New Zealand’s drug laws are out of date and are causing more harm than was originally intended. The laws carry the shadow of a prohibitionist past, have failed to keep up with innovations in drug production and supply and do not relate well to modern understandings of harm reduction and health protection.

The challenge of Benzylpiperazine (BZP) ‘party pills’ in the late 1990s and early 2000s made deficiencies in New Zealand’s drug law abundantly clear. No framework for controlling BZP and other party pills could be found within existing laws and regulations. An endless cat and mouse game began between the Government and the ‘legal high’ industry, with new psychoactive substances (NPS) coming onto the market as quickly as existing substances could be banned.

This prompted the New Zealand Government to order a review by the New Zealand Law Commission of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1975 (MODA). The recommendations from this review led to New Zealand’s ground-breaking and worldleading Psychoactive Substances Act 2013.

New Zealand’s small population and remote location make for a poor and risky market for international drug rings. Drugs like heroin and cocaine, which are present in other parts of the world, are relatively rare. The creation of NPS continues a long history of New Zealanders making the most of available resources to create substitutes for drugs that are unavailable.

It is fitting then, that New Zealand has become the first country to pass legislation that seeks to regulate NPS to ensure they are low risk, rather than to control them through prohibition and punitive measures.

The Psychoactive Substances Act 2013 has been generally well-received by politicians, the ‘legal high’ industry and the public. It is also receiving considerable attention from like-minded jurisdictions around the world.

As we shall see, if is far from a perfect or final solution, but it bodes extremely well for future drug policy development and reform, both here and overseas.

This briefing paper was written in collaboration with the New Zealand Drug Foundation

Psychoactive substances – Frequently asked questions, New Zealand Ministry of Health

IDPC/NZDF Briefing Paper
September 2013

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