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How the widdle wabbits killed NZ's progressive drug law - Tactical Ninja

Feb. 18th, 2015

10:22 am - How the widdle wabbits killed NZ's progressive drug law

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So you might have heard that New Zealand recently passed a law regulating the manufacture and sale of psychoactive substances. Lots of people in harm reduction worldwide are going "Yay New Zealand for passing such progressive laws!"

I was cynical from the start, especially when the main instigator of the law, Peter Dunne, was widely quoted as saying that it would "Deal the final death blow" to the industry. That doesn't sound progressive to me, just saying. And my cynicism has been borne out - a bunch of misguided reporting led to a moral panic in which people thought drugs had been somehow legalised, parents marched, and in election year the government did a U-turn and decided that until the regulations were in place, no psychoactive substances could be sold at all.

Thing is, drugs were never legalised - quite the opposite. The law made every new substance illegal until it'd been proven to carry only a low risk of harm. Which means that every new substance is now banned - we have total prohibition, which is more regressive than the US, in fact more regressive than most Western countries.

And then along came the animal rights activists. The first iteration of the law allowed animal testing, but only in circumstances where no alternative was available. That's fine - The OECD guidelines have alternatives which allow for the vast majority of testing to be done without using animals. Neato! Except that wasn't good enough for some people, and a great deal of pressure was put on the government to not allow any animal testing of these substances for whatever reason. And the government caved.

The problem with this is that there are no OECD validated alternatives for systemic toxicity or teratogenesis, two of the areas that are required to be covered by the law. This means that it is impossible to prove within the law that a substance poses no more than a low risk of harm, which means that no substances will be licensed for sale. Which means, in case it wasn't obvious, that New Zealand has actually banned everything, forever. At least, until we get a better law.

I realise that whether you agree or disagree with the animal rights activists whose efforts caused this situation depends on your view of animals and how they relate to humans, what it's ok and not ok to use animals for. And I'm aware that one of the main arguments for this ban was that these are recreational substances and so testing cannot easily be justified by need (ie medical need or economic need or human need). I'm also aware that the view of people who use recreational drugs is stigmatised to the point where many people automatically think of drug users as losers who deserve whatever they get. I have to wonder, though, how the view that the 'druggies' deserve what they get sits alongside the view that animals are people too - if one is ok with people dying (and they do, every day) because of drug prohibition, and animals are people, why do we let people die to protect the animals?

More on the animal testing part of the PSA here, for those with an interest.

Comments:

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From:randomdreams
Date:February 18th, 2015 03:11 am (UTC)
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I'm a little surprised that cell cultures can't be used for teratogenic studies.
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From:tatjna
Date:February 18th, 2015 07:37 pm (UTC)
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I don't know enough about that field to comment with any authority, but my understanding is that there are no methods currently considered valid by the OECD - I'm not sure if this means there are methods in development, but I for one would be stoked if someone came up with one.
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From:randomdreams
Date:February 19th, 2015 04:03 am (UTC)
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I'll do some reading.
I know how we did teratogenicity testing, but I'm sure it wouldn't be directly applicable to human models: it was a very rough approximation technique.
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From:pythia
Date:February 18th, 2015 08:22 am (UTC)
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It's also interesting in that while many of the substances would be mainly for recreational use, a lot of them DO have therapeutic value - psilocybin, LSD etc. and this has presumably closed all avenues of experimentation for those uses, too.
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From:tatjna
Date:February 18th, 2015 07:36 pm (UTC)
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There's an organisation called the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) who have been working since the 1980s to investigate and establish research into the medical benefits of currently illegal substances. They are in the second stage of human trials using MDMA to assist psychotherapy for PTSD in several countries (not NZ), and they are also now trialling LSD for end-of-life anxiety in terminal patients, and psilocybin for (of all things) giving up smoking.

MAPS are awesome.
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From:russiandolls
Date:February 18th, 2015 09:17 am (UTC)
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Hi Wendy, could you explain a little more about how/why people are dying due to drug prohibition? I don't think I entirely understand the point you're making.
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From:tatjna
Date:February 18th, 2015 07:31 pm (UTC)
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Well, there are a few different ways people die due to prohibition. There are the direct ways - for example Iran executed 331 people for possession or trafficking of drugs in 2013. And there are indirect ways, such as the over 100,000 people estimated to have been killed in drug-related violence in Mexico by the end of 2013.

On a more individual level, there are also a few ways. There are deaths from overdose due to inconsistency in the strength of heroin on the market, with no way for users to tell how much they're taking. There are deaths from overdose when users who are coerced into abstinence-only rehab systems backslide and say, smoke a joint. Then they realise they'll be going to jail because their urine test will show they used drugs, so they decide to have one last taste, and because their tolerance is lowered due to abstinence they OD. This happened to someone I knew.

There are also hidden damages. There are an estimated 50,000 people over 50 in NZ whose livers are packing up due to Hepatitis contracted by sharing needles in the 70s, before needle exchange programs were begun. In Russia, they just shut down all their needle exchanges because they are considered to be inconsistent with the prohibition message, and it's expected that there will be a spike in HIV and hepatitis deaths there due to this.

But the one that's probably most directly relevant to my post and to users of recreational pills in New Zealand is adulteration. Some figures I recently viewed showed that of 48 samples of street drugs bought in NZ, only 9 were actually what they were purported to be. What's scary is that 2 of the samples were PMA which has been implicated in a number of deaths worldwide, and a further 7 were 25iNBOMe - a substance that can cause sudden death or psychosis, even in what's considered to be a 'normal' dose. These things are being sold to Kiwis, who believe they are purchasing the relatively harmless MDMA or LSD. And because the purity of our drugs has always been quite low due to our isolation and strict border control, kiwis have no basis for comparison as to what these things should feel like. Basically, a kiwi takes a pill and if they feel anything at all, they assume it's MDMA and will buy it again. People have died overseas from these substances and it's only a matter of time here - in fact I wouldn't be surprised to find that some of the so-called BZP deaths, where in every single case the person had also taken something else (usually street ecstasy), the something else wasn't actually MDMA at all. It's more likely than not in NZ.

These are the things people are taking in the absence of the ability to access regulated, labelled, legal alternatives, and the way the PSA is written means that they won't be able to access those alternatives into the foreseeable future, despite the law appearing to be progressive. So it's basically maintaining the extremely risky status quo.

There is an argument that if people didn't take drugs, people wouldn't die from drugs, but the evidence coming out of countries like Portugal and Switzerland, where prohibition rules have been relaxed in favour of harm reduction (needle exchanges, rehab without punishment for backsliding, civil rather than criminal sanctions for drugs), drug related harm and deaths are significantly lower. Because people will take drugs anyway, you know? My preference is for people to know exactly what they are taking and exactly how much of it rather than the Russian roulette that's currently played every day in this country.

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From:russiandolls
Date:February 23rd, 2015 08:04 pm (UTC)
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Thanks Wendy, that's a lot of food for thought. I'm personally in favour of relaxing drug laws (as you say, there is really strong evidence of harm reduction coming out of Europe, and the hypocrisy of alcohol laws make me crazy), but I also feel very strongly that animal testing should always be a last resort. It's easy to say that in the cosmetic area, no animal testing should go on, and reasonably easy(ish) to live with animal testing for medical purposes. In my opinion it's more difficult to decide which camp to put drug research into - recreational or medical? I struggle with this question.

And then I wonder - why is it ok to harm animals to save the lives of humans? Aren't there far too many of us anyway? We do so much harm to this world, and we do it all for selfish reasons. But it is far too early in the morning for those sorts of thoughts, so I'll go back to thinking about something else for a while.
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From:tatjna
Date:February 23rd, 2015 08:13 pm (UTC)
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Yeah. The original law had that 'last resort' clause in it, before it got changed to exclude animal testing altogether. Basically you could only do it if there were no other way, and then it had to meet the animal welfare laws of the place it was done - which is about as good as it could get within current legislation.

I agree, it's a difficult question regarding the ethics of animal testing, and have the same questions as you. In my view, the harms associated with the current situation should be a major consideration in any questions about the ethics of measures taken to improve the situation.

I personally find the way an attempt at progressive drug law was used as the political field for this political football to be kicked around on to be opportunistic and somewhat machiavellian of those who've already made up their minds how we should all behave.
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