February 18th, 2015


How the widdle wabbits killed NZ's progressive drug law

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.