I have an alert set up in my inbox for any mention of legal highs in the local news aggregator, Stuff. I'm doing this because I intend to make the research project for my Honours degree an exploration of the legal high story in NZ, as told through the media, and show *insert something academic and useful to the world here* about the relationship between media, culture, and legislation. I'm really hoping that what I end up showing isn't how propaganda feeds on itself to block progressive laws from being effective, but it's becoming more and more likely that that's what will happen.
So anyway, I got a couple of alerts last night.
Background for those not up with the play: Last year NZ passed the Psychoactive Substances Act, a piece of law designed to allow the sale of recreational substances (other than coffee, alcohol, tobacco, and things deemed illegal already) - legal highs. The law put in place a framework of regulation that required licensing of distributors and retailers, and testing of products that would only allow the sale of those that showed a low risk of harm. So far, so good.
When the law came into effect, there were a lot of products on the shelves - untested, unregulated - as producers had been tweaking molecules to get around the laws. Basically, it was whack-a-mole. The government would ban something, chemists would change it a bit, and it'd be back on the shelves in weeks, outside the scope of the most recent ban. In an attempt to get the market under control while the parameters of 'low risk of harm' were defined and bodies set up to administer the new regulations, the government brought in interim rules. Substances would still be allowed to be sold, but anything that presented problems (ie hospitalisations, dependence, disruptive behaviour, etc) would be removed from shelves, and no new substances would be allowed to be introduced. Retailers that didn't comply with licensing requirements would be shut down. Which all sounds pretty fair enough, and this was actually going on.
Meanwhile, local councils were given the responsibility of creating policy for how and where the substances could be sold under the new law. This was intended to limit the number of outlets, and ensure that they would not be 'sold in dairies and supermarkets' (like alcohol is - ed.), which is apparently a problem.
Enter two unintended consequences.
First, the problem with taking things off the shelves if they demonstrate problems, is that there have to be problems in order for this to happen. So while the law was working just fine in the background - rough figures are that there are now 80% fewer outlets for legal highs, and substances were being withdrawn regularly, non-compliant retailers shut down, etc - what the public saw was the people who were having problems with legal highs. Naturally, this is what the media focused on, so the public perception became that all legal highs are dangerous and that the law wasn't working. Eventually, the public outcry became so loud (even in the face of evidence to the contrary) that the government backed down and imposed a blanket ban on all sale of legal highs (except coffee, tobacco, and alcohol) until the safety testing was completed and the first 'low risk' ones were able to come on the market in 2015.
Can anybody say "Election year?" I'm sure you can.
So the moral panic calmed down a bit, and in the lull, councils were working away on their policies about where things could be sold - not too close to schools, or other 'sensitive areas'. The idea being to prevent the normalisation of legal high use to minors*, and keep it away from people who might be influenced in a negative way. And the natural result of this is that most councils have relegated legal high outlets to a very small number of areas. Enter NIMBYism. People are now getting up in arms about the potential for legal highs to be sold in their neighbourhoods, and are marching and petitioning and submitting against having outlets at all.
What these people fear is that users of legal highs will congregate in the area of the shops and disturb the peace, bringing the tone of the neighbourhood down. They think that there will be violence and abuse the way there is when drunk people congregate, and that this will 'slummify' their neighbourhoods, and drive away custom from other businesses. It's a real fear and I understand where it's coming from.
However, the fear is based in unintended consequence number 1 - the one where a moral panic developed over legal highs because of the visibility of the problems of a few. People are now afraid of these substances, and everyone seems to have forgotten the part where they won't be able to be sold unless they have been demonstrated to have a low risk of harm. And you can guarantee that 'low risk of harm' will be *extremely* low, because governments enacting controversial laws tend to err on the side of extreme caution. So there's that, and there's unintended consequence number 2 - the way that the number of outlets was reduced while some of these untested substances were still on the market, which forced the same number of users (some of whom were apparently showing signs of dependence) to patronise 1/5 the number of outlets. It made it look like this was going to be the future of legal high sales in NZ - people waiting outside shops for them to open, stirring up trouble.
The thing is, I don't think it'll be like that at all. I suspect that anything that gets through the testing regime is highly unlikely to have a dependence risk, and probably won't be all that great a shakes as a high either. Cannabis is easy to get in NZ, and is likely to be better bang for buck than anything that'll end up getting sold next year. I suspect the number of users will reduce because of this, and the visions of hordes of unwashed addicts lurking in streets abusing passers-by will not come to pass.
It is extremely unfortunate that the majority of decent people in New Zealand have been indoctrinated to assume that any drug use (that isn't alcohol, tobacco, coffee or medication) is automatically bad, and that the unintended consequences of the way this law has been implemented have reinforced this view. I think it would be a shame if the NIMBY crowd were able to stir up enough anti-drug sentiment to cause the government to backtrack on what is currently one of the more progressive drug laws in the world. But that's what they are trying to do. I sympathise with them, I really do. It's not their fault that they've been fed drama through the media that hasn't been balanced with fact and evidence. Most people aren't educated on these topics (I plan to change that btw). They believe they are acting in the best interests of their communities, and on face value, they are. They don't want legal highs (except.. yadda yadda) and they don't care about the complex and arse-backwards-seeming array of evidence that suggests that legalising drugs will reduce the harms associated with them. Most people think banning works.
And everyone's ignoring the elephant in the room - that there are a bunch of things that have already been made illegal, that would very likely pass those 'low risk of harm' tests. LSD is one of them. And that terrifies people. It would be a shame if that fear was allowed to continue to prevail over evidence in this. Legal high policy is the battleground where evidence vs propaganda will be fought in this country, and right now, evidence is losing as a vicous cycle of fear feeding drama which feeds the media which feeds more fear, seems to be framing the debate.
What I'm thinking about this: How do we reframe it into something more constructive?
* I think marginalising drug use in this way also prevents proper education on how to stay safe and actually makes it more dangerous. Never mind that in our pill-popping, coffee-swilling culture where a bottle of alcohol is a standard gift for speakers at conferences, I think drug use is already well normalised. But that's another rant.