New Zealand : Amanda Feilding’s Talk

25/03/2014

in Global Policy News

Beckley Foundation Director, Amanda Feilding, flew to New Zealand last week to present the keynote talk at the ‘Pathway to Reform’ conference hosted by the STAR Trust. Amanda was invited to present the Beckley Foundation’s view on New Zealand’s landmark Psychoactive Substances Act – an innovative piece of legislation which aims to strictly test and regulate the sale of new psychoactive substances.

Amanda’s section of the talk is below…

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[spoiler intro=”Full text of Amanda’s talk” ]

If we had set out to design a system of global drug control to create maximum damage and suffering, we would probably have designed the system we have had for the last 50 years. Since the advent of drug prohibition, drugs have become cheaper and more easily available than ever before. The collateral damage – particularly in producer and transit countries – is devastating. Despite the 100 billion dollars of tax-payers’ money expended in its suppression every year, the value of the global drugs industry is estimated to be in excess of 400 billion dollars per annum, most of it streaming through the hands of highly unpleasant criminals.

Drug prohibition is like a cancer in the world – it has undermined states, left a trail of corruption, violence and death, endemic health problems and a global network of crime. There is no other social issue which causes so much suffering which could be mitigated simply by a change of policies. This is because the policies, rather than the drugs themselves, cause most of the suffering.

We have been down this road before. In 1919 the US instituted nationwide alcohol prohibition. The result was an almost unmitigated failure. Criminal organisations flourished as never before, the police discovered the joys of corruption, drinking strong spirits became hugely popular, and health problems multiplied. After 13 disastrous years, the policy was abandoned.

Tragically the real lesson – that demand always calls forth its own supply, and that prohibition only hands over lucrative industries to criminals and violent cartels – was not learnt.

In 50 years of drug prohibition we have surely seen enough devastation and suffering to lead rational people to seek new solutions. Surely the governments of the world can do a better job of minimising the overall harms of drugs than the cartels, whose only motivation is profit?

When I started the Beckley Foundation 16 years ago, drug policy reform seemed to be a hopeless cause. At that point there was no attempt to have a scientific evidence-base. That is what the Beckley Foundation set about helping to provide. But in recent years, we are at last seeing the dam of prohibition crumbling, and the water of common sense beginning to seep through the cracks.

In 2011, 7 former Presidents and 2 sitting Presidents, together with 11 Nobel laureates, and other global notables, signed the Beckley Foundation Public Letter calling for a fundamentally different approach to global drug policy. These included President Molina of Guatemala, and President Santos of Colombia, both of whom became leading advocates for drug policy reform.

Latin America, the region which has suffered the most from the war on drugs, has become the engine of change.

Even the USA – the original motor of prohibition – is witnessing a fundamental shift, with two US states – Colorado and Washington – recently voting to legalise marijuana for recreational use; and President Obama publicly declaring that cannabis is probably no more harmful than alcohol – something that would have been unimaginable only a few years ago. Meanwhile, Uruguay has become the first nation in the world to establish a legal market for recreational cannabis.

These policy initiatives, combined with the positive outcomes of recent research into the potential medicinal and therapeutic benefits of certain psychoactive substances are helping, slowly but surely, to change world opinion in favour of a more rational approach.

Recognizing that the prohibitionist approach does not work, we must seek out alternative policies.
At the beginning of the 21st century, in reaction to the prohibition of classical psychoactive substances, and their analogues, under the UN Conventions of 1961 and 71, a new phenomenon emerged – the so-called ‘legal highs’ or ‘designer drugs’, a new category of psychoactive compounds not included in the UN schedules. These New Psychoactive Substances (or NPSs as they are called) are created by freelance chemists – largely imitating the work of Sasha Shulgin – who had been producing and self-assessing new psychoactive substances for decades. They are mostly manufactured in China and India, and sold via the internet, a process which no government has been able to effectively control.

Governments around the world react to this proliferation of so-called ‘legal highs’ by prohibiting the substances almost as soon as they attract media attention, with the result that the chemists move on to the design of newer compounds, which can easily be more harmful than their now-banned predecessors.

This game of cat-and-mouse encourages the proliferation of NPSs, so that now a new NPS is being produced and brought to market every week.

Since the governments of the world do not scientifically test these NPSs for toxicity, the market is totally uncontrolled – resulting in millions of young people around the world regularly ingesting unknown powders, produced in unregulated ways and sold without restriction. Those unfortunate enough to end up in hospital face doctors who have no idea what compound they are dealing with, or how to treat its effects.
Because of New Zealand’s geographical isolation in the South Pacific, it is far from the supply routes of classic psychoactive substances such as cocaine, and so quickly became an attractive market for the consumers and producers of ‘legal highs’. This resulted in a new and unusual drug landscape, which led to early realisation that new tools were needed if a way was to be found to minimise the harms of this rapidly expanding market.

New Zealand has often been the harbinger of new solutions to key policy challenges of our times. It was the first country to recognise the equality of indigenous people. It was the first country to grant women the vote. And now, while much of the rest of the world seems to be stuck in the futile rhetoric of reactive prohibition, New Zealand has given us a new paradigm of regulation, in the form of the Psychoactive Substances Act, a bill which was passed in mid-2013 with broad political support.

The Psychoactive Substances Act is unique for several reasons – it is the first national drug policy – other than recent moves to regulate cannabis – to be based on scientific evidence of harms, rather than on dogma, panic and guesswork. It is the first to have harm-minimisation at its heart, and the protection of the user’s health as its explicit aim. It is unique in its pragmatic acceptance that humans have always sought ways of altering their consciousness and will, no doubt, continue to do so.

New Zealand has realised that a good government – like a good parent – should aim to provide measures which optimally protect the health of the people who choose this route, and that a substance which has been clinically tested, and is sold with appropriate labelling (which indicates the contents and potential harms) is safer than an unknown, unlabelled powder.

Importantly, the Act is also unique in giving manufacturers the incentive to create the safest drugs possible, and to test them in order to prove that they are low-risk, before the product can obtain approval and be legally brought to market.

We should congratulate all those who have worked so hard in getting this Act onto the statute book. The Act marks the beginning of a new drug policy model, which can evolve and be improved as new information comes to light; it is an innovative and rational way of minimising harms to both users and society, while permitting freedom of choice. It ensures for the first time that users of certain psychoactive substances are no longer automatically designated as dysfunctional criminals making poor decisions, but rather as rational consumers, seeking to have a good time within the protective framework of state regulation.

Whilst the principles and purpose of the Act have rightly been positively received, it would be naïve to announce its success before it has been fully implemented, or before there has been time to assess the actual impact of the model.

As with any policy initiative there are risks attached to it, which must be carefully managed if it is to be a true success. An obvious danger of new substances – even under a system of regulation – is drug interactions, such as the mixing of certain drugs with alcohol.

One natural way to manage this, and other risks, is to have a very strict post-marketing monitoring programme, so that if adverse reactions do happen, informed decisions can be made about whether to pull the drug from the market. Another way, is to produce ‘reversing agents’, or antidotes, for the approved products, which will counter their effects – never before, have the producers of recreational psychoactive substances had the incentive or the technical know-how to do this.

Health care professionals will be made aware of the chemical profiles of these substances, and informed of adverse reactions, which they can then report to the regulator, thus, through feedback, making the model ever safer. New Zealand has shown that collaboration between the various stakeholders, such as government agencies and the industry, is the most effective way of minimising harms and protecting the health of the consumer.

Despite these potential challenges, the Act remains the best legislative response to new psychoactive substances that currently exists. It is especially comforting to note that the evidence based approach of the Act extends not only to the testing of substances for relative levels of risk, but also to the workings of the Act itself. Inherent to evidence-based policy is the ability to adapt and improve it when new information or evidence comes to light. To this end, a review of the act will be conducted within the next 5 years – this is in contrast to the vast majority of drug policies worldwide, where the power of inertia and the inflexibility of the international drug control regime have ensured that ineffective or harmful policies, have remained in place for decades, irrespective of evidence pointing to their manifest failure.

The Psychoactive Substances Act opens the way to a better future for drug policy, a future that puts reason before rhetoric, and science before politics. I trust that in the coming years other countries will follow New Zealand’s enlightened leadership.

An additional value of the New Zealand approach is that it reminds us that those laws which legislate for how we are allowed to alter our consciousness should not be determined by archaic, moralistic ideas about which substances are culturally acceptable – but by science, and evidence of harms.
We know that many of the drugs which are currently listed in the UN conventions of 1961 and 71, are there for reasons which are completely unscientific. In this regard the New Zealand solution has come at an especially relevant time.

In 2016, the Member States of the United Nations will meet in order to debate for the first time what new options might be considered for the reform of global drug policy. As the New Zealand initiative is implemented, and evidence of its successes and challenges come to light, it is my hope, and the hope of many others, that the world will look to New Zealand for inspiration. Perhaps the New Zealand model of scientific testing and strict regulation, or something similar to it, can be used as the framework for the regulation of other, currently illegal substances, such as cannabis, MDMA and the classic psychedelics.

The New Zealand government is to be congratulated for breaking new ground, and offering the world a new pathway to reform – one which aims to protect the precious commodities of health and freedom, and does so through a system based on scientific-evidence, and common-sense. Thank you.

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