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New Zealand’s Innovative Recreational Drug Regulation

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New Zealand’s Innovative Recreational Drug Regulation

Under the new law the onus would be on the manufacturers to prove their drugs aren’t harmful.

New Zealand is planning on implementing laws that would permit the limited sale of recreational drugs in the country. According to the New Scientist, “The legislation is the first in the world to regulate new recreational drugs based on scientific evidence of their risk of harm.”

Recreational drugs have proved a persistent problem for regulators because by the time each substance is banned numerous other ones appear on the street. It often seems that regulators simply cannot keep up with banning each separate substance, leaving harmful drugs technically legal for an extended period of time.

The new law in New Zealand—which has long suffered from heavy recreational drug usage— hopes to solve this problem by reversing the relationship between regulators and drug producers.

Under the proposed laws, drug manufacturers can legally sell any psychoactive substances so long as they can demonstrate that their products have a “low risk of harm.” On the other hand, instead of having to ban each separate drug that appears on the street, the new law proposes to ban all recreational/designer drugs until the manufacturer proves it only causes a low risk of harm.

Ross Bell from the New Zealand Drug Foundation explained the logic behind the legislation: “The new law will put the onus on industry to demonstrate their products are low-risk, using a similar testing process to pharmaceuticals…. This is one of the more pragmatic responses in the world to new psychoactive substances, and it could provide a model for others to follow.”

Last week, New Zealand’s Health Committee approved of the legislation, but offered some amendments. Among the proposed amendments were: needing to grant licenses to drug manufacturers as an additional step of regulation, creating a list of registered and unregistered products to inform the public of which drugs are legal and illegal, and raising fines for those who try to sell legal drugs to minors, among others.

These are important factors to take into account. However, one of the more interesting amendments the Health Committee proposed was keeping 18 as the age when one can legally purchase psychoactive substances, instead of raising it to 20 or 21.

In a report, the Committee explained its reasoning:

“It was argued that this was a new bill and it might be appropriate to start this new regime with a higher age threshold level to help minimize harm to young people. We consider, however, that a higher age limit for approved psychoactive products that pose a low risk to users might suggest to young people that alcohol and tobacco, having lesser age restrictions, are safer alternatives. We therefore recommend that the purchase age in clause 46 remain at 18, aligning it with the Sale and Supply of Alcohol Act 2012.”

The Committee did say that if the legal drinking age is raised to 21 in the future, then the legal age for purchasing recreational drugs should be raised as well.  

Considering these changes are occurring as drug prohibition has become less popular, New Zealand may indeed be a country for drug regulators and policymakers everywhere to monitor. If it succeeds, it could have a significant impact on how drug laws are implemented around the world.

Elleka Watts is an editorial assistant for The Diplomat.