New Zealand, legal highs and sensible supply-side policies

Existing policy in the UK is rooted in the false assumption that if you make something illegal, people will stop doing it.

The UK government could learn a lot from New Zealand about how to sensibly control the proliferating supply of so-called “legal highs”, according to the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Drug Policy Reform

While governments in Europe and the United States frantically ban substances to keep up with new synthetic drugs, lawmakers in New Zealand are using reason and a sensible legislative process to “to protect vulnerable consumers, particularly young people.”

Yet far from being another ham-fisted crackdown on drugs, the New Zealand proposal represents the first steps to a regulated market, which would require any new substances to go through a lengthy testing process before they could be approved for legal sale.

Potential manufacturers of new psychoactive substances will have to submit to roughly $180,000 NZD (£95,000 GBP) in application fees plus an additional NZ$1m to NZ$2m (around £526,000 to £1.05m) in costs to test each product they want to sell.

And there are strict penalties for attempts to bypass the law, which could go into effect later this year, including up to eight years in prison.

This is a monumental development for a number of reasons.

First, it has always been difficult to separate the impact of drugs from the impact of bad policies (as the peers group rightfully acknowledged). There is no doubt that so-called “legal highs” (sold as plant food, collector’s items or bath salts) can be very dangerous. But every time they are banned, new – even more hazardous – substitutes hit the market to take their place.

This creates a “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” situation where we find ourselves wishing we were only facing the original adversary. Consider that many synthetic substances in Europe are substitutes for cannabis. In 2011, the European Union officially notified 49 new psychoactive substances through its early warning system, 23 of which were synthetic cannabinoids.

While there are risks to using cannabis that should certainly be addressed, no-one is ever known to have suffered a fatal overdose on it and its health impacts are considerably better understood than its synthetic counterparts.

“Evidence presented here indicates that, paradoxically, the banning of one drug can make the situation worse by stimulating the production of yet more new, unknown and potentially dangerous substances,” the All-Party group writes.

The New Zealand policy aims to halt the legislative incentive to develop more new drugs.

Furthermore, one very serious danger of current policies on synthetic substances is that their main purpose for being is to evade accountability. As it stands, legal highs – though often using banned components – exist in a grey area. As various pieces of legislation scramble to control them, various substances often remain unregulated, unknown and out of control. No one knows their impacts and the only way to find out is by hard, sometimes deadly, experience.

And once the system takes control – via criminal sanctions – the process begins again with newer more enigmatic substances emerging.

“Each new substance may be more harmful than the substance it replaces,” the report adds. “But more than anything, young people are taking substances whose content and strength are unknown to them. The risks of harm/overdose must be greater than for well established substances.”

Which leads us to the most important factor in this new policy -- it may actually tell us something about prohibition in general.

In 2008, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime discussed unintended consequences of the current control system. One was referred to as “substance displacement” – which is to say, “If the use of one drug was controlled, by reducing either supply or demand, suppliers and users moved on to another drug with similar psychoactive effects, but less stringent controls … The increasing popularity of synthetic drugs can be better understood also in this light.”

This comes very close to acknowledging that potentially harmful legal highs are a byproduct of prohibition.

Existing drug policies are generally rooted in the false assumption that if you make something illegal, people won’t use it and hence they will be protected from its harms. In the end, the exact opposite tends to be true because once something is illegal, the standard policy levers of government are out of reach.

As the All-Party group writes, “A useful feature of New Zealand’s planned policy is to assess both the harms arising from a particular substance and the harms arising from controlling it.”

Might we the UK also be better served by begin regulatory processes to understand the drugs that people are taking and developing policies that address their relative risks?

That is precisely what New Zealand has started doing. It’s worth a closer look.

Kasia Malinowska-Sempruch is the director of Open Society Foundations Global Drug Policy Program

Photograph: Getty Images

Kasia Malinowska-Sempruch is the director of Open Society Foundations Global Drug Policy Program.

Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.