How long before legal highs return?

Most New Zealanders think they've seen the back of legal highs (outside the black market), but the fact is they will be back one day... but the politics is fascinating

Matt Bowden has a grand plan. The godfather of legal highs in New Zealand, he's been talking for a few years now about his determination to make this country famous for its safe, regulated and profitable recreational drugs culture.

Last year, ahead of the election and in the face of public outrage, the government changed tack on its legal highs law last year ahead of the election, switching from a genuinely regulated market to a theoretical regulated market, one that pretends it's not a ban but effectively removed all the legal highs from the shelves and creates a system in which it is impossible to get a product approved for sale.

Our psychoactive manufacturers, I'm told, mostly moved offshore to conquer bigger markets where they can still do business by staying one step -- or one molecule -- ahead of the lawmakers. But Bowden persists in his dream that he can build a safe drug empire from here in New Zealand.

He's said before that he's working on a new drug that would pass the government's new "low risk" tests, and today on The Nation revealed he thinks that's just 2-3 years away. He's about to start crowd-funding to raise the estimated $2 million needed to get through New Zealand's new testing regime.

It's a fascinating ambition. Apart from the interview, he's laid it out in writing on his website. He writes:

We have also been working with leading drug developers around the world, and we believe we have a number of molecules which are safe enough that they will not dramatically impact the health of consumers, will not be addictive or dangerous, or produce anti-social behaviours, and we think they will provide a safer substitutes to some current drugs of abuse, but we need to test them properly to be sure.

If we can get them through safety testing, we will use them to fund us into establishing a network of clinics to help people with alcohol and drug issues. We will limit their distribution to these specialised clinics.

We have already invested substantially in natural technology to interrupt addiction and assist people who are suffering alcohol or other drug issues by restoring balance biologically and providing them the nutritive building blocks their body needs to repair itself. We would like to make this technology available as part of a treatment plan through our clinics, free of charge or heavily subsidised.

We need a bit of help with the testing costs though, so there is an opportunity. You can invest in the safety testing of new drugs, and when they are successful, you get your money back, with a profit.

Plus you know that you contributed to saving lives and building a better future for the next generation.

It's the psychoactive dream -- a high with none of the lows. But you've got to wonder if he's dreaming himself. You'd think that if it was possible to create a drug with all the upsides but none of the harm, some pharmacuetical or alcohol company with their millions and labs would have done so by now.

The next 2-3 years will be the test, but Bowden's unfazed.

And talking of tests, it's those that could slow him down. As it stands, to prove a drug is "low risk" under the Psychoactive Substances Act, you need to get it through a gate-keeping committee, and it won't approve any drug tested on animals. Contrary to what many believe, animal testing is not banned in New Zealand, it's just that you can't use animal tests to support your bid to be deemed "low risk".

Bowden seems to think he can get around that -- through using animal testing overseas to then jump straight to testing on humans here in New Zealand, perhaps. Or using the non-animal tests that are being developed urgently around the world.

Thing is, experts disagree on how long before such non-animal tests will be ready. Dunne suggest "many, many years", probably five or more. Ross Bell at the Drug Foundation reckons 18 months to three years. Bowden thinks it'll be sooner.

Yet where they all agree is that eventually drugs will start to be tested and will bid for approval. This, I think, would be a surprise for most New Zealanders, who think that legal highs are banned and have gone away.

Truth is, Dunne and the National govenment have simply, as John Key might put it, kicked the can down the road.

Here's the politics of this. Dunne has accepted that prohibition doesn't work when it comes to illicit substances, so he set about building a law that created a world-leaing regulated market for legal highs. Despite some resistence, he got it through parliament 119-1 and reasonably assumed he'd made a bit of history.

Then came the public backlash, as councils complained that they had to make the by-laws to deal with the drugs, but weren't allowed to ban them. So they went abour creating de facto bans by zoning potential retailers so tightly they were all going out of business. Horror stories of some legal high users got lots of attention and people took to the streets demanding a ban.

In an election year, National put the kaibosh on a vote-losing policy and Dunne had to "amend" his law. To this day he insists it was no u-turn, but it was. Having tried to leave a few dozen of the safer products on the market to avoid legal high use going underground, he switched to say all legal highs would be illegal until they could be proved "low risk"... and when the animal testing issue flared up, he said the drugs could only be proved "low risk" with non-animal tests.

Given no such tests exist, it was a de facto ban.

Dunne continues to deny it's "prohibition by stealth" and insist around the world that he's cleverly created a regulated market. He's dancing on the head of a drug molecule, but it's fair enough. Again, it's politics.

The law creating a regulated market has been passed and remains intact. It's just that for now, the amendments make it impossible for a market to function. He and National did that to avoid political punishment and to buy themselves time.

But eventually a non-animal test will be available and some drug may pass the "low risk" test. Such drugs may well get back on the shelves one day, but they will have passed a safety test and, hey, if there is a public backlash again, Dunne's betting that will be some future minister's problem. 

If he was candid, I'm sure he would admit he's gone as far as the politics of the day -- and his need to please the governing party -- has allowed him. Not as far as he intended, perhaps, but politics is the art of compromise. And the law remains.

So one day down the track, when the amendments come off, history will remember him as the man who created a regulated drug market that was ahead of its time. While it leaves him insisting incredibly for now that bans aren't bans, the law as it stands isn't pushing people into the black market and black is white, he's done what he can for now.

So the ball -- or the pill -- is really in Bowden's court. Or the court of drug designers like him. Find a test, find a safe enough molecule, and you can go to market.

It's only a matter of time before that happens. The question is simply when.