New Zealand's plan to regulate designer drugs is better than trying to ban them and failing

AS THE world’s drug habit shows,
governments are failing in their quest
to monitor every London window-box
and Andean hillside for banned plants.
But even that Sisyphean task looks easy
next to the fight against synthetic
drugs. No sooner has a drug been
blacklisted than chemists adjust their
recipe and start churning out a subtly
different one. These “legal highs” are
sold for the few months it takes the
authorities to identify and ban them,
and then the cycle begins again. In June
the UN reported more than 250 such
drugs in circulation.
An unlikely leader in legal highs is New
Zealand. Conventional hard drugs are
scarce in the country, because
traffickers have little interest in serving
4m people far out in the South Pacific.
Kiwis therefore make their own
synthetic drugs, which they take in
greater quantity than virtually anyone
else. The government shuts down more
crystal-meth labs there than anywhere
bar America and Ukraine. But the
business has adapted. First it turned to
benzylpiperazine, which a third of
young New Zealanders have tried.
When that was banned in 2008,
dealers found plenty of other chemicals
to peddle. Today the most popular
highs are synthetic cannabinoids,
which pack a harder punch than
ordinary cannabis.
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Sick of trying to keep up with
drugmakers, the government is trying a
new tack. Last month a law was passed
which offers drug designers the chance
of getting official approval for their
products. If they can persuade a new
“Psychoactive Substances Regulatory
Authority” that their pills and powders
are low risk, they will be licensed to
market them, whether or not they get
people high. Drugs will have to undergo
clinical trials, which the government
expects to take around 18 months—
much less than for medicines, because
the drugs will be tested only for
toxicity, not for efficacy. Drugs that are
already banned internationally, such as
cocaine and cannabis, are ineligible.
Only licensed shops will sell the drugs,
without advertising and not to children.
The arguments for legalisation—that it
protects consumers, shuts out criminals
and saves money while raising tax—are
familiar to readers of this newspaper.
Yet it requires careful regulation to
ensure that its outcome is not worse
than widely ignored prohibition. New
Zealand must now get the details right.
The government has yet to define “low
risk”. Set the bar too high and the
policy will be prohibition by another
name; too low and potentially lethal
products will be on sale legally. (They
are already, in the form of alcohol and
tobacco, but consistency is hardly a
feature of drug policy.) Nor does
anybody know what level of taxation
will most effectively deter consumption
without encouraging a black market.
Similar debates are under way in
Uruguay, which is poised to legalise
cannabis, and in Colorado and
Washington state in America, which
voted to do so last year.
Trust the health ministry over the
mafia
These tricky questions may look like
weaknesses in the policy. In fact, they
are its strength. While New Zealand and
Uruguay are discussing what level of
toxicity or what dosage is acceptable,
every other country is leaving the
matter to drug dealers, who do not
care about quality control and who
peddle to children on the same terms
as adults. As New Zealand ponders
what rate of tax to levy, in the rest of
the world the business is tax-free. A
hard road lies ahead for New Zealand
and its fellow policy innovators. But
every dilemma they face is a reminder
that, unlike other jurisdictions, through
government they are regulating the
drugs business, not the gangs.