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Dunne: First Reading of the Psychoactive Substances Bill

Hon Peter Dunne

Associate Minister of Health


Address on First Reading of the Psychoactive Substances Bill

Tuesday, 9 April 2013

Mr Speaker, over the last twenty years, New Zealand and other countries have been facing an acceleration in the development of new recreational drugs.

The Misuse of Drugs Act 1975, the legislation that protects the public from drugs that are known to pose a moderate, high, or very high risk of harm, was never designed for an environment in which dozens of new substances can be brought to market in the space of just a few weeks.

It has simply been unable to keep up.

Scores of products with unknown effects and unknown risk profiles — indeed, some barely known to science at all — have slipped through this regulatory void and onto dairy shelves.

The public has been rightly concerned as news reports have highlighted that young adults — adolescents and even some children — have been taking these so-called legal highs, and suffering as a result.

About 18 months ago, this House passed an amendment to the Misuse of Drugs Act which has allowed me to issue Temporary Class Drug Notices in the Gazette: these are time-limited bans.

The effect of a Temporary Class Drug Notice is to apply the same penalties as we do for cannabis, except that personal possession is not an offence.

So far,I have issued such notices for 33 of these substances, affecting more than 50 products.

More are still available.

But there is a game of regulatory of cat and mouse afoot, where an irresponsible industry seeks to elude authorities and circumvent the law, by bringing new chemicals to the lucrative market of things that have not been banned yet.

Now, many people have said why do we not simply ban all these substances altogether.

Unfortunately, because the retail products are a combination of substances, some harmful and some not, it is not that simple.

What the Temporary Class Drug Notice regime has done is make it possible to respond faster to new developments, but it does nothing to slow the developments in the first place.

This can actually have the perverse effect of increasing the range of emerging drugs.

This proliferation of poorly understood chemicals and their widespread use should concern us all.

So, we need an enduring solution.

That is what this bill is all about.

The Bill

The Psychoactive Substances Bill ends this dangerous game of cat and mouse by banning the import, manufacture, sale, supply, and possession of psychoactive substances.

It reverses the onus of proof by making all psychoactive substances illegal unless the industry can prove their products are low-risk.

Psychoactive substances are defined broadly in the Bill as substances, mixtures, preparations, articles, devices, or things that are capable of inducing a psychoactive effect (by any means) in people who choose to use them.

Substances already governed by other legislation — foods, medicines, supplements, herbal remedies, alcohol, tobacco, controlled drugs, and precursors to controlled drugs — are excluded from the definition.

To avoid situations where the law is circumvented by people labelling products as bath salts, incense, or plant food (as has happened her and overseas), there is a power for declaration by Order-in-Council that a substance is or is not a psychoactive substance for the purpose of this legislation.

This law will not be mocked by fine-print ‘not for human consumption’ words on packaging.

But it is not the Government’s intention to ban absolutely everything forever.

The meat of the Bill is a pathway to a regulated market for psychoactive substances, if they can be shown to pose no more than a low risk of harm.

I emphasise here that to say a product poses no more than a low risk of harm is not the same as saying that a product is safe.

No-one will be allowed to market these products claiming they are safe.

The Government has no intention of acting in any way that might be interpreted as an endorsement of party drugs.

The Bill creates a Psychoactive Substances Regulatory Authority and an Expert Advisory Committee.

The Authority is responsible for granting licenses for the import and manufacture of psychoactive substances, and, on the advice of the Expert Committee, approving psychoactive products for sale if they have been shown to pose no more than a low risk of harm.

To bring a product to market, a sponsor has to demonstrate to the Expert Committee that the product poses no more than a low risk of harm.

Practically speaking, this will involve providing the Committee with evidence from clinical safety trials similar to those required to bring a new medicine to market.

This process will be expensive, and I make no apology for that.

There will be no room for fly-by-night operators wanting to sell substances they don’t fully understand on the cheap.

Approved products will be made subject to comprehensive regulatory controls.

People under 18 will be unable to buy, sell, or be supplied these products.

The retail outlets, packaging, labelling, and promotion of approved products will be strictly limited.

There will be requirements for health warnings on the packaging — since even products with no more than a low risk of harm cannot be called completely safe.

Manufacturing standards, disposal and record-keeping requirements will be set.

In the legislation itself, there is a requirement for product sponsors or license holders to report all adverse events involving their products to the Authority, which will have the power to suspend or cancel trading in a product.

Finally, the Bill contains a transitional provision that allows products lawfully sold throughout the six months prior to the commencement of the legislation to remain on the shelves if, and only if, an application for approval has been lodged with the Authority no later than 30 days after the legislation is enacted.

I expect this provision to receive a reasonable level of attention during the select committee process and I therefore encourage the committee to consider it in light of the Bill’s intention to minimise health-related harm and to place the onus of proof on the sponsor.

The penalties for infringing against this regime are strong, but commensurate with the need to protect the public from unknown drugs.


This Bill is a necessary measure to protect the health of the public by regulating novel psychoactive substances in a way that is proportionate to the risks they pose.

It is a world first, and when I attended the recent United Nations Convention on Drugs meeting in Vienna, our legislation was the subject of considerable attention and interest.

New Zealand is being seen as an innovator, promoting a viable solution to a problem many countries are similarly grappling with.

I am therefore very proud of this Bill and I am very proud now to commend it to the House for its First Reading.


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