Page 922 - Week 03 - Thursday, 10 April 2014

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In some ways, the law and order response of systematically banning new substances could actually be making the problem worse. An ever-evolving banned list encourages ever-evolving variations of drugs. That leads to dangerous, untested varieties out on the market. It is a pharmacological arms race where the bans are always one step behind.

A growing list of prohibitions can also cause problems for health care. Some banned substances have potential medical uses. Looking at the current list of banned substances, one can see several plant species. Some of them are plants we would usually think are benign, such as the wattle or acacia. Pharmaceutical companies in the business of researching and patenting medicines tend to lose interest in using particular drugs because of the administrative difficulties in accessing banned substances. Academics are unable to develop potential new therapies because of difficulties in accessing the same banned substances. It is clearly not a satisfactory outcome when we are adding substances to the banned list so rapidly that research on potentially beneficial medicines is affected. Canberra-based expert Dr David Caldicott summed up the situation when he spoke publicly on the issue of synthetic drugs recently. He said:

… a knee-jerk approach of banning products will not work in years to come.

He said that our policy response “needs to be more clever and nimble”.

So in response to this issue and to the regulation presented by the government today, I would like to recommend to the Assembly that it investigate a new approach to the issue of synthetic drugs. The approach is one that looks at the problem through a health lens. It does not say that we need to get tougher on drugs; it says that we need to get smarter on drugs and we need to prioritise the health of the community.

In particular, we can look to the model recently adopted by our close neighbour New Zealand. New Zealand enacted the Psychoactive Substances Bill in the middle of last year. The act is based on the principle of harm minimisation, and it is fair to say that it uses a new approach to the regulation of drugs. Under the New Zealand act, the government licenses the production and sale of psychoactive drugs for uses other than medical purposes. The act sets up a legal framework for the testing, manufacture, sale and regulation of psychoactive products. It reverses the onus of proof so that manufacturers who want to sell the substances have to prove they are low risk before they can be sold.

The legislation in New Zealand restricts the importation, manufacture and supply of psychoactive substances and only allows the sale of those psychoactive substances that can meet safety and manufacturing requirements. The products have to go through a clinical testing process at the cost of the manufacturer. Under the act the results of clinical testing are made publicly available irrespective of whether the substances passed the low risk test or not. This means that public and health professionals will have better information on what is in these products and their possible effects.

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