OPINION: Martin Luther King once observed that “Nothing in the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.”
I was reminded of that remark by some of the media comments that followed last week’s Drug Symposium at Parliament, especially around the suggestion our Psychoactive Substances Act might play a wider role in future drug reform. In particular, two editorial comments caught my eye as classic examples of the dangerous combination of ignorance and stupidity Martin Luther King’s remarks referred to.
First was an editorial in the New Zealand Herald which opined that New Zealand had “flirted with legalising synthetic cannabis in 2013, with disastrous results. Sellers … took advantage … to sell dangerous drugs such as Kronic to teenagers at corner stores.” This was followed a few days later by the Listener’s comment that “Our disastrous experiment with so-called legal highs” meant “More young people used drugs than before.” The common link in both editorials was the complete lack of anything even remotely approaching a fact to back-up the anonymous writers’ fulminations.
Well, here are the relevant facts, uncomfortable and all as they may be for the purveyors of this ignorance and stupidity.
Psychoactive substances, legal highs, were around long before the advent of the Psychoactive Substances Act. Their origins internationally date back to various medical formulae developed in the 1960s as potential cures for common diseases which, although not effective in that role, were found to have a psychoactive effect, and hence created a market opportunity for those wishing to promote them as such. In the New Zealand, the most well-known legal high was Benzopiperazine, or BZP, as it was commonly known, which first became available here in the 1990s, and was eventually banned under the Misuse of Drugs Act in 2008, well before I became the responsible Minister.
It was during the first decade of the 2000s that the explosion of legal highs on the international market, and the problems they were likely to cause, first became apparent. Here, they were being sold freely at convenience stores up and down the country, with absolutely no regulation or control over product content, or to whom they were being sold. What the New Zealand Herald describes as a 2013 “flirtation” was already a well-established romance long before then, with more and more products becoming freely available as the years went by.
I took the first significant step to control the spread of these substances and the burgeoning market in 2010 when I put legislation through Parliament to allow bans of up to two years to be imposed on psychoactive substances considered to be dangerous, or contain illegal substances. The reason for these temporary bans was simply that products were being constantly reformulated, so that a product banned today, could emerge with a different formulation tomorrow and be back on the shelves for sale. It was under this regime that Kronic and its derivatives were banned in 2011, making a nonsense of the New Zealand Herald’s ignorant claims that they were legally introduced to the market in 2013! Under the temporary ban regime, 43 substances and many more product combinations were banned between 2011 and 2013.
But it soon became clear that the international pyschoactives industry was so extensive that we, along with most other countries, were going to have difficulty keeping ahead of the game. Many countries effectively surrendered at that point, opting for unenforceable, pseudo-bans that took products off the shelves, and so satisfied at a superficial level public concern, but turned a blind eye to the explosion in their respective black markets that occurred as a result. They are struggling with the consequences today.
New Zealand’s Psychoactive Substances Act was a credible response to these cynical approaches. It shifted the onus of proof to manufacturers and suppliers to demonstrate their products were of low risk to users, in return for being able to sell them in a highly regulated market. When the legislation was passed, there were around 4,000 convenience stores up and down the country selling more than 3,000 different legal high products, without any control or restriction. The day the legislation took effect, as an interim step, the 4,000 stores were immediately reduced to around 150 R18 stores only, and the product range slashed to around 41 products. The interim step was always intended to be just that and I removed it altogether a few months later, leaving no legal stores, and no products to sell.
At the time, there was a lot of noise, reflected again in the recent Listener editorial, that the passage of the legislation saw many more young people being rushed to Emergency Departments with severe problems as a result of using legal highs. Yet surveys of Emergency Departments at the time showed that an overwhelming majority experienced no increases in the numbers of young people presenting with psychoactive substances problems. Even amongst the minority that did note an increase in presentations, the numbers reported were very low indeed, and, across the board, alcohol intoxication remained far and away the primary drug-related reason for young people ending up in Emergency Departments.
So, rather than the disastrous results the ignorant editorialists allege, the facts tell a rather different story. There was no “experiment” with legal highs, nor did I “introduce” them to New Zealand. The reality was quite the opposite. It was my 2010 and 2013 pieces of legislation that removed them from the New Zealand market.
But then, perhaps I should not be surprised at displays of ignorance and stupidity like these editorials. We live in the “post-truth” age, after all. It is not new – Voltaire foresaw it centuries ago when he wrote that “The more often a stupidity is repeated, the more it gets the appearance of wisdom.” The facts are, once more, reduced to inconvenience.
Those of us who like evidence and facts obviously have to get used to the fact these apparently do not matter anymore. Perhaps Dennis Denuto was right – it is all about “the vibe” after all.
Hon Peter Dunne Minister of Internal Affairs, Associate Minister of Health