Library of Congress

Law Library of Congress

The Library of Congress > Law Library > News & Events > Global Legal Monitor

New Zealand: Psychoactive Substances Bill Proposed

(Mar. 5, 2013) On February 26, 2013, the Psychoactive Substances Bill was introduced in the New Zealand Parliament. The bill aims to provide the government with greater ability to control what have commonly been called “legal highs,” such as synthetic cannabis-like products and party pills that may contain a range of substances. (Press Release, Hon. Peter Dunne, Psychoactive Substances Bill a ‘Game-Changer’ (Feb. 26, 2013); Psychoactive Substances Bill, New Zealand Parliament website (last visited Mar. 5, 2013).)

The existing approach to legal highs has been to ban specific substances after they come onto the market by classifying them as controlled drugs or issuing “temporary class drug notices” under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1975 (MoDA). (Misuse of Drugs Act 1975, ss 4C-4E & sch 1-3, New Zealand Legislation website.) There is no current mechanism to stop the substances “coming to market unless they are already scheduled in the MoDA as controlled drugs, or have a substantially similar chemical structure to a controlled drug.” (Hon. Peter Dunne, Cabinet Paper, Regulation of Psychoactive Substances 2 (Cabinet Social Policy Committee, 2012).) Research must often be commissioned on the level of harm of each substance in order for it to be permanently scheduled as a controlled drug under the current legislation. (Id.)

The new bill proposes what has been termed a “revolutionary” approach to the legal high issue. (Isaac Davison, Party Pill Bill Likely to Pass Easily,The New Zealand Herald (Mar. 1, 2013).) It would essentially reverse the onus of proof by requiring distributors and producers of party pills and other substances to prove that they are safe before being legally able to sell them, thus potentially creating a legal recreational drugs market in New Zealand. (Id.; Press Release, Hon. Peter Dunne, Drug Law Reversing Onus of Proof on Way (July 16, 2012).)

Key provisions in the bill include those that

· [Establish a] regulatory authority within the Health Ministry to

o consider and approve or decline psychoactive substances

o issue a manufacturing code of practice

o issue importation, manufacturing and sale licences

o conduct post-marketing monitoring, audit and recall functions

· Establish an expert advisory committee to provide the authority with technical advice

· Set offences and penalties under the Bill, including up to two years’ imprisonment for some offences, and fines of up to $500,000

· Restrict sale of products to those under 18, and place restrictions and prohibitions on places of sale; and

· Establish an appeals committee. (Press Release, Hon. Peter Dunne, Psychoactive Substances Bill a ‘Game-Changer’, supra.)

The bill was welcomed by the New Zealand Drug Foundation, a key advocacy organization for evidence-based drug policy, which said that “[t]he bill is a comprehensive and thoughtful response to what is proving to be one of the biggest challenges to drug policy makers around the world.” (Press Release, New Zealand Drug Foundation, Psychoactive Substances Bill Welcomed (Feb. 26, 2013); About the Drug Foundation,New Zealand Drug Foundation (Sept. 4, 2009).) The New Zealand Medical Association (the “foremost pan-professional medical organisation in New Zealand representing the collective interests of all doctors”) also welcomed the bill, stating “[w]e need legislation with a far more stringent set of rules to protect the public from the dangerous side-effects of party pills and other synthetic drugs sold as legal highs.” (Press Release, New Zealand Medical Association, Tougher Drug Law Welcomed (Feb. 27, 2013); About NZMA,New Zealand Medical Association (last visited Mar. 5, 2013).)

The new approach put forward in the bill drew attention from foreign media, with the BBC stating that some believe the legislation could “transform the international debate on drugs policy,” and further that it “comes at a key moment in the debate about global drugs policy, returning us to that moment in the late 60s when Britain and others took the fork in the road marked ‘prohibition’.” (Mark Easton, Kiwis on Drugs: A Blueprint for theFuture?,BBC News (Feb. 28, 2013).)

The genesis for the approach of the new bill was in issue papers and a report by the New Zealand Law Commission related to its 2010 review of the MoDA. The Law Commission’s recommendations included that a new regime be established for requiring that distributors of psychoactive products to prove that the products are safe. (See generally Review of Misuse of Drugs Act 1975,New Zealand Law Commission (last visited Mar. 5, 2013); Cabinet Paper, supra at 3.)