When the Psychoactive Substances Act came into effect in July 2013, it was heralded as ground breaking, a piece of legislation that would allow synthetics products that had been proven safe into the hands of New Zealand adults. But subsequent amendments rolled back its efficacy, basically turning the drug illegal and driving it onto the black market. From there it has caused massive harm: 40 to 45 dead since June 2017.
Embedded in the Act was a stipulation that a review of the legislation would take place “no later than five years after the commencement of this Act”. That date was July 17 this year. Almost a month later and the Ministry of Health still hasn’t completed that review.
Ross Bell, executive director of the New Zealand Drug Foundation, told VICE he thought that given the Act’s botched rollout, its subsequent amendments and the enormous harm done by the drug, there would’ve been “a greater sense of urgency” to complete the review. He was “shocked that such a big government ministry was able to miss deadlines, even deadlines that you have legislated for”.
He said it was further evidence of the “callous indifference” to the synthetics crisis by government and its agencies. “Failure to conclude the review in time, in the context of what we knew what was happening in terms of those deaths and wider issues, I simply don’t get it. Where is the accountability when important stuff like that doesn’t get done?”
Minister of Health Dr David Clark responded to VICE’s queries as to why the review had not been completed within the legislated timeframe with an emailed statement: “The review of the act was not well advanced under the previous Government. I am advised that work is now nearing completion and I expect advice and a draft report from the ministry in coming weeks.”
A Ministry of Health spokesperson told VICE that it and other government agencies “take very seriously the harm caused in the community by synthetic cannabis and other illegal drugs”. They did not respond to the question of why the review had not been finished on time, saying it was “almost completed”.
The statement also mentioned the development of an early warning system that could alert enforcement and healthcare professionals to new and dangerous drugs on the market. National Drug Policy 2015 to 2020, published by the Ministry in 2015, specified that an “Early Warning System for the purposes of monitoring emerging trends” would be completed by 2016/17.
Bell said that kind of inaction left “a really ugly question mark” over the official response to the crisis. “I am really frustrated by the lack of action by key agencies like the Ministry of Health, because for us to reduce the serious harm of drugs in this country, we need agencies who have responsibilities to do their job right. And they haven’t.”
The lack of action, he said, raised other, less palatable, questions. “I genuinely believe that if… it was wealthy kids drinking contaminated pinot noir in Remuera, something would’ve happened.”