Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Designer Drugs: An Attempt at Legalization

Everywhere, it seems, countries grow weary of the attempt to prohibit people from getting high. Given that this desire appears to be a universal trait of humanity, and that the practice of inducing such states predates the existence of nations, one might have predicted this outcome.

An article in The Economist describes one country with a unique drug problem that is making an attempt at a unique solution: New Zealand.

New Zealand is a small country in a remote location. Apparently the mass introduction of conventional illegal drugs has proved to be not cost-effective for the traditional brand of smuggler. Since such drugs are rare, people have had to turn to synthetic drugs, generally referred to as designer drugs, for their highs. The problem with stopping this practice is that clever chemists can create new drugs faster than they can be detected and declared illegal.

"An unlikely leader in legal highs is New Zealand. Conventional hard drugs are scarce in the country, because traffickers have little interest in serving 4m people far out in the South Pacific. Kiwis therefore make their own synthetic drugs, which they take in greater quantity than virtually anyone else. The government shuts down more crystal-meth labs there than anywhere bar America and Ukraine. But the business has adapted. First it turned to benzylpiperazine, which a third of young New Zealanders have tried. When that was banned in 2008, dealers found plenty of other chemicals to peddle. Today the most popular highs are synthetic cannabinoids, which pack a harder punch than ordinary cannabis."

The scale of the problem—worldwide—is captured by this bit of data.

"In June the UN reported more than 250 such drugs in circulation."

The government of New Zealand has decided to forego this endless process and create a path whereby drugs can be tested for their risk to consumers and legally sold provided they are not found to be "too dangerous."

"Last month a law was passed which offers drug designers the chance of getting official approval for their products. If they can persuade a new ‘Psychoactive Substances Regulatory Authority’ that their pills and powders are low risk, they will be licensed to market them, whether or not they get people high. Drugs will have to undergo clinical trials, which the government expects to take around 18 months—much less than for medicines, because the drugs will be tested only for toxicity, not for efficacy. Drugs that are already banned internationally, such as cocaine and cannabis, are ineligible. Only licensed shops will sell the drugs, without advertising and not to children."

The policy of criminalizing the use of drugs that might become addictive seems to have been based on invalid assumptions about the probability of addiction. Carl Hart tries to interject scientific results into discussions that have traditionally been more political in nature. Hart is a professor at Columbia University whose specialty has been the study of conventional illegal drugs and their effects on humans. He argues that using drugs like cocaine for recreational purposes is a sustainable path—although not necessarily a desirable one—for most people. Addiction rates are about 10-20% for such drugs, and the causes of addiction are complex and cannot be simply attributed to an uncontrollable physical craving.

Given Hart’s conclusions, the total prohibition of such drugs and the criminalization of possession and usage make little sense.

The officials of New Zealand have a daunting task ahead of them. Mind-altering drugs that cause a high will inevitably be abused by some fraction of the population. Dealing with problems that arise must be included in whatever process is put in place. To make the process acceptable to the recreational user the drugs legalized must provide an "adequate" high—whatever that might be. Consumers must be willing to pay the cost and the imposed tax, and be willing to make their purchases in an open manner. Since drug users seem to come in all ages, how does one define "children" in this context?

One can think of many reasons why this path will not work. Nevertheless, given any chance at all that it will bring greater safety and minimize "crime," it should be tried.

Who knows? Perhaps the pharmaceutical industry will see this as a new market and compete to make best and safest high.

As the author of the referenced article wisely points out, the decisions New Zealand is trying to make are already being made by the drug dealers. This is perhaps one of those few occasions where everyone would be more comfortable with decisions being placed in the hands of government regulators.

Carl Hart is the author of High Price: A Neuroscientist’s Journey of Self-Discovery That Challenges Everything You Know About Drugs and Society.

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