New Zealand’s bold experiment with regulating recreational drugs

By Maia Szalavitz
October 8, 2013

It’s been nearly a century since the United States began its experiment in prohibiting recreational drugs besides alcohol, caffeine and tobacco — and virtually no one sees the trillion dollar policy as a success. A recent study [PDF] shows that drug prices have dropped more than 80 percent in the last two decades alone; purity and availability has risen; and overall addiction and death rates haven’t been cut, despite an exponential increase in incarceration since the 1980s.

Even the hardline U.N. drug czar admitted in the annual World Narcotics Report [PDF] that “the international drug control system is floundering,” citing specifically its inability to match the speed and creativity of Internet-enabled chemists who create and distribute new legal highs like “bath salts” and “fake marijuana” faster than governments can ban them.

But one country is trying a new approach. For the first time in history, New Zealand has created a regulatory body to oversee recreational drugs. Passed by parliament this summer on a vote of 119 to 1, the legislation has already granted interim approval to over 50 products with names like “Dr. Feelgood,” “4:20,” and “Everest Tibetan Toot.”

The world should closely watch what happens next. If implemented carefully, New Zealand’s new laws offer the first genuinely scientific and public health-oriented approach to dealing with the negative aspects of humanity’s eternal quest for consciousness alteration. Anthropology tells us that getting high is universal — no culture, no matter how remote, lacks chemical experimentation.

After all, few existing U.S. drug laws were based on a medical assessment of the relative risks of alcohol, tobacco, marijuana, heroin, cocaine and others. Instead, they were derived from historical contingencies and, typically, explicit racism.

The first state laws against cocaine, for example, were passed because the drug was believed to make blacks into “fiends” who would rape white women and be impervious to bullets. The first state laws against opium made similar claims about its effects on Chinese railroad workers — and marijuana prohibition followed a scare campaign about its link with Mexicans and blacks and ability to promote violence and interracial liaisons.

By contrast, New Zealand’s new laws specify that products with “low risk” of death, other harms or addiction must be approved — and leaves it up to a scientific committee to define the precise nature and appropriate definition of “low risk.” Drugs that are already illegal will remain so, probably to avoid conflict with international law. The legislation makes no mention of benefits or efficacy, so manufacturers do not have to prove that their drugs are better than placebos.

At least six drugs have already been rejected. However, the law allowed marketers to keep selling products they have submitted for approval, if they’d already been marketed without incident for at least three months. (The rationale was that since bans cannot keep up, it is futile to add more while the approval process is starting.)

Not surprisingly, all new drugs will remain illegal for people under 18. They can only be sold at specific, licensed outlets — not convenience stores or other places frequented by youth — and must carry packaging identifying the ingredients and including health warnings about the known and potential risks. No advertising is permitted, except inside the store itself.

Will this legislation work? It’s certainly an improvement on the current system, which essentially allows new drugs to be marketed worldwide without testing. It also avoids problems with attempts — like pending legislation on which hearings were held last month in the U.S. Senate — to create blanket bans on all possible analogues of existing psychoactive drugs.

Such prohibitions not only fail to stop chemists from creating newer compounds, but also cause serious problems for healthcare. Many of these substances have potential medical uses — in fact, they are often based on information from pharmaceutical patent applications — but once they are made illegal, drug companies tend to lose interest because of the excess cost and greater risk of rejection when seeking approval. The former top adviser to the British government on drug policy, Dr. David Nutt, has compared the loss to medicine that results to the delays in scientific advancement caused by the Catholic church’s actions against Galileo and Copernicus.

In the last month alone, we’ve seen several dramatic examples of the harm caused by failure of our current policy. Two college students at a New York dance festival died from taking “Molly” (MDMA, the drug formerly known as ecstasy) of unknown provenance and purity. A drug that causes severe disfigurement — including crocodile-like skin scales, amputations and bone and muscle loss due to improper synthesis of its main ingredient — known as Krokodil, is suspected to have migrated from Russia to Arizona. And a new report showed that nearly 23,000 emergency room visits in 2011 were linked to “bath salts.”

Of course, regulation won’t make recreational drug use perfectly safe — this is already clear from our experience with tobacco, prescription drugs and alcohol. However, it also won’t add to the harm done by drugs the way incarcerating users and forcing them to rely on the vagaries of the black market does. People will always seek chemical euphoria, enlightenment and escape — so instead of locking them up and ceding the market to organized crime, we need to give them the safest possible choices and spend the money saved on enforcement on treatment and education instead.

Research shows repeatedly that providing safer alternatives — like clean needles, pharmaceutical-quality drugs and safe spaces in which to use them — improves health. By taking both advertising and gangsters out of the mix, New Zealand’s system offers a promising new way. While a drug-free world is clearly impossible, harm reduction already has decades of data behind it.

PHOTO: A woman smokes a joint at the High Times U.S. Cannabis Cup in Seattle, Washington September 8, 2013. REUTERS/Jason Redmond


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Marijuana…legalize it, tax it, regulate it, stop the bovine scat.

‘Nuff said.

Posted by Foxdrake_360 | Report as abusive

About time – Go Kiwis! Now there are some spending cuts I could get behind – our Nixon-era eradication programs! Less incarceration! Oh, I guess only if it’s ok with the private prisons lobby…

Posted by Nurgle | Report as abusive

Is this a sensible and long overdue move towards drug regulation or is just a clever pragmatic way to end the legalhighs cat and mouse game by prohibiting all unapproved legal highs in one single legislative move?

Does promoting & taxing government approved drugs while policing and punishing government unapproved drugs – sound a familiar model to you? Is that what you’d call regulation? It seems worryingly similar to the present divide between alcohol and cannabis.

This NZ model of ‘regulation’ was passed with overwhelming support 119 votes to 1. This must reflect a progressive and forward thinking country? I’m afraid not, it reflects a messy Act that has become a bit of a ‘pig in a poke’. Prohibitionists supported the Act believing they were banning drugs and keeping nasty legalhighs away from young people while drug reformers thought they were moving forward with regulation. Hear Peter Dunne the Health Minister explain the rationale for Act

Here is the small print identifying worrying clauses in the NZ Psychoactive Substance Act 2013:

Clause 62
Supply of unapproved substance is an offence subject to a max of 2 years prison

Clause 63
Personal possession of any unapproved substance is an offence subject to a max. penalty of $500

Clause 69
Empowers the police or appointed ‘Enforcement Officers’ to enter premises without a warrant on suspicion of possess with intent to supply an unapproved substances

It is worth understanding the context of this drug policy to understand how it might be interpreted and delivered. This model of ‘regulation’ sits alongside New Zealand’s ‘progressive and forward thinking harm reduction drug policy’ that:

a) Is about to roll out drug testing people on benefits and stop the benefit of those who repeatedly test positive

b) Will not prescribe injectable substitute drugs,

c) Has no naloxone distribution

d) Has no drug consumption rooms

e) Promotes employer drug testing

f) Has just invested $2m on US styled Drug Abstinence Courts.

g) Refuses to allow self medication with raw cannabis and only support pharmaceutical cannabis spray in exceptional cases for patients with Multiple Sclerosis.

h) Increased arrests for cannabis by 75% between 2011 to 2012

Faced with frustration and cost over endlessly adding new legal highs to the New Zealand Misuse of Drugs Act 1975 has the government pulled off a prohibitionist master stroke and prohibited all legal highs in one move placing the onus (and cost) on the industry?

Of course the government may actually approve and tax some low risk substances which then allows them to sit alongside other government approved drugs (alcohol and tobacco), but this ‘regulation’ model perpetuates the current failed model – in that possession of anything not approved by the state is prohibited and will be policed and punished.

Regulating drugs is much needed and welcomed but policing and punishing people for using substances that are not approved by the State is a retrograde and worrying move. Imagine if the logic was extended to alcohol, food, vitamins and minerals? It should be a human right for people to consume what they want without get busted by the police.

We need to decouple drugs from the control of law enforcement agencies, we need drug regulation but this is not the sort of regulation I welcome nor one to shout about or adopt elsewhere.

Julian Buchanan
Associate Professor
Victoria University of Wellington
Aotearoa New Zealand

Posted by JulianBuchanan | Report as abusive

Governments worldwide are still strangely reluctant to allow the growing of cannabis–a mostly harmless plant and one with numerous agricultural, commercial, and medical applications. The main culprits in this absurd prohibition are the United States and the United Nations. By simply allowing people to grow this plant in limited quantities, much of the world’s “drug problem” would vanish overnight.

Posted by monarchist2 | Report as abusive

I fully support regulation but taking a closer look at New Zealand small print does promoting & taxing state approved drugs while policing & punishing govt unapproved drugs sound a familiar model to you?

Does this not remind of the current failed war on drugs and the distinction between (approved) alcohol and (unapproved) cannabis?

This is the NZ Regulation model in which unapproved ‘legalhighs’ will be prohibited and punished. Is this truly the regulation we want to embrace or it is prohibition?

Under Clause 62 Supply of unapproved substance is an offence subject to a max of 2 years prison

Clause 63 Personal possession of any unapproved substance is an offence subject to a max. penalty of $500

Clause 69 Empowers the police or appointed ‘Enforcement Officers’ to enter premises without a warrant on suspicion of unapproved substances

Julian Buchanan, Assoc. Professor, Institute of Criminology, Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand

Posted by JulianBuchanan | Report as abusive

small bit of pedantry – you have referred to the UN ‘world drug report’ as the ‘world narcotics report’. Great piece though – thanks.

Posted by Transformdrugs | Report as abusive

Great article. Will be interesting to see if this leads to greater liberalization, or if a de facto ban will remain. Unfortunately, having read Julian’s analysis, I think the latter is more likely.

Posted by crasch | Report as abusive

It’s wonderful that you mention alcohol, caffeine, & nicotine as legal drugs. Not only are they legal, but they make enough $$$ to “influence” the Beltway gang as well. The big problem is the Legal/Law enforcement Complex that will fight hard to keep their bloated budgets to buy toys that are not necessary anymore…then they go to Bar and have a few cocktails, smoke a few cigarettes,,,and drink some coffee to sober up to get home….!

Posted by rikfre | Report as abusive

I hope New Zealand will allow shamanic temples with Ayahuasca soon. I live in Australia and traveling to the Peruvian Amazon is an expensive 40 hour ordeal. Comparatively, New Zealand is a couple of hours away.

Posted by yvo84 | Report as abusive