All synthetic cannabis products to be banned

  • Peter Dunne

Law to ban synthetic cannabis products will be in place by Friday, and all 43 current products are expected to be out of shops just over a week later, Associate Health Minister Peter Dunne announced today.

Cabinet has today approved amendments to the Misuse of Drugs Amendment Bill that will take Kronic and other synthetic cannabis products off the market for 12 months while the Government works on its detailed response to the Law Commission’s recent report, he said.

The Government has already signalled that it is looking at the Law Commission recommendation to reverse the onus of proof and require the industry to prove its products are safe.

The current Bill allowing the temporary bans is expected to pass into law this week, he said.

“We are going to create temporary class drug orders that will allow me to place a 12-month ban on these currently unregulated psychoactive substances and any new ones that come along.

“The bottom line is that these products are generally untested and we do not know the long-term effects of their use and we are not about to just let it all happen and pick up damaged young people at the end,” Mr Dunne said.

He said the temporary class drug notices will be an interim measure which will mean the substances, although not Class C1 controlled drugs, will carry the same penalties as Class C1 drugs.

Notices will be prepared to cover all 43 synthetic cannabis products currently on the market as soon as the law is in place, and have them removed from sale.

Any new products will be dealt with as they arrive, Mr Dunne said.

From the date a temporary class drug order comes into force on a substance, the import, export, manufacture, supply and sale of the drug concerned will become illegal.

The notices will be able to be applied to particular synthetic cannabis products, or particular substances that may be in any given product.

“These products change frequently, and new ones are put on the market with a different ingredient or two. We will basically be able to capture them all.

Within the 12 months of a temporary class drug notice being placed on any substance, it will be assessed by a committee to be established for that purpose.  The committee will assess risk of harm and recommend to the Health Minister whether a substance should be classified as a controlled drug or scheduled as a restricted substance, or remain unregulated.

Mr Dunne said the process around dealing with these substances has been complex and it was important that the Government get it right.

“Critics have pointed to faster responses overseas, but some of those laws are coming unstuck already, with new products coming on to the market that are not covered.

“We have addressed that here. If new products turn up and we are concerned about them, we will be able to put temporary class drugs notices on them straight away.

“The net will be cast as wide as it needs to be to protect young New Zealanders.

“This Bill and the legislation coming to reverse the onus of proof will prove better thought out and more comprehensive than much of the overseas law,” Mr Dunne said.

The Health Minister will have the power to issues temporary class drug notices by way of notice in the Gazette, and it will be possible to put new substances into the regime as they become available.


Q & A

What is a Temporary Class Drug Notice?

It is a new mechanism provided for in the Misuse of Drugs Act 1975 (the Act) to place a temporary ban on unregulated substances of concern.

How quickly will synthetic cannabinoid substances be put in place?

The Minister of Health can issue a notice once the legislation is passed by Parliament.  The notice will come into force a minimum of 7 days after publication in the Gazette.   The first ban could be in place by mid August.  

Why would a drug be temporarily classified?

A drug could be temporarily classified when the Minister of Health Is concerned about its availability as an unregulated psychoactive substance, for which there is an unknown level of harm.

How will a drug be temporarily classified?

The Minister will issue a Temporary Class Drug Notice notifying the drug’s temporary classification status.  The notice will be published in the Gazette and made available in electronic form by the Ministry of Health as soon as possible following publication.

The temporary classification will come into force at a minimum of 7 days after the date of the publication of the notice in the Gazette.

The notice will expire one year after the notice comes into force, or when the drug is otherwise classified.  Within the 12 months of the order, any so-classified substance would be assessed by a committee to be established for the purpose under the existing power in the Act.  The committee would assess substances for risk of harm and make recommendation to the Minister of Health on whether the substance should be classified as a controlled drug or scheduled as a restricted substance, or remain unregulated.

However, the Minister may extend the period of the notice in order to obtain sufficient advice for an appropriate decision on longer term regulation.

What offences are associated with a temporarily classified drug?

A temporary class drug is treated, in most respects, as if the drug were Class C1 controlled drug in the Act.  From the date a Temporary Class Drug Notice comes into force the import, export, manufacture, supply and sale of the drug/s covered by the notice becomes illegal, with penalties the same as for Class C drugs.  However, the possession or use of the drug/s would not be a criminal offence.

What drugs does the Government want to temporarily classify?

The issuing of a notice will depend on the availability and level of concern about specific substances not controlled by any regulation. However, the impetus for the proposed change is to remove synthetic cannbinomimetic chemicals from sale by placing temporary bans on them. 

These substances are currently found in a wide range of products sold from retail outlets and via the Internet, despite a lack of scientific knowledge on the risks and long-term effects associated with their use.

Why has it taken time to address the issue of synthetic cannabinomimetic substances?

The Government previously agreed to a recommendation by the Expert Advisory Committee on Drugs to schedule a specific number of these substances as restricted substances under the Misuse of Drugs Amendment Act 2005.  However, this process first required a technical change to the legislation, included in the current Bill before the House.

In the past few months the number of synthetic cannabinomimetics available in New Zealand has escalated, as has the number and variety of new products on the market containing them.  There has been a corresponding increase in reported adverse effects associated with their use resulting in increased public concern. 

In addition, recent testing by ESR of more than 40 of these products has revealed a lack of quality control, with a number of products containing multiple psychoactive substances in varying blends and potencies.  This lack of quality control was demonstrated by the recent recall by the Ministry of Health of two products for containing a prescription medicine.

What other drugs are likely to be banned by the new legislation?

Any decisions by the Minister of Health on what drugs should be covered by temporary notice will be made on an ongoing basis.

Who will enforce the temporary bans?

The Police and Customs Service in line with their current responsibilities under the Misuse of Drugs Act.

Why bring in a temporary measure now when the Law Commission has recommended requiring any new psychoactive substances to be proved safe before they can be sold?

The Government has decided that the increasing availability of products containing untested psychoactive chemicals is unacceptable and therefore new controls are now required.

The Government is very supportive of the Law Commission’s proposal for a new regime to regulate new and unregulated psychoactive substances.  However, this is a major change and requires agreement by Cabinet and, if agreed, a good deal of development will be necessary, including new or amended legislation and the establishment of a regulator. 

Any new regime is unlikely to be in place until sometime in 2012.

This has been a legal industry selling a legal product; isn't this unfair to them?

The industry has been profiting from the sale of these products for some time.  However, it has become increasingly clear that more products are continually being brought to market with no quality control standards and with a combination of untested psychoactive chemicals with unknown health effects.

How can the 'stockpiling' of temporarily banned products be avoided?

Any supplier of products containing drugs covered by a Temporary Class Drug Notice is advised to dispose of them before the notice comes into force, otherwise they will be subject to penalties under the Misuse of Drugs Act.  The advice for those in possession of these products is not to use them.

Why will the supply of temporarily classified drugs be prohibited, but their possession still legal?

A Temporary Class Drug Notice will provide for the immediate control of substances under the Misuse of Drugs Act, with the same penalties as for Class C drugs, except that personal possession or use is not to be an offence. 

The intention of a notice is to immediately restrict the supply of a drug with unknown consequences.  However, classification would be on the basis of belief by the Minister of Health there is a risk or possibility of harm to individuals, but where the level of potential harm has yet to be determined.  In the interim, the Government does not believe anyone using the drug should be criminalised.