ACT News

War on synthetic drugs like playing 'whack a mole', expert warns

Australia should look at regulating synthetic drugs because banning them is like a game of "whack a mole", with so-called legal highs exposing the weaknesses of prohibition, says the New Zealand Drug Foundation.  

"In the old days, one drug would come along every couple of decades and then prohibition was nice and simple... but when you've got so many new products coming along very quickly, you see that prohibition is a very ineffective way of controlling these things," the foundation's executive director, Ross Bell, said. 

Concerns: An example of seized synthetic drugs in Canberra last year.
Concerns: An example of seized synthetic drugs in Canberra last year. Photo: Jeffrey Chan

Mr Bell spoke about New Zealand's approach to new psychoactive substances at the ACT Alcohol Tobacco and Other Drug Sector Conference in Canberra this week. 

He talked about the country's model of regulation where if producers could prove their product was "low risk", they could legally sell it under tight controls. These included purchase age restrictions, a ban on marketing or advertising, a requirement for labelling, health warnings and a contact for the Poisons Centre line, retail licensing and a testing regime. 

Mr Bell said after the law was passed, the number of products dropped from more than 200 to 30, retailers decreased from about 4000 to 160, there were fewer emergency department presentations and an increase in calls to the Poisons Centre, which he said "wasn't that there was an increase in problems, it was the fact that people knew where to go". 

But New Zealand reversed the laws following public outcry over concerns the drugs were addictive and criticisms they would be tested on animals. Mr Bell said New Zealand was now looking at rewriting the laws. 


Mr Bell believes regulation of synthetic drugs is the way forward and countries such as Australia could learn lessons from the New Zealand approach.

"Despite the fact we haven't quite pulled it off properly yet, regulation is going to give governments greater control than any other forms of control," he said.

Mr Bell said it was also crucial for governments to engage the public in such complex issues. 

"That's something I don't think New Zealand did well. We thought we had all of this consensus across the public and we misread the public mood," he said. 

"The public's desire was for something else and they were unhappy with what they got so the challenge now for politicians is to sell that properly to the public, to sell the idea that this form of regulation is giving governments greater control."

Mr Bell said synthetic drugs were a "global challenge", they were cheap to make and as soon as one drug was banned, another cropped up in its place. 

"Chemists are always going to move faster than lawmakers and in this global world, with things like the internet and bitcoins, governments have little control," Mr Bell said.

"It's that model of regulation where you are actually protecting the public more than under a prohibition model ... you are telling them what's in the product, you're limiting the dose, you're having age restrictions, you're not marketing, you don't have a big commercial free market of these products – all of these things are better tools of control for government than classifying a drug, saying it's illegal and hoping the police and the courts and the prison system can fix it."