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May 4, 2014 | by  | in Features Homepage News Online Only |
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Interview with a Drug Lord

This is the full transcript of an interview conducted between the Salient Editors and Associate Minister of Health, Peter Dunne. He is the man in charge of government drug policy. Three days after this interview, he changed his view about synthetic drugs and moved to ban all remaining synthetic drugs. Now the exception given to products that had been on the shelves for more than 3 months and not proved to be harmful is to be revoked and they are to be removed from the shelves. Apparently he knew all this while we were interviewing him which makes his comments about the failed prohibition in Ireland particularly interesting.

Duncan and Cam: An explanation about what the psychoactive substances bill is and what it does
Peter Dunne: Well let me start. I need to go back probably to about 2011. The whole legal high industry has developed really in the last 10 years. It’s been a very rapid development and it’s because its synthetic. It’s not natural. It’s not one product. It’s a combination of products. And this first became an issue in New Zealand about 3 or 4 years ago because there was product proliferating and there were no rules in place. It could be sold to anyone through any form of outlet petrol stations, convenience stores, dairies, grocers anywhere. And there was a lot of concern expressed about what was going to happen and the government came under a lot of pressure to do something about the problem. So we thought about what we could and we looked at what was happening in other countries. And we went down the path originally of saying these things were all compounds. It’s pointless banning a particular product. So we thought what we would do is if we could identify the chemicals that were problematic we would ban and the specific combination and we did that for about ten years. But we soon realized we were just creating a race. You ban one, they go away and tweak the chemical and think of something else. We banned I think in that time about 40 something chemicals. About 55 products. You know when you are sometimes standing at the airport and you see the plane coming into land and you can see the lights of the plane behind it and the one behind it and the one behind it. It was exactly like that. It got to the point where we would be banning something and within days sometimes as little as 24 hours the replacement product was ready to go. The industry knew what was going on. It was pretty unsatisfactory. If you check the media of that time, it was just as hysterical as it is today. And the pressure we were under to do something that was lasting. People were saying clearly you can’t ban this stuff because of its nature so I talked to a number of my equivalent ministers in other countries all who were expressing the same sort of frustration and I can’t remember how exactly we came up with it, but we came up with the bright idea of why don’t we turn the game on its head? Why don’t we actually say you prove your products are, we initially said safe but you can’t prove anything is safe, not even tea or coffee, so low risk. You prove your products are low risk. If you can prove your products are low risk then we will let you sell them and the standard that we will use will be something equivalent to the test you have to have when you bring new medicines in to the market. So there needs to be quite a prolonged period of clinical and other testing. Everyone said “Oh great idea” and that’s where the psychoactive substances act came from. It was passed by parliament finally in July last year. Now if I just pause at that point and paint the picture at July last year we had probably around 4000 outlets selling these products: that was potentially every grocer, corner dairy, convenience store or petrol station etc. no restrictions on their promotion; no restrictions on who could buy them. Immediately the act was passed an R18  restriction on purchase came in. Very strict restrictions came in about promotion and marketing and restrictions came in on the types of stores. So effectively the only stores that were able to continue selling the products were R18 stores. We said at that point that any product that had been on the market for more than 3 months and had not been identified with any problems could remain during the transition period and that’s figure was about 50 originally it’s now about 41 42. Everything else in other words all the new entrants and anything in the system, went until those people went through the testing process. We then said there are two bits two the process. The local authorities had while the bill was being put through parliament pleaded with us really and said just as with alcohol we have got the power to have alcohol free zones or whatever we want the same power with psychoactive substances. So parliament thought that was quite a good idea that power be given to them. LAPPs Local area product plans. Then the law said once all those LAPPs are in place then phase two of the bill kicks in and that gives us time to develop the clinical testing regime that’s then when you actually start to assess products that they have a mind to put to market. Because you have the framework under which they can be sold, both legally and locally. Then you start testing  whether these things are safe so that was the plan. I think it is fair to say that a couple of things have happened since then that have which are causing a concern at the moment. Firstly for reasons which I cannot explain and do not understand, the councils have been extraordinarily slow at putting their plans together. Of 71 councils only 6 have so far done so. And the mayors are all leaping up and down and saying we shouldn’t  have to deal with this. It’s not our problem. The govt should just ban the stuff. Well actually the govt is doing exactly what they asked them to let them to do.

D&C: Has Wellington got a plan?
PD: I have talked to the mayor about it and they are developing a plan here. But what’s actually quite interesting is if you look at the councils that are making the most noise, they are all provincial councils. What I think has happened is this. That in the days that it could be sold anywhere, no one really noticed, when you say well it can only be sold from an R18 store, in places like Napier or Palmerston North there are probably only one of those in town. So you immediately draw attention to it. Which is why you get all these reported queues of people. In Wellington I don’t know how many R18 stores there are. In Auckland I don’t know. In Christchurch I don’t know. But it’s not proving to be nearly the same issue there. I’ve had one letter from my electorate about it for instance. I think it is the fact, to put it very crudely, previously it was out of sight out of mind now because it is down to designated stores, we have gone from over 4000 to 150, it’s almost in your small towns it is in your face. I think that’s the problem. What has emerged is a lot of high profile cases. Two things need to be said in respect of that. Firstly I have asked the Ministry of Health since I came back into this portfolio in January to monitor what is actually going on and what they say and the national poison centre say is that the volume of cases has dropped off considerably. There are certainly cases where people have real problems but they are a lot less numbered than they were this time last year. The difficulty with that though is that they also say is what we are detecting quite a lot of is people who a year ago and wouldn’t tell them anything because they didn’t want to tell what substances they were using are now coming in and saying I have been using such and such because they see that as legal but actually and this is where it is a very grey area. A number of the docs say to me we can’t prove whether they are using that or something illegal far more dangerous but are using this legal one as the cover. And that’s what they suspect is happening in a lot of cases but very difficult to prove that it is actually. So that’s basically where  we are at at the moment. If we take just the raw stats we have cut the outlets by 95%. We have cut the products by 2/3s. We are seeing less people presenting with difficulties even though the public seem more agitated than ever.

D&C: Do you think this agitation is overblown, by the media?
PD: Yes I do. Im not sure who is doing it although I suppose it all contributes to it. I am not saying there aren’t genuine cases I am not saying there aren’t people who need help I am not saying there aren’t problems with people who are addicted. I am not saying that at all. I mean this stuff is nasty. Let’s not beat around the bush. I am not supporting it. But what I am saying is that we are trying to actually manage it given that we can’t ban it. Its harm minimization, which is a consistent pillar of our whole drug strategy. And we are facing the same problem that every other country is facing.  In Ireland what they did, what the minister said to me he said, what we did in Ireland is we banned every single thing. And its had two impacts. One is that the number of stores legally available selling the stuff now has reduced to about 6 across the country and the second is that we have driven the whole industry underground and nothing has changed. And while we have got it off the public agenda, the problem is just as real as ever.

D&C: Are there any issues with legitimate stores selling illegitimate product? Because I am aware friends of mine said that cosmic corner used to have this secret stash.
PD: All I can say is that the Ministry of Health has been running sting operations and has not found any evidence of that yet. What we know is that if you take the law that was passed last year july no new product since july so no expansion of the market. I am told if you break this down into units of product 6 million units have been sold since july. Less than ten high problem cases identified but they attract the attention.

We are doing our level best to control this. We are very confident that given time the regime will work I guess you learn a bit as you go along maybe the lead times in the transition should have been shorter but we were trying to be fair and reasonable all round. But would I go back to a ban? No. because we are right back to where we were.

D&C: Do you think a major driver of these drugs becoming available and driving demand is the prohibition on drugs that are similar like marijuana?
PD: That’s used as an excuse. I am not sure that that is necessarily true. We don’t have data on switching. I think a lot of this stuff is the old forbidden fruit syndrome, because it is under some restriction it becomes more attractive. There could be some switching but I don’t know the extent to which that is happening in detail.

D&C: Well I guess it would be switching as well as starting. People who would have started on weed now starting on synthetics.
PD: Well that’s possible but again if come back to where we start the products that are available are ones that are allegedly low risk. While you might sort of think that’s a dumb thing to do and not to be encouraged you can’t really stop people experimenting and having choices.

D&C: Which I think brings us on to the next question which is about the low risk testing process that you have instituted. Because from our reading it is different than the classification for drugs has been in the past as to what is considered low risk. Why did the government choose a different approach than it did for other drugs?
PD: Well the answer to that is that we have varying regimes for varying products. Tobacco is governed by its own legislation. Alcohol by its own legislation. And we have the misuse of drugs act which essentially covers illegal substances. Psychoactives fitted into none of those boxes so we needed to develop a third or fourth regime. We have just been through a major review of the alcohol rules. The law commission has completed a review of the misuse of drugs act, which is 40 years old. Hopelessly out of date. They have reported and that’s being reviewed at the moment and my expectation is that we will have legislation in parliament next year to deal with those recommendations. The government has not made any decisions yet on which it will support but the general direction of the law commission report I think is one that we will support and we acknowledge that the current legislation is just a different time and a different place and totally irrelevant to today’s needs. My own personal view is that at a point in time in the future and I am thinking some way down the track probably 5 years assuming the psychoactive substances has worked as we intend then you could make a case for looking at substances predominantly cannabis being put through the same process. That’s not government policy. That’s not likely to be government policy any time soon but I am saying that if you looked at it logically you could open the door to that down the track. At the same time, I should say that all the advise that I have received to date is that if you were to do that given the clinical tests that are being developed that are low risk, cannabis probably wouldn’t get through either. Would not.

D&C: Interesting because we have heard the opposite.
PD: Well I have had that advice quite consistently. So all I am saying is that my own personal view is to say is that some time in the future that could be an option but I am not prejudging the outcome but all I am saying is that for those who think that it will open the door, it may not produce the answer that people are after.

D&C: So you are walking home down a dark alley and there is a group of youths approaching you, and they have either smoked synthetic highs or they have smoked some weed. Which situation would you prefer to be in?
PD: I honestly don’t know. I mean I totally accept the prevalence of marijuana use.

D&C: 80% is the latest figure.
PD: I totally accept that. I just think we have to move reasonably cautiously on both fronts. And the argument that some are saying that if you just simply legalise the real thing then you won’t have to worry about synthetics is I think a bit simplistic and I just don’t think that’s the case at all. Well for two reasons. There is debate about what legalization actually means. Whether you mean legalization or simply removing a legal sanction the real issue which you would need to tackle and then that raises a whole lot of issues for any government is who controls the means of distribution and production. And in New Zealand its the gangs. So would you want to nationalise the industry? There are all those sorts of issues.

D&C: Yeah I guess decriminalisation would continue having the harms of gangs.
PD: So I am not personally saying never never. I am saying that the regime that the Psychoactive Substances Act establishes could provide a way through in the future but I am simply saying don’t count chickens. And I am making very clear that that is not on the policy agenda.

D&C: I guess that is a good segue into the next set of questions about cannabis and drugs more widely. Do you think that in our lifetime cannabis will be either decriminalised or legalised in New Zealand?
PD: I really can’t answer that I don’t know. The reason I don’t know is because while it is a natural product the manipulation of the genes of that are changing. It’s a far more toxic substance than it was when i was a student for instance and so i just don’t know where that will head.

D&C: So from a harm minimisation perspective then wouldn’t it better to regulate such a product
PD: Well you could argue that i think that the issue there comes down to what are you actually trying to achieve. In this area, it’s a bit like putting lids back on bottles once the genie escaped. You know to some extent the genie has escaped for legal highs and so we are trying to regulate the situation and certainly with alcohol the genie escaped a hundred years ago. Well so i suppose the issue really becomes do you really want to let another genie out of the bottle?

D&C: Do you not think it is already out of the bottle?
PD: I think that’s debatable frankly.

D&C: 80% of NZ do it.
PD: Well not regular users. I mean I have used cannabis. Well I tried it as a student. No i wasn’t a regular user i didn’t find it did anything for me.

D&C: Do you think that had you been caught and laid a criminal conviction that that would have stopped your political career and if so do you think that would have been fair?
PD: At the time it might have delayed it. Would it have been fair? Well in the context of the time you did these things with your eyes open. So you accept the consequences. But frankly I just didn’t find it all that exciting.

D&C: But you can see how from our perspective that it is kind of weird that we have friends who now have got drug charges or whatever for smoking marijuana but then you have the majority of politicians who have said that they smoked weed, but then support a law that would put them in prison, if it was applied fairly.
PD: Well you could argue that. You could argue that most of the police people I talk to say essentially that they take a pretty light view of cannabis.

D&C: So it’s quite a strange thing to have in society where everyone including law makers and people who enforce the law are very blaise about it but there is still a law.
PD: But at the same time they do say be very cautious about taking the next step.

D&C: You are four times more likely to be prosecuted if you are found with Marijuana if you are Maori in New Zealand. Do you think police discretion is being used fairly?
PD: I think you just have to come back one. If you look at alcohol actually. In the days of restrictive licensing laws, the sort of practices that went on, and everyone knew about it. You know I can remember being in a pub in the days of 10 O’Clock closing at 3 O’Clock one morning and turning to the guy next to me in this crowded bar and saying, “God the cops would have a field day”. And the guy said, “I am the local cop. I am here to draw the raffle.” So there is a degree where the law sort of says, here’s the line but within a reasonable measure of tolerance.

D&C: I guess when you have a law that it is very unclear for the population to tell whether you are going to be caught. If I was at another pub down the road which the police didn’t like because it didn’t run a raffle they could have gone in there and got everyone out.
PD: That’s true. That’s been part of our history since the year dot. I am not saying that that’s the way it is so you keep doing it. I am saying that that’s the reality.

D&C: So I guess that is a particular problem particularly with that Maori statistic?
PD: It could be but then it depends how it is applied. I mean I have been in a predominantly Maori towns where basically the law is purely localised and there isn’t an issue.

D&C: Do you think it is possible that NZ will ever eradicate cannabis?
PD: I don’t think that anyone will eradicate cannabis. In the same way that you won’t eradicate tobacco, or alcohol, or any of the other issues. So the issue then comes down to a management strategy. And I think that our law at the moment that is about harm minimisation, supply control, and sort of reasonable checks and balances is seen as pretty pragmatic.

D&C: It seems why one of the reasons why you made a move towards the psychoactive substances bill and changing the way we treat synthetic drugs is that they are always going to be there and it seems like that would also make sense when arguing that marijuana or cannabis crops are always going to be there.
PD: Yeah I may not disagree with that. As I have said my own view is I think let’s do these things one step at a time. There could be a case down the track I just don’t want to complicate the issue by raising it all at once, because I know what the outcome will be. But I think that it’s very simplistic to say if you just legalise one then the other one goes away. I just don’t accept that argument. That’s really just the way it has been couched at the moment. The other argument that has been raised is the medicinal use issue. Well there is actually a medicinal product available and I know from various commentary I have heard from the US that a lot of the medicinal cannabis industry in the US was really just a front for the real thing.

D&C: I guess once you see that it works for people with backpain and headaches and stuff
PD: Pharmacologists and toxocologists I have spoken to have said, and I don’t fully understand these things that the real benefit comes through ingestion rather than inhalation. So you know.

D&C: Do you agree yes or no that drug addiction particularly with cannabis is a health issue and not a criminal issue?
PD: I think in the main it is. There may well be criminal sanctions that apply in some cases as we do in the alcohol area for drink driving for illegal supply of licenses. I think the same arguably applies in cannabis case. But fundamentally you don’t curb addiction through the criminal path.

D&C: Well then it seems that if it is a health issue and obviously there are harms from being an addict there seems to be extra harms from calling you a criminal.
PD: Well see this is the issue. If you look at the New Zealand scheme where we have significant levels of drug addiction and alcoholism in our prisons. One of the things that United Future as part of the current confidence and supply agreement wanted to do was ensure that all prisoners as part of their parole are alcohol and drug assessed and we didn’t proceed with that because once we started actually to discuss it with various people they said its far too late in the day. If you are alcohol and drug dependent when you get into prison, you want to be dealing with the focus there rather than when you are coming out. If you are not dealing with it there and you have got it when you go in you sure as hell will when you get out. So we backed off that and we have been supporting efforts to get more drug and alcohol services in prisons so that more prisoners can be assessed and treated as appropriate when they are there.

D&C: But I guess our point is if you are considering it a health issue, why are you still putting them in prison?
PD: Well they may be in prison for a variety…

D&C: But if you do go in prison for a drug related offence, you are going to prison and not to rehab
PD: That depends what the offence is. If the offence is

D&C: possession
PD: Well no i am thinking more if you are a pusher

D&C: And then it’s probably fair to say you are spreading harm to others but in terms of individual recreational use.
PD: Yeah okay I am not wildly keen on that frankly. But all I am saying that the international balance is shifting quite markedly we will have the opportunity through the Misuse of Drugs Act to bring what is a 40 year old law with a pretty rigid classification system that applies to a lot of drugs and in some cases aren’t even around anymore, bring that up to date. That work is far from complete and I can’t really say with any certainty where it will end up because we are still working our way through.

D&C: How important an issue is it for you to improve the act, because when we spoke to the national mps, the national caucus got back to us and said that the national party had no plans to change drug law in NZ?
PD: Well look I would say this. As the minister responsible for in the health sense alcohol drugs all the addictions bar tobacco, and I am also responsible for mental health I have been very keen to review all of our laws in that respect. We have reviewed the mental health strategy and put in place a new suicide prevention strategy. I worked closely with Judith Collins and Simon Power before her on the alcohol the stuff that came from the law commission. The next leg of the stool was the Misuse of Drugs Act stuff which is working its way through the system at the moment. We still have legislation out there. What I have been trying to do is update the whole suite of stuff and its just been a systematic job of working through it. Rome was never built in a day and to that extent the psychoactive substances stuff has been a huge distraction and had to be dealt with. That’s the issue really.

D&C: Do you think that we are regular users of cannabis, would you be surprised?
PD: My personal view is that I have no idea and do I care? No. I don’t know and I really don’t want to know.

D&C: Yeah I guess that it’s great that although we obviously still have this law we can be in a room where we are sitting speaking to the Minister who is in charge of drugs and say “We have done drugs” and that sort of thing. The law is probably behind the societal reality.
PD: I was going to say the law per se can ever get on top of this. It can create an environment. It can create some sort of broader social messages about what’s good and what’s not good but at the end of the day it comes down to individuals and I think that the one bit that gets lost in this debate is an old fashioned term. Its the whole issue of responsibility. People are very good at saying these poor kids on their synthetic substances or on alcohol this shouldn’t be happening. Well, no, that’s probably true but where is individual responsibility for your actions fit into all of this? It’s sort of thing that people claim when they want to do something when something is happening that they don’t like, they forget about responsibility. At the end of the day that will be what determines behaviours rather than the legal framework.


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Salient is a magazine. Salient is a website. Salient is an institution founded in 1938 to cater to the whim and fancy of students of Victoria University. We are partly funded by VUWSA and partly by gold bullion that was discovered under a pile of old Salients from the 40's. Salient welcomes your participation in debate on all the issues that we present to you, and if you're a student of Victoria University then you're more than welcome to drop in and have tea and scones with the contributors of this little rag in our little hideaway that overlooks Wellington.

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  1. Appreciating the time and energy you put into your blog and in depth information you provide.
    It’s good to come across a blog every once in a while that isn’t the same old rehashed information.
    Fantastic read! I’ve saved your site and I’m including your RSS feeds to my Google

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