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Animal testing of recreational drugs unlikely

Monday 3 Dec 2012 7:39 p.m.

Activists across the country have voiced their disagreement after animal testing was mooted as a possibility to ensure the safety of legal recreational drugs.

A report in the Sunday Star-Times raised the issue of LD50 testing – a process where a group of dogs or rats are subjected to increasingly potent doses of a drug until half the group dies.

Associate Health Minister Peter Dunne has ruled out the practice in New Zealand – calling it ‘barbaric’ on RadioLIVE – but the wider issue of animal testing of recreational drugs still looms large. The Government has made it clear it wishes to see a process set up whereby manufacturers must prove a product is safe before it can be sold, rather than the current process which sees the Government on the back foot and forced to react after it has already hit the market.

Retired politician Pete Hodgson says it is highly unlikely the industry will be allowed to test its products on animals here.

“This is a really interesting public policy issue… the debate really matters but actually probably f**k all is going to happen,” says Mr Hodgson, a former Labour Party MP who spent two years as the Minister of Health and six years as Minister of Research, Science and Technology and now serves as the chair of the Australian and New Zealand Council for the Care of Animals in Research and Teaching, an independent organisation which works within the animal science industry on matters of ethics and social issues.

“Nobody’s going to bother to put their particular highs through the drug-testing regime that the Government’s about to legislate for if the only market they can sell them to is New Zealand. It just ain’t going to happen."

Dr Leo Schep, a toxicologist specialising in recreational drugs with the National Poison Centre says some form of animal testing needs to be looked at.

“You have to challenge these people and say, ‘Do you mean that it’s quite acceptable for humans to be the first line of testing for these drugs?’ And of course we know the answer is no. It has to come back to animal testing unfortunately.”

Opposition to the ideal has been vocal but Dr Schep says people need to determine where they draw a line.

“I know some people may say, ‘Well who cares about recreational drugs,’ but the bottom line is we care about our society and we protect our society irrespective of what they expose themselves to. That’s the bottom line.

“What happens if it’s their own children who take these drugs without them knowing about it? That conjures up too many concerning questions for me. We have to protect the public irrespective of whether they’re taking recreational drugs or not.”

Matt Bowden is New Zealand’s highest-profile recreational drug advocate. His argument for the legalisation of drugs is not necessarily grounded in science – but history.

“It’s been a normal human behaviour in virtually every human culture, going back to the earliest civilisations that we can find, for people to use a plant or some other material to change their mood state in a social setting,” he says.

Despite this, Mr Bowden is pushing for testing of the new range of drugs and while he would says he would rather not, he believes the use of animals is unavoidable.

“If we’re going to develop new synthetics we need to test them properly. The only way we know how to do that with our technology so far does involve rats at the very least.”

Could the problem be a difference in perception? Dr Schep says animal testing is common in the realm of medical science.

“Every prescription drug on the market has been rigorously tested on animals. It’s been tested to prove that it works and it’s been tested to prove that it’s safe. The Government’s taking the approach to say the manufacturer must prove these recreational drugs are safe, therefore they will apply the same standards to these drugs that are applied to pharmaceutical drugs."

But Mr Hodgson says there is a difference.

“Animal testing is very rare in New Zealand. Use of animals in research is very common,” he says – adding that this distinction is important.

Animal testing generally signifies a product is going to be taken to market. Before it can be released it must be approved by MedSafe, testing is a part of that process. Animal research refers to experimenting on animals a long time before that product is likely to be released.

“It might be that a new medical device has been developed in New Zealand for hip surgery," says Mr Hodgson. "That would almost certainly be applied to an animal before it’s tried out in humans… It may be that someone is doing some experimentation to get an idea of how a mouse might respond to a blood pressure pill.” 

Mr Hodgson says the New Zealand system requires an Animal Ethics Committee to approve every experiment on animals.

“One of the things that the committee does is it says, ‘Well, what are the costs and what are the benefits?’" says Mr Hodgson. "And the costs and the benefits include monetary, but they are much broader than that and they include all of the welfare costs to the animals or the wider benefit to that thing called humanity, and they seek to weigh that up… Recreational drugs would not ever pass a cost-benefit test because the benefits are not to do with making a person better but with giving them a high."

On top of that, Mr Hodgson believes companies eyeing up a potential cash cow in the recreational drug industry will have to invest more than they will earn just to get on the shelves.

“This test isn’t cheap. Certainly to take a full drug through the process, all three stages… generally speaking people talk about it being US$1 billion and if not, it’s usually around half a billion."

But Dr Schep says his bottom line is recreational drugs must be proven safe – regardless of whether this requires research on animals.

“Human safety is paramount," he says. "We follow the advice of the Law Commission and if we follow that advice then we have to put animal testing to prove it’s safe. Those people who jump up and down and say ‘we can’t do that’ are probably on some sort of pharmaceutical drug which is tested on animals anyway. It’s very ironic.”

If animal testing is blocked, the drug industry will face another hurdle in its struggle toward legitimacy – a fight Mr Bowden has been fighting for well over a decade.

At every turn he has faced a battle, whether it is natural products or synthetics.

“If we’re not gonna allow humans to use the traditional mushrooms, cactus and hemp products to adjust their mood then we need to create new synthetics cause humans have used those sorts of products going back to the dawn of time,” he says, and it is almost certain he will continue to fight for his cause regardless of the outcome in this latest test of the Government's attitude toward drugs.

The proposed legislation will be voted on early next year, and if it successfully survives that stage the public will be consulted during the select committee debate process.

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