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Dunne slams Opposition, Mayors over legal highs

Monday 28 Apr 2014 8:35 a.m.

Associate Health Minister Peter Dunne has slammed the Opposition's push for a total ban on synthetic cannabis, accusing them "grandstanding" and turning the issue into a "circus".

Speaking on Firstline this morning, Mr Dunne said the weekend's developments – which saw both Labour and New Zealand First propose legislation to ban the 41 legal highs still on the market – will result in stockpiling and panic buying.

"We'd made a decision at the beginning of last week that we would simply extend the Psychoactive Substances Act to include the products currently on the market," says Mr Dunne.

"I had intended to announce that much nearer the time that we'd introduce the legislation to stop panic buying. When it became apparent yesterday that both the New Zealand First and the Labour parties were involved in some sort of a political stunt around this, it seemed to me that that was certain to set off panic buying, stockpiling, everything else. In the interests of certainty it was therefore prudent to announce the Government's decision as quickly as possible."

Labour leader David Cunliffe says he's pleased the Government "rolled" so soon after the party made its intentions clear.

"We have legislation that is already drafted – it could be introduced and passed under urgency through all stages the day Parliament opens, which is next Tuesday, and that would cut the so-called stockpiling period in half," he said on Firstline this morning.

"If the Government wants to sign up to that – it's almost identical to what they're trying to do – we could have this problem solved in just over a week from now."

Mr Cunliffe says Labour supported the original bill with the understanding a testing regime would be implemented quickly, but a year-and-a-half later there is "no testing regime in sight" – and until there is, the products need to be withdrawn.

"We're both saying take these drugs completely off the market until they are proven to be very low- or no-risk," says Mr Cunliffe.

"It's the same goal... There is now bipartisan consensus on the way through this. I'm offering open cooperation to get that done on the first day the House is back."

Auckland Mayor Len Brown has welcomed the Government's move, telling it not to "muck around".

"We've had a number of marches around Manurewa, Papakura, out west in Henderson, and it's been pretty clear and evident from the feedback in our community that no, we haven't got a good grip on this and/or understand the full extent of the impact, particularly on our young people," says Mr Brown.

"I think it's the wise thing for the Government to do; it certainly reflects the type of feedback that our community's been giving us."

But Mr Dunne says pleas from local councils around New Zealand for an outright ban have been little more than "silly noise".

"It's not been helpful to have a number of silly Mayors around the country grandstanding on things they know nothing about," says Mr Dunne, "but I've certainly listened to the advice I've received from medical people, from addiction units, from mental health specialists, about the risks associated with some of these products."

One difference between the Government's proposal – extending the Psychoactive Substances Act – and Labour's proposal is the issue of animal testing.

The current Act allows the testing of synthetic drugs on animals as a "last resort", if no other alternatives exist. Labour wants this part of the bill changed.

"We just don't think it's morally defensible to be putting sentient animals through a whole lot of pain and suffering just so people can get high," says Mr Cunliffe.

"There's a different ethical argument if the drug has the potential to save human life, but we just don't think it meets that test in this case."

Advocacy groups are now pushing for the Government to help addicts who may soon be forced to go without their fix.

"While this is just a small victory for now, the bigger victory lies with helping addicts overcome their addiction," says Stephanie Harawira of Ban Synthetics NZ.

The New Zealand Drug Foundation says political parties are "trying to score some cheap political points" out of a serious problem.

"Are there people out there who are using this product who have a dependency on these products," says executive director Ross Bell. "And if you take them off the shelf what will those people do. Are we going to give them help?"

He says the products should stay on the shelves where they can be regulated.

"These products simply get driven to the black market and that is a market over which the Government has zero control," says Mr Bell.

"Our preference is to keep the products on the shelves - the ones that aren't causing problems - keeping them on the shelves keeps them visible, keeps them easier to control, makes them easier to regulate."

Parliament resumes next Tuesday, May 6.

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