New Zealand is tackling synthetic drugs by regulating them instead of banning them. B.C. health officials are watching the experiment closely, but we should not rush to follow New Zealand down this road.
The frustration that drove New Zealand's lawmakers to try a novel solution is familiar around the world. "Party drugs" such as spice, meow-meow and bath salts are manufactured to produce similar effects to marijuana, ecstasy and methamphetamine, and they are becoming increasingly popular among people aged 15 to 20.
The variety of such drugs is also growing at a rate that health and law-enforcement officials find hard to manage. The number of new psychoactive drugs rose from 166 in 2009 to 251 by mid-2012, according to a United Nations report.
In Canada, 59 new drugs were found in the first half of last year.
People who buy them have no idea what ingredients went into them. The mixtures can lead to psychotic episodes, hallucinations and, occasionally, death. Compounding the problem is the ease with which the drugs can be made or altered. Authorities no sooner declare a substance illegal than the chemists tweak it so the new compound is different enough to be legal.
Canada had been a popular place to make ecstasy because it was not illegal to possess the raw materials. When the law was tightened in 2011, manufacturers turned to compounds that had similar effects but different chemistry.
New Zealanders hope they can reduce the risks by making the new drugs legal, so their manufacture can be controlled to ensure quality.
While it is easy to understand their concern, opening the door to more drugs is not the way to solve the problem. Assessing each drug, determining its dangers, setting out manufacturing regulations and policing those regulations would be a mammoth job.
Legal drugs go through exhaustive and time-consuming testing and approval processes. The designer drugs would have to go through similar procedures to ensure their safety. Users are not going to wait, and the criminals will be happy to fill the demand while Health Canada or some other agency is toiling through the approval process.
Individuals and families already suffer from the misery created by both illegal drugs and legal substances such as alcohol. To suggest that we should accept these drugs because we accept alcohol is not helpful. Alcohol causes tremendous damage in our society; we struggle constantly to deal with drunk driving, violence, health problems and domestic troubles.
Alcohol, however, has been so deeply woven into societies around the world for thousands of years that prohibiting it has become impossible, as the United States discovered. We accept its heavy price because most of us like it and - short of a massive shift in societal attitudes - there's nothing we can do to get rid of it.
The designer drugs are new enough that we don't have to accept them as inevitable - and we don't have to give them the stamp of approval that comes with legalization.
Those who oppose the war on drugs believe it should be treated as a health issue, not a lawenforcement one. They are right, but that just proves psychoactive drugs are not benign. They are dangerous, and we must not pretend otherwise to ourselves or our children.
This editorial first appeared in the Times Colonist
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