To prohibit or regulate psychoactive substances: has New Zealand got the right approach?

BMJ 2017; 356 doi: (Published 17 March 2017) Cite this as: BMJ 2017;356:j1195
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  1. Shakila B Rizwan, lecturer1,
  2. Andrea J Vernall, lecturer1
  1. 1School of Pharmacy, University of Otago, Dunedin, New Zealand
  1. Correspondence to: S B Rizwan shakila.rizwan{at}

Prohibition of a continuous stream of new psychoactive substances is both difficult and costly Shakila Rizwan and Andrea Vernall look at New Zealand’s attempt to regulate instead

Many countries are experiencing a surge in the recreational use of new psychoactive substances.1 The most common approach to this problem is to prohibit known or broadly defined chemical classes.2 However, this has been difficult to implement, particularly as manufacturers rapidly develop new substances to replace prohibited compounds.34 The New Zealand government decided to adopt a different approach, creating a pre-market approval regulatory system for new psychoactive substances, the Psychoactive Substances Act 2013.5 The United Kingdom recently introduced similar regulatory legislation, the Psychoactive Substances Act 2016.6 Here we discuss some of the controversies surrounding the New Zealand act and the international implications.

Need for a different approach

Use of specific compounds known to pose risk of harm is prohibited in New Zealand through the Misuse of Drugs Act 1975.7 The problem of unregulated new psychoactive substances emerged in the early 2000s when legal “party pills” containing benzylpiperazine, an alternative to methamphetamine not listed in the Misuse of Drugs Act, became readily available.8 Use of these pills was associated with several adverse effects, which generated public concern, and eventually benzylpiperazine was banned.9 However, not long after, new unrestricted products containing substances such as dimethoxymethamphetamine and synthetic cannabinoids (“legal highs”) emerged.34

It soon became evident that the Misuse of Drugs Act was going to be ineffective in managing the emerging psychoactive substances. Research to identify and prove the risks of these newly developed substances was often time consuming and costly for the government. The associate minister of health released a temporary class drug notice under the Misuse of Drugs Act restricting any substance that the minister was satisfied may …

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