Matt Bowden, Stargate Founder & Chair
of the Social Tonics Association of New Zealand (STANZ)
I’m a fairly optimistic guy, but if 18 months
ago somebody had told me that I would end up working with Government
to come up with an evidence-based drug policy based on genuine harm
minimisation, I simply wouldn’t have believed them.
If that person had told me that Jim Anderton would
be the Minister leading the development of this policy, and that
this policy would be supported and enhanced by Green MP Nandor Tanczos,
I would have probably been in hysterics.
Yet, believe it or not, this is exactly what has been
happening over the last 18 months, culminating in Parliament passing
the Misuse of Drugs Amendment Bill Number Three.
New Zealanders all know that Minister Jim Anderton
has a hard line prohibitionist stance when it comes to drugs and
alcohol, having campaigned on tough drugs policies, so we knew we
weren’t going in to chat to “soft on drugs” regime.
However, over the past 18 months, there has been something
of a mini revolution in the way drug policy is developed and implemented
following worldwide trends towards harm minimisation. Those affected
by drug laws should hope that it sets a precedent for more of the
same. I am really hopeful that it will.
Faced with an increasing consumer demand for BZP-based
party pills, which were unregulated and available to anybody with
the money to buy them, Government looked at its options in terms
of controlling these products.
Stargate took the initiative to set up an industry
body, the “Social Tonics Association of New Zealand”
to collectively represent responsible members of the party pill
industry and, right from the start, began advocating and lobbying
for a harm minimisation approach to this issue from Government in
New Zealand to set precedent for international drug policy.
New Zealand’s National Drug Policy (NDP) is
a little known document which seeks to reduce drug related harm
in three ways – supply reduction, demand reduction and treatment
provision. The NDP invites public and industry groups to come forward
with their own demand reduction solutions, and this is precisely
what STANZ and the many users of party pills did.
In meetings with Minister Anderton and Government
officials, through regular correspondence, and through feedback
from the dance community, the case was made for a legally regulated
and controlled supply of high-quality party pill products, rather
than a ban as has been the case in the US.
We made the case that BZP-based products were safer,
non-addictive alternatives to dangerous illegal drugs like P (New
Zealand’s problematic smokable crystal methamphetamine) and
were playing an important role in reducing demand for dangerous
The argument was made that the availability of these
products was minimising drug-related harm and that regulation was
required to ensure the products were only available to adults and
that high quality standards were met in their manufacture and labeling.
We made the case that banning the products would simply
force them underground into the hands of gangs, where there would
be no quality control and where buyers would be forced into contact
with the dangers of organised crime.
We are aware that these arguments have been made many
times before in relation to other social tonics, but we were surprised
and impressed with the Government’s approach to this issue,
and the response to our arguments from Jim Anderton.
Right from the start he told us that he would make
decisions based on the best evidence, and this is exactly what he
New Zealand’s Expert Advisory Committee on Drugs
(EACD) investigated BZP and found there were no grounds upon which
to ban it. Rather, it noted that a ban on BZP-based products could
lead to a swing back to the use of dangerous and addictive drugs.
With agreement in principle from the experts, STANZ
drafted a code of practice based on the principles of harm reduction
and invited public submissions – many of which came from the
dance community and the alcohol and drug treatment sector. We then
presented these submissions to Government.
New legislation was drafted around our regulatory
recommendations and BZP was afforded unique status within a specially
created fourth schedule to the Misuse of Drugs Act.
Throughout this process I was very aware of the many
years of hard work in drug law reform that had gone before, both
here and internationally. It was apparent to me in my dealings with
many Government officials that they favoured this approach for cannabis
and other soft drugs as well.
As I see it, our mission was to propose a regulatory
framework which could be used to provide measures other than prohibition
for substances which were less dangerous than those already available,
such as alcohol, tobacco and hard drugs.
Politicians only lead into new territory if they feel
that the voters are with them. We had to launch a concentrated public
information and awareness campaign to sway public opinion to pave
the way for this progress.
For us this meant learning how to utilise mainstream
media for a de-stigmatisation campaign to highlight our solution
and to try and temper the media’s predisposition towards hysterical
misrepresentation. We used professionals to assist us in putting
together a strategy and then presenting our case – both to
Government and the public - in the most professional, credible and
We now have a brand-new approach to drug issues in
New Zealand which works. Consumers have the safer, non-addictive
alternatives to illegal drugs that they want, there are standards
around their sale and manufacture to protect people’s health
and the gangs are kept away from these products because they fall
within the law.
I know New Zealand has a long way to go before we
have an across the board, evidence-based drug policy that genuinely
protects people from harm, but I believe we have taken a big step
forward in the right direction, giving us platform from which we
can begin to show other nation’s policy analysts that regulatory
options other than prohibition truly represent safest practice in
harm minimisation policy.
I hope everybody with an interest in drug policy and
harm minimisation can take some learnings from this experience and
the resulting decreases in public health risk and together move
forward into a safer, freer world.
I would welcome your comment and feedback.