New Zealand took a step backwards Sunday night with proposed changes to their New Psychoactive Substances (NPS) legislation.

Last year, the Psychoactive Substances Act was introduced. This piece of legislation regulates the sale, manufacture, and importation of New Psychoactive Substances (NPS) or drugs commonly referred to as ‘legal highs.’ After numerous attempts to simply ban legal highs, only to see them quickly replaced by new substances, the New Zealand government decided to take a new approach. The Act turned the tables, placing the onus of proof onto manufactures to prove the substances are ‘low risk’ before they can be sold.

While the bill was going through Parliament, the select committee decided that an interim period was needed between the Act coming into force and the introduction of regulations and rules around a clinical testing regime. The rationale behind this was to prevent people (particularly those who were dependent on these products) from turning to the black market and to ensure manufacturers had faith in the system. Once the Act was passed, products which appeared to be the least harmful were given temporary licenses and could still be sold until the testing process was in place.

Forty-seven products were initially granted temporary licenses. The Act provided the government with the power to instantly remove products from sale should they prove to be causing harm. The decision to revoke licenses had to be based on evidence provided by the National Poisons Centre and Centre for Adverse Reactions Monitoring (CARM). In the first nine months of the Act being in place, five products had their interim licenses revoked for these reasons.

However, on April 27, the Associate Health Minister Peter Dunne announced plans to change the Psychoactive Substances Act to revoke all interim product approvals. The amendment has not been tabled in Parliament yet, but it is expected that it will remove provisions for the interim period, thus making all currently approved products unapproved until they can go through the clinical testing process.

This would mean that no NPS products could be legally sold in New Zealand until the regulations for the clinical testing process are in place and products can prove they can pass. At a minimum, this will take 12–18 months.

Minister Dunne said that because the reports of severe reactions received by the National Poisons Centre and CARM cannot be attributed to any particular products, the government has decided to remove all products off the market. This is a departure from the legislation which focused on the need for evidence and due process to remove a product from sale.

The reasons for this change from the Minister are political. It is an election year in New Zealand and the continued sale of NPS products has created a perfect storm of NIMBYism, media fuelled hysteria and genuine concern about their effects. Two opposition political parties announced policies to change the law if they were in Government after the election. This forced the Minister’s hand in announcing the law change because he did not want to be seen to be giving the opposition parties a win on this issue.

Parliament is starting a two week recess period, which means that in the lead up to the change, retailers are likely to heavily discount products in firesales and people who use the products, or plan to distribute them, will be stocking up. New Zealand has already seen cases of discounting and there have been media reports of stockpiling. One shop which sells NPS products has been broken into and their entire inventory stolen.

The New Zealand Drug Foundation’s Executive Director, Ross Bell, explained that he suspects the decision to push through this amendment is about looking “tough on drugs,” as the Act already allowed the government to ban any substances that posed a danger to health. Mr. Bell has called on the government to use existing powers under the Act to remove the products that are causing harm, not to simply ban them all.

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IDPC wishes to thank the New Zealand Drug Foundation for its inputs in this article. 

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