What are the risks if we ban legal highs?



The Green Party this week abstained from supporting the Government’s botched roll out of a ban on legal highs. We like the bit that says there will be no more animal testing. We do not like the bit that places a ban on legal highs. So this was a very difficult decision to make.

Many people have been contacting me publicly and privately to question this decision. Some of you have been furious.  I understand your concerns and am keen to give a response.

What the Greens do support is a transparent and regulated market as the best and safest way to manage any harm caused by synthetic drugs. I too share everyone’s fear around access to these drugs and have three teenage daughters to remind me that there are real lives at stake here. I want a community that protects them.

Previously I have stood with the communities of Manurewa and Gisborne to ban legal highs and get them out of our local shops. To this day I totally support their fury and their cry for safer neighbourhoods for our young people. I have since had to educate myself on the pros and cons of banning legal highs in this way and whether a ban will end the damage.

What I have learnt is that a black market of legal highs will likely happen. This will push the harm underground. In the underground, no age checks occur and other harmful substances become available. This seems dangerous to me.

I agree with my Southland Green colleagues who have stated that “…. the main priority of any controls on drug use should be about minimising harm. The knee jerk reaction and ham-fisted management of legal highs by this Government may solve some problems but potentially creates many more.”

Green candidate Jack McDonald also reminded me that a ban will criminalise users and that includes young Māori. Jack and I agree that driving their fiending underground is the worst possible outcome. How many users will seek help if they fear being criminalised?

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What I have come to terms with is how much of a principled stand this is from the Green Party. It is consistent with our drug policies and is not about winning votes. We are going against popularity here because we believe this is the right way to reduce harm. That courage is something I have always admired of the Greens.

Thank you to everyone who has taken the time to personally contact me with your confusion. I am aspiring to become a Green Party politician so I look forward to these ongoing conversations.

We all care about our young people and I accept that we might have different feelings over how this is achieved. At this time I also acknowledge how difficult it will be for synthetic high users during their withdrawals. I hope users and their loved ones who are struggling seek medical and community-based support.


  1. Thanks Marama for a clear explanation of the Green’s stance.

    However, the issue is this: it seems clear from the effects that have taken place for individuals, families and communities that the move to make these items legal in the first place was fundamentally flawed.

    In essence, the Govt made legal poisons that also happened to give you a “high”. If a precautionary measure had been taken, and the safety of the products proved before sale – they would never have been released. Instead a reactionary – prove harm – was put in place.

    In this case – the pseudo clinical trial has been in our communities. And the products have failed even this lacklustre test.

    Time to bring this failed experiment with our communities as lab rats to a logical conclusion.

  2. I’m very dubious about the supposed black market for legal highs, (ignoring of course the oxymoron inherent in that sentence) for two reasons.

    Firstly, the main, if not only selling point of them was their legality. I’m yet to hear of any user who actually enjoys them, relative to other drugs.

    Secondly, where will these supplies come from? Why would a drug importer take the time and risk to bring stock into the country, when they could be doing it with other, more profitable commodities?

    Once made illegal, synthetic highs such as the ones that have been banned will simply disappear. How often do you hear about BZP these days? Users will go back to what they used before, which will ironically be much safer in the case of marijuana vs synthetic highs.

    • I know more than once person who smokes synthetic cannabis because it allows them to get high and still pass drug tests at work. I won’t overestimate how many other people this will effect but it is unlikely to be an insignificant number. These people now are faced with getting it illegally or suffering withdrawals. I don’t believe synthetics should have been on the shelves in the first place but I do agree that this reactionary populist turnaround in election year is the wrong way to go about dealing with the issue.

      • I understand that the drug tests can pick up on these products.

        And most industries that have these drug tests will often require their workers to not use and/or be under the influence whether it is legal or not. In the same way that testing for alcohol use can be identified and used by the employer to ascertain workplace safety.

        • You’re missing the point here, Molly. Cannabis is the only recreational drug that can be picked up by drug tests weeks after use. Drug testing has pushed many cannabis users into the “legal high” market for this reason.

          And who is responsible for so many employers using discriminatory drug tests? The government, through giving lower ACC premiums to companies that do drug tests. It is nothing to do with “workplace safety”, it is all about the government’s war on cannabis, brought to you by Big Pharma, Big Booze, etc.

          • My partner works in heavy industry, where constant awareness of machinery and moving plant is necessary.

            The workforce is a team that communicates and works together well, and have constantly improved worker safety from the ground up – and accommodated drug testing after incidents as a matter of course. In effect, this clears them from future accusations – as they all come up clean.

            The workplace has had a few fatalities over the years, so the issue is not as black and white as you suggest.

  3. I applaud the Green Party stance. What got me in this whole fiasco was the spin on animal testing. Its alright to save the animals but not people? Come the earnest electioneering days I can see the Natz proclaiming how they saved all the little puppies from the nasty synthetic herbal industry.
    Rather than drive the (il)legal highs underground, I would expect a run on the tinny houses, a product which is profoundly safer than that defiled in its name. Unfortunately one that is still illegal and which will criminalise its users.

    • Animal Testing?

      I would like to know how to test prohibition?

      And who was the Rat who thought it was a good thing, even in moderation?

      Has prohibition been found wanting?

      It is specious at best and downright arrogant to continue to pretend this is all about pharmacology. It is not. It is about context, set and setting, dosage, and societal normative value systems that moderate harms at least cost, vs criminalisation of a chemical (or chemicals) that have no inherent evil properties that exceed that of alcohol.

      Evidenced based drug policy please…. no, not please, dammit, because it is utterly the right thing to do. There is no moral virtue in stupidity, even if the intent is based ‘if it saves just one child’. That adult or teen you put in jail is some ones son, sibling, uncle, peer or team mate.

      There is something grotesquely wrong with arresting someone to save them from themselves and in so doing turning them into a victim.

      • Blair; I don’t know that arresting someone turns them into a victim but it does turn them into a criminal which these days can be a real problem in terms of travel or jobs. The ultimate irony – saving them from themselves……ergo > we should be standing outside pubs ‘saving’ all the drinkers from self-harm. Yeah, nah?

  4. Firstly, I applaud the Greens on their principles in this matter and reduction of harm is the foremost priority. Rehabilitating those addicted to the legal highs appears to have no place in this ban and that is disgusting and will leave an unfair burden on family, friends, police and A&E.

    Oddly, for the “party of business” the transNationals seem to have no qualms about putting the kibosh on legal businesses (legal high traders) at the drop of a hat. Imagine the fuss from the Retail Trade Assn or big Liquor if there was any limitation on cigarette or booze business.

    I do have to wonder though where the Green party’s principles were on raising the minimum drinking age to 20. I’m afraid the Greens got that one very wrong in my opinion, seemed the harm that was being minimised was potential harm from alienating the youth vote. However, I’m happy to see this issue being dealt with on sound principles.

  5. “What I have learnt is that a black market of legal highs will likely happen. This will push the harm underground. In the underground, no age checks occur and other harmful substances become available. This seems dangerous to me.”

    Replace “legal highs” with “cannabis” in the above sentence and you’d begin to have a principled position. Until then, the Greens continue to chuck cannabis users under the bus.

  6. If marijuana is safer than legal highs then the govt should have legalised it and banned synthetic canabis. Personally I don’t smoke or drink anything but that’s my choice. It seems that Dunne has fouled up this whole thing from Day One.

  7. Marama, I can understand why the Greens didn’t vote for this law. It’s a shame it can’t be split into separate parts and voted individually.

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