Legal Highs



Legal highs have become increasingly popular in New Zealand as well as globally. Established as a way to experiment with substances without getting the hangover of an arrest or conviction, the market in legal highs – such as BZP-PPs and synthetic cannabis – has grown rapidly.

In this article, Fiona Hutton, a Senior Lecturer in Criminology at VUW, explores how the NZ legislation that attends to ‘legal highs’, ‘party pills’ or new psychoactive substances (NSPs) has been led by moral populism. As she says ‘This term, in part, refers to the idea that drug policy and law-making are firmly stuck in the past, wedded to outdated notions of both drug harms and drug users’ (p.30). Our guiding legislation was developed over 40 years ago.

Given the massive changes in knowledge about substance use, or the socio-cultural shifts over the interim period, it seems bizarre that drug legislation has not been updated. This is even more puzzling when we consider that most mainstream responses to drug use – such as the ‘war on drugs’ – have clearly not worked to curb drug use or sales.

As David Nutt’s work has identified so well, there is no medical or scientific rationale for how we currently perceive, rank or regulate drugs. There is a certain elasticity to who is perceived as a ‘drug user’, led by a socially constructed and politically managed debate on which drugs are ‘acceptable’ and which are not.

All of this provides the backdrop for the emergence and popularity of legal highs. Sometimes, these substances have been found to be harmful. However, as Fiona Hutton demonstrates, the response of prohibition has created new problems: it doesn’t address the harms from legal high use; it criminalises users; and, had led to net-widening. She argues for other regulatory and decriminalising approaches to be put in place.

Read the full article here

Reference for Citation

Hutton, F. (2016). Legal Highs and Their Use in New Zealand: A critical analysis of New Zealand drug policy. Prison Service Journal, No. 227. p. 29-37.

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