Pills, Thrills, Bellyaches…


… The effects of criminalising a ‘legal high’ in Aotearoa New Zealand

The 21st Century development of New Psychoactive Substances (NPS) has offered useful opportunities to think about the meaning of recreational drug taking, as it is now carried out on a grand scale. NPS are synthetic or naturally occurring substances that mimic the effects of illegal drugs such as cannabis, amphetamines and ecstasy.

The consumption of these different ‘legal highs’ has brought into sharp relief what Parker et al. (1998) previously termed the ‘normalisation’ of recreational drug use. These scholars referred to the consumption of illegal drugs, such as amphetamines and ecstasy, by increasing numbers of young people during the 1990s. However, the emergence and growing popularity of new psychoactive substances has served to further illustrate the argument that ‘recreational drug taking’ is now mainstream. It is rational and informed drug taking behaviour by young people, used for specific leisure activities such as dancing and clubbing, rather than being marginalised and deviant.

This article, by Bruce Cohen and Wendy Allison, shows that the criminalisation of NPS does not appear to have the same effects on experienced drug users as it does for those new to psychoactive substances. In presenting the results of a cohort study with BZP-party pill users in Aotearoa New Zealand, their article considers the ‘displacement effect’ caused by the criminalisation of the drug in 2008. Their findings demonstrate that prohibition was only successful insofar as users ceased taking the banned NPS. In contrast to previous research, they find a strong displacement effect following criminalisation with half of the sample increasing their use of other illegal drugs and, for a third, their use of alcohol. You can read the full article here.

Bruce Cohen is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Sociology, University of Auckland. His latest book is ‘Psychiatric Hegemony: A Marxist Theory of Mental Illness’. Wendy Allison works with agencies to implement drug-related harm reduction services at NZ events, researching the efficacy of on-the-spot substance checking and providing an evidence base for the introduction of real-world harm reduction policies. This article was first published in New Zealand Sociology.


Parker, H., Aldridge, J. and Measham, F. (1998) Illegal Leisure: The Normalization of Adolescent Recreational Drug Use. London: Routledge.

Share This: