A critical analysis of New Zealand's Psychoactive Substances Act 2013 and its implementation process : a thesis presented in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy in Public Health at Massey University, Albany, New Zealand
Introduction: In July 2013, the New Zealand Parliament passed the Psychoactive Substances Act
(PSA), the world’s first law to regulate the availability of new psychoactive substances (NPS,
“legal highs”, LH). Under the “interim PSA regime” 47 products were permitted to be sold subject
to new retail and other regulations. In May 2014, the Government abruptly ended the interim
regime following public protests. This thesis aims to critically evaluate the PSA and its
Methods: A mixed methods approach combined qualitative and quantitative methods of data
collection and analysis. Legal analysis of the PSA and related legislation, and content analysis of
parliamentary debates and public submissions were completed. Semi-structured interviews
were then conducted with key informants (KI) including politicians, government officials, health
professionals, and LH industry actors (n=30). Questions about health perceptions and social
acceptability of approved products were added to an annual survey of police arrestees (n=834).
Analyses of primary data included thematic analysis of interview transcripts and statistical
analysis of data from the arrestee survey.
Results: The legal definition of “psychoactive substance” (s. 8, 9(1) PSA) overlaps with other
regulatory regimes (e.g. medicines, dietary supplements) resulting in an unclear legal status for
some products. Interviewed KIs identified a number of issues with the “interim regime”,
including the safety of interim products, speed and efficiency of withdrawing problem products,
the lack of regulations on price and retail opening hours, slowness of developing regulations for
the full PSA regime, and the effectiveness of communicating the new policy to stakeholders and
the public. As the market commercialised, the LH industry adopted business and lobbying
strategies previously attributed to the alcohol and tobacco sectors, including targeting
vulnerable customers. Surveyed police arrestees considered approved synthetic cannabis (SC)
products higher health risk and less socially acceptable than alcohol, tobacco and many illegal
drugs, reflecting problems with interim product approvals. The ban on animal testing of
prospective products is likely to prevent further implementation of the PSA, unless a new
political consensus is achieved.
Conclusions: The issues experienced during PSA implementation highlight the significant
challenges of establishing a legal market for psychoactive products. The time, resources and
planning required to successfully implement the PSA may have been underestimated.