Disrupting the trade in psychoactives
9 Sep 2015|

Over the last few days I have found myself reflecting on the policy challenges of disrupting the cross-border trade in new psychoactive substances (NPS), which are manufactured to copy the user experiences of illicit drugs.

NPS is the United Nations Office for Drug Control’s preferred term for substances that may pose a risk to public health but are not scheduled by the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs or the 1971 Convention on Psychotropic Substances.

Drugs in this growing family are known by various names including legal highs, herbal highs, research chemicals, analogues and synthetics.

The number of NPS users in Australia is relatively small when compared to amphetamine (MDMA), methylamphetamine (ice), cocaine and heroin. The challenge for the Australian government is that NPS manufactures and importers are gaming the enforcement system: reducing the effectiveness of supply reduction measures at the border.

Like the global methyl-amphetamine market, the majority of NPS originate from the chemical and pharmaceutical industries operating in mainland China.

These substances are also available in other parts of the world. The European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) report that they’re monitoring over 450 NPS currently available in Europe. More than half of these have been on the market for less than three years. This is almost double the total number of illicit substances currently controlled under the UN international drug control conventions.

The challenge for the Australian Federal Police and the Australian Border Force is the rapid rate at which these new drugs go on the market.

NPS manufacturers are playing, and winning, a game of cat and mouse with regulatory and enforcement authorities across the globe. As each new NPS, or its precursors, are legislated as controlled substances the manufacturers change the chemical composition. A new (and for the most part legal) drug is created.

To date Australia’s NPS supply reduction strategies have been at best reactive to this fluid drug family.

In July 2013, the NZ government responded to the NPS challenge with the New Zealand Psychoactive Substances Act 2013. This drug legislation, reversed the onus of proof for border and law enforcement officials. In the past a drug had to be listed in the Misuse of Drugs Act 1975 to be considered controlled or illegal in NZ. Now under this legislation every NPS is illegal unless has been approved. At present none have been legalised in NZ.

The legislation strongly supports NZ’s national drug strategy which is based on supply reduction through enforcement. From an Australian border protection perspective legislation of this kind might make the interdiction of NPS substantially easier. While testing of suspected NPS imports would still be required, if a sample is tested and it is found to contain a psychoactive chemical signature, it’s an illicit substance and can been banned

So what is the downside of this approach for Australia? As highlighted by Julian Buchanen this kind of legislation involves a prohibition model rather than harm reduction. Prohibition models often bring with them a range of unintended social harms; including the inevitable growth in organised crime.

Unlike our American friends, Australia’s National Drug Strategy 2010–2015 is not a ‘war on drugs’. While we both share a zero tolerance perspective on drug use, this is where the similarities end.

Australia’s National Drug Strategy is focused on minimising harm through a three-pillared approach: demand, supply and harm reduction.

Despite Julian’s misgivings over the introduction of a legislative prohibition of all NPS it appears to be the only realistic mechanism to provide the ABF with a suitable legal basis to reduce supply. Or rather the only lasting legal mechanism that could put an end to the reactive cat and mouse game.

This kind of legislative response will serve as a stop gap measure in Australia’s counter NPS strategy. To more permanently counter the social harms of NPS our national policy responses should still involve both demand and supply reduction strategies.

ABF’s interdictions and disruption of NPS imports at the border will of course be important to supply reduction. A lasting disruption of the global NPS supply chain will require a much more precise strategy of intervention forward of the Australian border.

The more permanent disruption of the NPS trade is reliant on the cooperation of the Chinese government in regulating its chemical and pharmaceutical industries. Through a coordinated strategy involving the AFP, ABF and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, cooperating with Chinese regulatory agencies, there is a strong possibility that NPS supply can be more permanently disrupted.