Legally high

It was your typical focus group. A free feed, $20, and a gift card - all to have your every thought and opinion poked and prodded for a few hours.

It was your typical focus group. A free feed, $20, and a gift card - all to have your every thought and opinion poked and prodded for a few hours.

"It was just that out-of-hours corporate focus group experience," says Brendan*, describing his Tuesday night. "But this time we got stoned."

The 30-year-old Auckland man is part of a small group preparing for New Zealand's conservative government to introduce radical new drug laws in August.

New Zealand will soon become the first country in the world to regulate new recreational drugs based solely on their harms. Brendan's focus group is one of the first steps in this process of mainstreaming drug use.

"The possibility of being involved in legitimate drug sales, five or 10 years ago I would have laughed at that," says Brendan in a telephone interview, about half an hour before he is due to start his second focus group. Brendan was testing synthetic cannabis, consumed through a vaporiser, or e-cigarette.

"It was just like being at home really," the frequent cannabis smoker says. "We just sat around and watched TV and played video games."

From August, all new psychoactive substances such as synthetic cannabis will be banned, unless manufacturers agree to test them for safety. But any products that contain approved ingredients meeting safety standards will be sold in a new, legal market.

The response sits in stark contrast to the ever-expanding attempts of many countries including Australia to deal with illegal drugs through law enforcement. This week, it was revealed we are spending more than $1 billion dollars each year enforcing the war on drugs, at the same time as slashing the money for harm reduction.

It's a figure dwarfed by the $7 billion worth of illegal drugs we are buying. But this figure doesn't even begin to grapple with the emerging world of synthetic drugs. Tasmanian researchers recently estimated that about four entirely new chemical substances, and 10 retail outlets selling them to Australians, are emerging each month.

As the traditional drug market lumbers on, politicians and the media have turned their minds to the threats posed by these new drugs. This week the federal government announced snap bans on 19 synthetic drugs.

Assistant Treasurer David Bradbury said the most effective way to deal with the drugs was that they "be treated as illicit drugs and be subject to law enforcement by proper agencies".

But the synthetic drug market is not like the heritage drug market. A global network of drug inventors and manufacturers is constantly tweaking the chemical components of their products, creating new, legal drugs from old, banned ones. Politicians and police are left playing a bizarre game of "whack-a-mole" as they attempt to keep their crackdowns up to date.

"New Zealand has been grappling with this issue for a decade," says Ross Bell, the executive director of the New Zealand Drug Foundation. "I think we are a couple of years ahead of everyone and our government is less interested in that merry-go-round."

Bell says New Zealand became a world leader in the synthetic drug market by happenstance of geography and size. "We are smaller, we are much further away, so we are not seen as a major market for a lot of the drugs that travel the world," he says. "But New Zealanders still like to get high, and we will cook up our own substances."

So popular had the drugs become that they were widely sold in corner stores alongside children's treats, newspapers and milk.

Bell says this will all change under the new system. Drugs will only be sold from approved retailers, and the New Zealand Ministry of Health will determine what drugs are psychoactive, rendering redundant the commonly used tactic of describing a product as bath salts, plant food or incense.

He estimates it will cost about $2 million to properly assess a product for safety before it can be released - small change for manufacturers who are already making millions.

"One of the big unknowns," says Bell, "but one of the big possibilities, is whether the pharmaceutical industry, which has a big library of products it has tested over the years, will go back through its files and say, 'Hey, here was this pill we thought would cure cancer and it didn't, but it did make people laugh, so we'll test that'."

It's a funny position for a public health advocate to be in. Usually the mortal enemy of industries, be it alcohol, fast food or tobacco, drug advocates are finding themselves working alongside one.

What happens if big pharma joins the party, or the illicit drug industry grows to the size and power of the tobacco industry? Bell says it's a big risk. "But the regulation we have put in place starts at the tough end," he says. "No marketing, sticking health warnings on them, and having plain packaging."

"The kind of battles we have fought with alcohol and tobacco, we won't turn around in five years and find we'll have to fight them again."

Grant Hall is the public face of New Zealand's "legal highs". He heads an organisation called The STAR Trust, a not-for-profit that promotes research and advocacy, and represents between 70 and 80 per cent of the industry.

"They don't want to just be called 'legal highs', they want the highs to actually be legal, and low risk," he says. "They have a genuine desire to operate a legitimate business under a licensed regime."

But there is a lot of work to be done. Hall says most of the products sold in New Zealand are produced by three big companies, but different drugs can be sold under a multitude of different names and brands.

He estimates there are more than 1000 retailers selling these products, a number he expects to shrink to around 100 when new licences are implemented.

Mainstreaming the drugs will also involve identifying - and clearly labelling - ingredients, and then deciding which ones are worth taking through the costly safety testing process.

Given the huge range of products and active market, retailers have been given some leeway before their products will have to pass the safety tests.

Already he says a couple of synthetic cannabis products (pills and vapours, as the industry does not believe the new system will allow smokable products) are in the testing phase.

Which brings us back to our corporate offices in Auckland, where Brendan is smoking synthetic cannabis through an e-cigarette. "I've found the girls get a lot more giggly than the boys," says Angela McInerney, the research manager at The STAR Trust. "The boys just want you to give them more."

McInerney has been running twice-weekly market research sessions, where hand-picked volunteers are fed dinner, and then dosed up with synthetic highs.

Her research will probably end up being used to help the drug companies decide which products are worth putting through the safety assessment.

McInerney places ads in music guides and recruits students from universities to come in for the focus groups.

In return they must subject themselves to a battery of tests measuring their blood pressure, heart rate, oxygen saturation and temperature. They also answer a series of questions about how they are feeling, and what effect the drugs are having - all in the presence of a paramedic.

It sounds like a bit of a buzz kill.

"We ask them how relaxed they are feeling, how high they feel, how intense it is, and after one hour they are allowed a second dose if they want," she says. "I try to keep it as unobtrusive as possible, although they have got a blood pressure pump going and I'm asking them all those questions, so it must be a bit odd."

McInerney says the typical physical response she sees involves slightly elevated heart rates in the early stages, which go back down at about the 30-minute mark. "They usually say they are relaxed, more focused. We haven't had anyone say they found it an unenjoyable experience, except for people who say it's not strong enough," she says.

Her oldest focus group member so far has been a 70-year-old man who regularly smoked cannabis but wanted to try the synthetic substance. She says he was a little bit disappointed - a sentiment echoed by Brendan.

"I'd much prefer the normal stuff," he says. "But I'm a single male living in the city, and they put on a free meal, which is the main attraction. I do like to sample different cannabis products too."

It sounds strange to the Australian ear, given our law-and-order-based approach.

The director of the Drug Policy Modelling Program at the University of New South Wales, Alison Ritter, says the new regime is exciting. "It's a world first," she says. "It's an opportunity to see whether this kind of regime will or won't work."

Research that Ritter released this week showed Australia is spending $1.1 billion dollars each year on enforcing drug laws. This compares with $361 million on treatment and a paltry $36 million on harm reduction.

She says it is frustrating that despite being tiny to begin with, the share of harm reduction dropped from 3.9 per cent to 2.1 per cent in seven years.

"We don't have good evidence that law enforcement works, and we have anecdotal evidence, I suppose, that it might not work as a policy," she says. "We continue to arrest people and drugs keep coming into Australia and the border and profits continue to be made."

She says the treatment that does get funded tends to be for people with severe substance dependence or withdrawal, in dire need of help. "Unfortunately the demand is acute, and largely needs are unmet in Australia," she says.

Simple things like training GPs to bring up drug use, or providing ecstasy pill testing kits, could make a big difference. Australian National Council on Drugs executive director Gino Vumbaca says the New Zealand model is likely to push people towards the drugs that have been tested for safety. "You don't see a lot of people making their own spirits and wine, because it is easier to go and buy it," he says. "You know there is a level of safety around it."

But Vumbaca says decisions to shift from law enforcement towards harm reduction are difficult for politicians to make. The recent debate in Australia about synthetic drugs has seen politicians stepping over each other with one-upmanship on their "tough-on-drugs" approach.

Last weekend, Home Affairs Minister Jason Clare announced Australia would soon develop legislation to ban all synthetic drugs. A media release announced the "onus of proof" would be reversed, until authorities cleared them as safe and legal. Confusingly, it compared the proposed system to both Ireland and New Zealand - despite Ireland taking a very different approach by banning all synthetic drugs with no legalisation of those deemed safe.

Clare's office was unable to confirm to Fairfax whether the new system would more closely resemble the Irish or New Zealand model.

Vumbaca says the New Zealand model is significant not just because of what it will do, but the questions it will raise about broader drug policy.

"There is no other area of social or health policy [besides drugs] where we say, 'Well, this is what we agreed 30 years ago and we are not even going to consider other options'," he says. "People will clearly be able to make the link and argue there are certain other illicit drugs that meet the same safety standards."

*Not his real name