Government reports are one small part of a much larger machine. Former animal welfare policy advisor Shanti Ahluwalia discusses the wider context of a controversial issue: re-opening the possibility of testing party pills on animals.

A report from the Ministry of Health has found that the Psychoactive Substances Act “does not function as intended”. The review identified three major factors behind the failure, one of which is the prohibition on using animal testing for drug safety trials under the Act. 

The report is a perfect example of the complexities of the political world.

Testing party pills on puppy dogs is always going to be a hard sell for a government that is as image-focused as the current one. It is not likely that our Prime Minister is going to stand in front of news cameras and announce that animals are going to suffer for the sake of recreational drugs.

That does not stop bureaucrats from making their recommendations, but it does mean the Government may pause before following that advice. Especially because the recommendations are a lot more nuanced than they first appear.

Bureaucrats and the Ministry for Health

Bureaucrats from the Ministry of Health performed a review of the Psychoactive Substances Act. When passed into law in 2013, the Act included a clause that its effectiveness had to be reviewed within five years.

The Ministry had to provide expert advice on the performance of the Psychoactive Substances Act, and only that subject.

That means that the advisors were not meant to focus their work on other means of reducing harm, nor were they supposed to focus on winning votes for the government of the day. In this light, it was inevitable that the report was going to target animal testing. If they cannot write a new Act from scratch, the prohibition on animal testing is an obvious target to blame for the failure of the testing regime.

But would testing party pills on dogs and other animals really be the best path forward for trying to reduce harm by drugs? Probably not, and the Ministry officials seem to be aware of this.

By allowing a review to happen without explicitly reassuring the public that animal testing will never happen, they have left the question unanswered.

Despite the review being focused on the Psychoactive Substances Act and animal testing, the officials repeatedly allude to the need for ‘other relevant legislation’, a ‘wider context’ and other references to work being done by other departments.

In short, the report does say that the best available option for saving the Psychoactive Substances Act is to start testing party pills on animals. But the advisors who wrote the report are signalling they would have come to a different conclusion if allowed to talk about reducing drug harm more generally.

Reducing the harm of drugs

Tackling drug issues via the prison system can often do more harm than good. After all, if someone is already addicted to drugs due to underlying issues in their lives, tossing them in prison is hardly going to help them recover.

The idea of the Psychoactive Substances Act was simple. Instead of a blanket ban on everything or blanket permission on everything, the Act aimed to regulate and perform safety testing. If a drug could demonstrate a ‘low risk of harm,’ then it could be allowed onto the market.

The problem? Drugs are not safe. It came up repeatedly during the first implementation of this testing regime. Cannabis, alcohol, and tobacco all have more than a ‘low risk of harm’. There was worry that if the new regime was applied to those three drugs, they would not actually pass the requirements of the law. It was always unlikely that drug companies were going to be able to produce recreational drugs safer than cannabis.

Instead, most modern drug advocates advocate for harm reduction. This can be done in many ways.

The issues with party pills tend to relate to how often they change chemical formulas, and impurities within those drugs. Supply chain traceability and drug purity testing at festivals are examples of how harm can be reduced. If a batch of drugs is known to be causing side effects, the supplier should be identified and associated products should be removed from shelves. Mental health services and drug rehabilitation services are other common methods used internationally.

The political dance

The Government is undoubtedly considering many possibilities for new harm reduction regimes. Repairing the existing Psychoactive Substances Act is likely only one of many approaches being considered. In fact, it is possible that the only reason the Government is reviewing the Psychoactive Substances Act at all is because it is required by law that they do so, due to the requirement of the Act for a review within five years.

Both the Labour Party and Green Party were outspoken critics of testing party pills on animals in 2013. They likely are aware of how dangerous it would be to reverse this position. New Zealand First, with its long history of opposing drug use, would also struggle to justify to its supporter base that they were now going to be testing party pills on animals.

Chances are, the Government was hoping that this review would quickly fade into obscurity and never see the light of day. They could never withstand the huge amount of criticism that would ensue if they started testing party pills on dogs and other animals. However, they have now put themselves in a difficult position. By allowing a review to happen without explicitly reassuring the public that animal testing will never happen, they have left the question unanswered. The animal rights community is responding by mobilising a campaign. They are not about to take any chances on losing such significant ground after the successful campaign five years ago.

Which reveals a crucial opportunity for the Government. Labour has been searching for a replacement for Meka Whaitiri in the Animal Welfare portfolio for months now, and would be wise to announce a new person for the position early this year. By coupling that appointment with an announcement of being committed to keeping party pills out of dogs and other cute animals, Labour would give their new spokesperson positive press right from day one.

Shanti Ahluwalia is an expert in animal welfare policy.

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