New Zealand's "breakthrough" synthetic drug law could be a step towards the country legalising cannabis, a US drug reformer says.
Drug Policy Alliance executive director Ethan Nadelmann, who has been described as America's leading marijuana legalisation campaigner, will discuss cannabis law reform and the regulation of legal highs in Auckland this week.
He is the keynote speaker at the Pathway to Reform conference on Thursday, which is being hosted by synthetic drug industry group the Star Trust.
Dr Nadelmann said New Zealand's synthetic drug law, the Psychoactive Substances Act, was a global "breakthrough" in drug legislation.
No other government had set up a regulatory process to potentially approve synthetic drugs if their safety could be established, he said.
"I think there was something profoundly pragmatic about what New Zealand did and the ways in which the grey market industry and the Government collaborated to set up this process.
"I think it's a credit to New Zealand because essentially what people did, as I see it, is they focussed on the bottom line, which is safety.
"When a growing number of people are using these drugs, you've got to make sure they come home safely at the end of the night and don't end up getting hurt and grow up into healthy adults."
Dr Nadelmann said there would be "virtually no market" for synthetic cannabis if marijuana was legal - and prohibition had pushed people towards potentially more dangerous synthetic alternatives.
He said the synthetic drug law could help revive debate in New Zealand about cannabis law reform - a conversation which had "faded" while the debate over legal highs took over.
"That spirit of pragmatism can be contagious, and one can well imagine that it would result in people, including legislators, being willing to ask the same sorts of questions regarding other illegal drugs.
"For example, has marijuana prohibition really proven successful? Has it really protected young people in our country?
"Is it possible - which is the conversation they're having in the US now - that a responsible public health approach to legal marijuana will actually do more to reduce crime and protect young people?"
The conversation in New Zealand could also be influenced by the legalisation of cannabis in the US states of Colorado and Washington, Dr Nadelmann said.
"I think that this change is stimulating and informing a global dialogue about changing marijuana policies, and I think that it will have that impact in New Zealand."
The Pathway to Reform is a full-day conference, discussing the future of moving from drug restriction to regulation. International experts from Canada, USA, UK, and other countries will speak at the conference.