Alcohol looms largest

Synthetic cannabis has been much in the public spotlight recently, as increasingly disturbing stories about its negative effects have been related by health professionals, police, parents and users themselves.

This newspaper has reported that users of such products have experienced a range of symptoms including continuous vomiting, seizures and hallucinations, have become paranoid, volatile and violent, and have described feeling like they were dead or possessed by demons.

It seems the substances contained in the products can be highly addictive, and even users experiencing such unpleasant effects struggle to give them up. Emergency departments and mental health services have reported an increase in patients with synthetic cannabis-related issues, and police are seeing more crime related to the products. And it seems youngsters are effectively the guinea pigs for the relatively new, untested and often unidentifiable substances which are many times stronger than regular cannabis.

It is therefore a relief the Psychoactive Substances Bill is set to become law within a matter of months, making all psychoactive substances illegal, and requiring manufacturers to prove their products are low-risk for them to be sold, and putting substantial restrictions on their sale and advertising. It will certainly be one legacy of which now-disgraced United Future leader Peter Dunne can be proud.

But for all the rightful concern, it is worth remembering the substance causing far more harm in this country is alcohol. Dunedin Hospital emergency department doctor Ohad Dar told delegates at a synthetic cannabis symposium in Dunedin this week that despite the ''clinical burden'' synthetic cannabis placed on the department, alcohol abuse was a bigger load. Those burdens were highlighted in the Law Commission's 2010 report, ''Alcohol in Our Lives: Curbing the Harm'', and include crime, injury, long-term physical and mental health issues, and social disfunction. Alcohol-related harm is estimated to cost taxpayers $1.2 billion annually. The report stated New Zealanders spend an estimated $85 million each week on alcohol, and said national surveys showed about 25% of drinkers - about 700,000 people - typically consumed large quantities when they drank. The report stated: ''It is hard to think of any other lawful product available in our society that contributes so much to so many social ills.''

Given the weight of that burden, it is positive to see the second tranche of the major new alcohol legislation come into force this week. The legislation was the Government's response to the Law Commission's report and comprises three Acts - the Sale and Supply of Alcohol Act, the Local Government (Alcohol Reform) Amendment Act and the Summary Offences (Alcohol Reform) Amendment Act. The first changes took effect last December

and the final ones will come into effect this December. The changes were staggered over 12 months in part to give territorial authorities, licensing bodies and licensees time to prepare for them.

They aim to reduce excessive drinking and alcohol-related harm, support the safe and responsible sale, supply and consumption of alcohol, and improve community input into alcohol licensing decisions. They mean communities can have a say on the trading hours and location of licensed premises, licences will be harder to get and easier to lose, there will be stronger rules about the types of stores eligible to sell alcohol and the display of alcohol in supermarkets and grocery stores, consent must be obtained from parents or guardians before alcohol can be supplied to minors, and there will be stronger controls on alcohol advertising and promotion - particularly that which appeals to minors.

The significant changes from this week relate particularly to the licensing criteria for new and renewal applications, including consideration of the design and layout of premises, amenity and good order, current and possible future noise levels, the density and compatibility of premises, and special licences. The impact of the new rules has been feared by owners of licensed premises, but there have also been claims the new laws have not gone nearly far enough in terms of adopting the Law Commission's 153 recommendations. What is certain is that among those hoping the changes have the desired effect of reducing alcohol related harm will be police and health professionals, who deal with the bulk of the fallout from this country's battle with the booze.

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