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Q+A: Jessica Mutch interviews Todd McClay on legal highs

Published: 1:32PM Sunday July 14, 2013 Source: Q+A

JESSICA MUTCH Todd McClay, thank you very much for your time this morning.

TODD MCCLAY Good morning, Jessica.

JESSICA The new law basically says you can do animal testing if there's no alternative. So what are the alternatives?

TODD Well, that's right, so I want to go back a stage, and we've got to remember where we've come from probably over the last two or three years. There are hundreds of the synthetic products out there in New Zealand being sold in the dairies and shops and all over the place, and any New Zealander can go and buy them, and we now know that significant harm has been caused, so Parliament's gone through a long process to look at how we can make sure that New Zealanders are safe and particularly young people are protected from harm. It was great to see legislation passed this week with a very strong majority-

JESSICA And I want to talk about the details of that a little bit later, but let's just start on this animal testing. What are the alternatives that you talk about?

TODD Well, so the first thing we've done in the legislation is said that we want to make sure that any product that would be authorised to be sold in New Zealand is safe and poses a low risk of harm. Now, there are two sides to this debate. There are those that are saying that products can be brought to market and shown to be safe without the use of any testing upon animals, and I actually hope that they're correct. On the other side, as Associate Minister, I've received expert advice from some of the best scientists in New Zealand that have said to me that a degree of animal testing will be required or may be required. So what we've done is set up-

JESSICA So, Minister, there are no alternatives? Is that what you're saying?

TODD Well, no, I'm not saying there's no alternatives, Jessica. What I'm saying is that we've got a debate here-

JESSICA What are those alternatives, then?

TODD Well, what I'm saying here is we've got a debate here about two sides of what should or shouldn't happen. We've set up an expert advisory committee of toxicologists, of pharmacists, of other scientists, and Parliament's asked them to look at exactly what tests will be required to give New Zealanders an assurance that any product that would come to market will pose a low risk of harm, and it will be for them to decide whether or not there can be tests that don't require animals. Now-

JESSICA Because an expert from Canterbury University this week said that there are no alternatives. Is that correct or not?

TODD Well, that may be the case, but I don't think anybody in Parliament, and certainly I as a minister, can give you a definitive answer on that, and actually for me to say that it is possible or it-

JESSICA But let's just break this down. What you're saying in the law is you're saying there'll be animal testing as long as there's no alternatives, but you're not able to tell me if there are any alternatives.

TODD Well, no, no, what we've said is that it's our desire as Parliament for there not to be testing upon animals, but first and foremost this is about human health, and as associate minister of health, if I didn't listen to the expert advice I've been given, then actually I would be negligent in my duties. So I proposed an amendment, a change, a compromise if you will to the parliamentary committee that was considering this, and it was supported unanimously by all parties on that committee, and the law now says where there is a viable alternative that will give the same certainty, the same surety, it has to be used. That means animal testing can't be used. So we have an expert committee-

JESSICA Your predecessor on this was called a puppy hater. How does that title sit with you?

TODD Well, look, that's quite emotive, and I know it's a very difficult issue. Peter Dunne is not. He's done a great job on behalf of all New Zealanders to get as close as we can to making sure they're safe. Look, this isn't an argument about whether we should be doing it or whether we shouldn't be doing it. I'm not out there advocating in favour of testing on animals. I hope that the people who have said these products can be tested to be shown to be a low risk of harm without the use of animal testing, I hope they're correct, because if are, the amendment I put through Parliament means there cannot be animal testing. But on the other side, if a degree of animal testing is required to make sure that young New Zealanders are not harmed if they take these products, then actually I have a duty as associate minister of health to ensure that their health is protected and it will be up to an-

JESSICA OK, so let's move on and talk about-

TODD Hang on, Jessica.

JESSICA …those details a little bit more.

TODD No, no, hang on a second. Hang on a second. It will be up to an expert committee of scientists to decide this on our behalf, not members of Parliament and not people that haven't been able to do the degree of study or research into these issues that they have now a legal obligation to do.

JESSICA So, on this issue- You've mentioned that, Minister, before. Basically, on this issue you've said it will be banned in grocery stores, in petrol stations and things like that. Won't that just mean that it prompts people to set up shops that are purpose-built R18 shops for these synthetic drugs, like we saw in Tokoroa?

TODD Yeah, and Tokoroa's a really good example. So, you're right that that's possible, but we now have a licensing regime around that, so for the man in Tokoroa who's out there saying that he doesn't care what's in these products and he's going to set up a specialist store to make money, to make profit out of what he would probably assume would be harming others, the new law won't allow him to do that, so we've got a lot of laws and regulations in place. The first thing is if you take the case of-

JESSICA Can I just ask you, Minister, have you tried synthetic drugs yourself?

TODD No, I haven't. No, I haven't. No.

JESSICA Do you think it's something that you should do as the new associate health minister?

TODD No, I really don't. From what I've seen over the last month and what I've learned from our doctors and nurses in ED departments, from mums and dads whose kids have been harmed, I think the products that are there at the moment are extremely harmful. That's why I'm so glad-

JESSICA So shouldn't we be completely banning them, then?

TODD Well, in effect, any of these products that poses higher than a low risk of harm will be restricted and banned from New Zealand. You see, Jessica, we've got 33 products in New Zealand we've banned so far. Countries all over the world are trying to restrict and ban these products, and, frankly, sadly it doesn't work, because every time we ban a product, another five or 10 come to the market, and we've got chemists in parts of the world who change the chemical formula slightly to get around this ban. We've changed this around. It's now up to the manufacturers and the importers to prove that the products won't harm. If they do-

JESSICA And we're going-

TODD …they can't be sold in New Zealand.

JESSICA I'm sorry to interrupt you there, Minister, but we're going to have to leave it there. Thank you very much for your time this morning.