Definitions and history of psychoactive substances

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What is a psychoactive substance?

The term ‘psychoactive substance’ is defined in section 9 of the Psychoactive Substances Act 2013.

Broadly speaking, a psychoactive substance is anything:

  • that is capable of producing a psychoactive effect in an individual who uses the substance (ie, affects the mind of the user in any way) AND
  • whose primary purpose is to induce a psychoactive effect in an individual who uses the substance or product AND
  • that is not a medicine, controlled drug, precursor substance, herbal remedy, food, dietary supplement, tobacco product or alcohol.

A medicine is defined in section 3 of the Medicines Act 1981 and are regulated under that Act. A list of ingredients scheduled as medicines can be found in Schedule 1 of the Medicines Regulations 1984.

Controlled drugs and precursor substances are listed in schedules 1 to 4 of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1975 and are regulated under that Act.

Herbal remedies are defined in section 2 of the Medicines Act and are regulated under that Act.

Foods are defined in section 9 of the Food Act and are regulated under that Act.

Dietary supplements are defined in section 2A of the Dietary Supplements Regulations 1985 and are regulated under those Regulations.

An alcohol or tobacco product that contains an additional substance that otherwise meets the definition of a psychoactive substance would be regulated as a psychoactive substance and not an alcohol or tobacco product. Tobacco products are defined under section 2 of the Smoke Free Environments Act 1985 and regulated under that Act. Alcohol is defined in section 5 of the Sale and Supply of Alcohol Act 2012 and regulated under that Act.

History of psychoactive substances in New Zealand


Early 2000s: New Zealand experienced a rise in the availability and use of unregulated psychoactive substances (in such products as party pills, herbal highs, energy pills, synthetic cannabis)

2007: The Government asked the Law Commission to review New Zealand’s Misuse of Drugs Act (1975)

2011: The Law Commission released its report, which included recommendations for a new regime: Government Response to the Law Commission’s Report ‘Controlling and Regulating Drugs – a review of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1975’

2013: The Associate Minister of Health Peter Dunne introduced the Psychoactive Substances Bill to regulate the sale, importation and manufacture of psychoactive substances, and the bill went through the select committee process over June 2013

11 July 2013: The Psychoactive Substances Act 2013 was passed. The Psychoactive Substances Regulatory Authority was established to administer the Act

18 July 2013: The Psychoactive Substances Act 2013 came into force

July 2013 – May 2014: During the establishment phase of the new regime, a number of importers, manufacturers, wholesalers and retailers were granted interim licences, and some products were given interim approvals

8 May 2014: The Psychoactive Substances Amendment Act 2014 was passed which:

  • removed all interim approvals and licences from the New Zealand market (resulting in a recall of all products)
  • prohibited the consideration of animal testing by the Psychoactive Substances Expert Advisory Committee when assessing if products are of low risk and therefore able to be approved
  • introduced a moratorium on processing any product approval applications or licensing applications until regulations came into force

See the list of products affected: Interim product approvals

February 2014: The Ministry sought input from interested parties into the development of regulations to support the Psychoactive Substances Act 2013 (the Act) which came into force on 18 July 2013

3 November 2014: Regulations providing for product approval applications and licensing applications for importing, research and manufacturing to be processed, came into force.

21 April 2016: The Psychoactive Substances Amendment Regulations 2016 came into force. These regulations provide for applications to sell approved products by retail or wholesale to be made to the Authority.

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