by Julia Peavey
Matt Bowden's alter-ego is caked in makeup and self-indulgence, a steampunk rock star undeniably the product of Auckland's vibrant rave culture. Starboy, as he calls this larger-than-life character, is an “interdimensional traveler” of progressive glam rock music, theatrical stage productions, short films, and whatever else emerges from Bowden’s many creative endeavors. Surprisingly, these endeavors include activism, lobbying for legal reform, and synthetic drug entrepreneurship.
Commonly referred to as ‘the godfather’ of New Zealand’s legal high industry, he’s made millions selling psychoactives in his home country all while touting an often convoluted message that both encourages regulation of drugs and is unapologetic about his own profits, which stem from their manufacture. He's also the mind behind an idea which almost changed New Zealand's war on drugs forever.
New Zealand, as a geographically isolated country with a relatively small population, has an undeniably unique drug market. It has traditionally escaped targeting by foreign drug cartels and thus has avoided being a major import destination of trafficked cocaine and heroin, instead relying on domestically manufactured substances. This means that Kiwis generally take different recreational drugs than people living in most other parts of the world, with manufactured methamphetamine being particularly popular (a study by Massey University even found that, in 2001, one in ten New Zealanders aged 18 to 29 had used an Amphetamine Type Stimulant - a classification including methamphetamine and ecstasy - in the last year, with about one-third of these consumers being frequent users). As such usage exploded in the early 2000’s, the death and gang violence associated with this illegal meth market grew sharply.
Bowden was ever so close to this rising devastation, as casualties mounted in the Auckland dance scene and across the country. One friend died in an underground lab explosion, another fatally impaled himself with a samurai sword while high on methamphetamine, and his cousin was one of the very first New Zealanders to die of an ecstasy overdose. Bowden and his wife were addicts themselves.
Long before the persona of Starboy even existed, Bowden had some experience in the “herbal highs” industry. But recent losses, which prompted his search for a safer alternative to methamphetamine, brought him even deeper into the pages of existing neuropharmacology literature, where he came across the compound benzylpiperazine (BZP). BZP was originally developed as an antidepressant in the 1970’s, and, after consulting a team of research scientists, Bowden found that it was non-addictive, producing the same stimulating, euphoric effect of amphetamines while being a lot less dangerous. In 2000, he began testing out BZP by giving it to friends who regularly consumed meth to maintain their energy while clubbing from dusk to dawn each night. He and his wife even began consuming it as their own form of replacement therapy, apparently using BZP to curb their methamphetamine addiction in the same way that heroin addicts use methadone.
Excited by the results he saw, Bowden began to market BZP to the masses, selling it in headshops and cornerstones as he tried to compete directly with meth dealers. Over the course of eight and a half years, his company - Stargate International - sold 26 million BZP party pills to 400,000 consumers. Though, like any drug, BZP results in some side effects (headaches and nausea in particular), there were no deaths and no lasting injuries caused by BZP consumption in that time. Bowden claims that New Zealand’s methamphetamine market was fundamentally disrupted and experienced an oversupply, something he saw to be a direct result of the distribution of his party pills and proof that harm reduction was possible when safer alternatives were provided.
BZP in itself was wildly popular, with 2006 surveys revealing that one in five New Zealanders aged 15-to-45 had taken legal party pills at some point in their lives, with even higher rates being seen among 18-to-29 year-olds (up to 40%). This was all completely legal and unregulated, as BZP was such a newly commercialized chemical that authorities hadn’t had the time to research the information needed to ban it. Thus, it was sold to the masses at everyday establishments, from the same friendly countertops that doled out bottled water and lottery tickets.
In 2008, New Zealand’s government banned BZP altogether due to its lack of comprehensive research on long-term health risks. But this abrupt “solution” arguably only worsened the problem. In BZP’s place came a barrage of innovative successors - Bowden had demonstrated the potential for entirely new drugs to enter the market unregulated, finding commercial success in the brief but profitable period before the government took action. Thus, with each drug ban a new drug filled its place, featuring a slight molecular tweak which conveniently deregulated it and made what was an often insufficiently tested, unstable compound into a legal high. “Psychonauts” across the globe were discovering that they too could synthesize new compounds, ordering boatloads of precursors and centering most manufacturing in India and China, where entrepreneurs could create new chemical combinations on demand. These drugs were unfamiliar, unheard of when they first reached markets, but there was nothing stopping them from coming to the shelves of any community without so much as an age restriction.
These drugs represented the exact opposite of Bowden's initial mission for BZP - though accessible to a ridiculously easy degree, they were often less safe than their illegal counterparts and broadly associated with psychosis, addiction, and death. Bowden himself recognized the danger in these chemicals and began a campaign of remarkably successful lobbying - notably pushing his message both as a professional with vested interest and as his alter-ego Starboy. He called for a better system (one which emphasized harm reduction through alternative products) and saw himself as the voice of the nightclubbing dance community whose consumption, he believed, was a natural and necessary part of their lifestyle.
This lobbying resulted in the world’s first major legislation regulating recreational drugs and legal highs: the Psychoactive Substances Act, which was passed by New Zealand’s Parliament in 2013. This allowed for a psychoactive drug to be legally marketable to adults at licensed outlets if a developer could prove it to be safe and of low risk. The Psychoactive Substances Regulatory Authority was the agency established to preside over this new market; unfortunately, it barely had the chance to take its role. When the legal high market at last debuted, a series of catastrophes struck. A miniscule percentage of stores turned out to have acquired the necessary psychoactive sales license in time, so users concentrated in conspicuous lines outside of the outlets which remained. The resulting media coverage portrayed psychoactive consumption as an immeasurably massive, problematic issue and the policy itself was vocally declared a disaster by journalists. With 2014 being a national election year in New Zealand, many politicians jumped on the opportunity to criticize the legislation as well. The same parliament which passed the Psychoactive Substances Regulatory Act by a margin of 119 votes to 1 revised it less than a year later. The revision not only banned all psychoactive substances on sale at the time, it also prohibited animal use in trials testing the safety of new ones (a technicality that effectively prevented the further development of any new, legal psychoactive drugs).
As a consequence, Kiwis went back to consuming more dangerous, unregulated drugs. Methamphetamine use rose in greater levels than in years before, as did that of other black market substances. This growing market at last caught the attention of international cartels, who saw the potential to capitalize off of selling crystal meth to New Zealanders at an inflated price. Violence has followed in the wake of competition between criminal syndicates and recent trends demonstrate a significant increase in legal convictions, hospitalizations, and deaths caused by methamphetamine since 2013.
Since the fall of the Psychoactive Substances Regulatory Act and that of BZP, Matt Bowden has solidified himself as a pioneering but ambiguous figure. His creative projects undertaken as Starboy attempted to merge art with activism - but they were projects funded by the manufacture of mind-altering substances nonetheless. He also returned to the legal drug trade through the development and sales of synthetic cannabis, but due to their dubious safety reputation and restriction of the products in New Zealand markets his company, Stargate Operations, was liquidated and declared bankrupt in 2015. Though he has more recently hinted at continuing research into alternative psychotherapeutic products, his primary legacy remains that of a founding father of party pills and a bearer of the responsibility which comes with exposing an entire generation of Kiwis to his synthetic experiments.
There’s no solid evidence supporting whether Bowden and BZP truly made a harm-reducing dent in the methamphetamine market or whether the only benefits reaped were his own profits. And, of course, the integrity of his stance on drug law reform will always be compromised by his choice of income. However, Bowden’s work in establishing the Psychoactive Substances Regulatory Act is undeniably a revolutionary achievement, one that, if truly given a chance, could change New Zealand and the world’s strategy in the war on drugs forever. It presents a question that future legislation must one day answer: is it more crucial to have a fewer number of drug users or a fewer number of drug deaths? The next time a country is faced with the not altogether faultless but perhaps necessary challenge of employing measures which allow its citizens to safely alter their own minds, New Zealand’s efforts can be learned from. Experimenting with ideas from sources as unexpected as the Michael Bowdens and Starboys of the world may be what’s necessary to halt the flood of new and dangerous substances into the bloodlines of communities and rebuild the too often irreparable ruins of addiction epidemics.