Matt Bowden wants to know what this story is about.
The 51-year-old, formerly known as New Zealand’s party pill king, seems surprised to be contacted over email. It’s March 2022, and the discharged bankrupt is the director of a new business, having returned to the country from Thailand during the pandemic.
“If you want to do an interview, let’s do that over writing,” he responds.
A year later, after much back and forth, we come face-to-face in an Albany cafe. There’s vestiges of the character people may remember from the aughts – nail polish, bracelets, eyeliner. He’s friendly, softly spoken.
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Aside from the odd interview with Vice, and being photographed in mainstream media looking glum as his million-dollar properties went under the hammer to pay creditors, he’s not really been in the spotlight much after a 2014 law change saw his legal highs business go bust basically overnight.
Not long after, Bowden travelled – some may say fled – to Thailand. The entrepreneur and musician known as Starboy, who’d once courted the media and got in the faces of politicians, was as good as vanished into a cloud of synthetic smoke.
But Bowden is back in more ways than one. He’s ready to talk.
“For me, the story is what happened after,” he says, sitting down with a coffee on a sunny afternoon recently. “Because, you know, I thought I was about to be knighted.”
To some, Matt Bowden was a shrewd capitalist who exploited drug laws that allowed legal highs, becoming very wealthy as the pioneer of BZP-based party pills. (“Someone will make money, it might as well be me,” he told the Sunday Star-Times in 2011.)
But if you ask Bowden, he was nothing more than an altruistic-minded recovering meth user with an understanding of pharmacology and a gift of the gab – the ability to tell a different kind of story about drugs from the one New Zealanders were used to hearing.
Bowden’s character arc goes something like this: he’d watched people he knew die from drug overdoses, and it troubled him so much he figured there had to be a safer way for people to get high. By 1999, under Stargate Operations, he’d created party pills that mimicked the effects of amphetamines and which could be bought from your local corner dairy, marketed as consumable without the risk of serious harm.
For many years, it felt like Bowden was everywhere. He founded the Social Tonics Association of NZ and became the very willing voice of an industry thorugh Stargate International, a trust concerned with policy and drug harm reduction. Bowden proudly says another trust he founded provided training in first aid and drug education, and a helpline.
And unlike others, he says, Stargate ran toxicity tests and trials – safety tests – before selling its products. He lobbied, and lobbied some more. It felt like things were changing – for awhile he had the ear of lawmakers and the public. It felt like he could be Sir Matt Bowden.
“For me, my drive was all about safety and delivering a really good policy for the community,” Bowden says. “I was sitting in this position, brokering between commercial entities, the government, and the public, looking for an outcome that would mean an end to dangerous drugs on the market and a safety system.”
But in the early 2000s associate health minister Jim Anderton found the country’s dusty drug laws born out of the 70s no longer withstood the development of modern drugs. To cut a long story short, by 2007 the Labour-led government had banned BZP, effectively ending the shelf life of many party pills.
Bowden had tried to ward off the ban, arguing BZP was safer than both P and alcohol; that banning it would simply drive drug use underground. New versions of the drug emerged as ingredients were tweaked around the edges, those too were banned. Stargate began making supplements. (“Diversified,” says Bowden.)
But government intervention was by no means the end of legal highs. Pushed out of the party pill scene, Stargate began cashing in on synthetic cannabis – Bowden says it was to survive as a business – which again saw the young and the vulnerable buying it from dairies.
But this was an ugly legal high. Studies suggested synthetics caused high blood pressure, blurred vision, hallucination and agitation, and stories proliferated of people losing their minds on it. People marched in streets, calling for a ban.
Bowden’s calls for safer highs went his way for a bit, and then further than intended.
In 2013, under the introduction of the Psychoactive Substances Act, manufacturers had to prove their products were low risk. Their sale was banned in petrol stations, dairies, liquor stores and similar convenience stores. Bowden applauded these things – they were his very idea, he says.
But by 2014 public sentiment had shifted as the effects of synthetics became more apparent, as did fears about animal drug testing. The Act was revised, and the products that were being regulated became outlawed.
“The legislation changed overnight,” Bowden recalls.
“I knew the government had turned on me, and it felt like the media turned on me, and the people turned on me.”
Bitterly for him: “Normally if you change the laws overnight on industry and [businesses are] going to lose millions of dollars there’s compensation. But no, instead there was this inter-departmental shut down.”
By then, Bowden was a very recognisable face, not just for his drug company, but for his performances as Starboy, a glam-rock kind of alter-ego who he’s previously described as an “interdimensional traveller raising consciousness about hope, freedom, and love”.
By the end of it all, though, public opinion of Bowden could not have been more different: In its eyes he was a ruthless drug manufacturer.
“That’s the compromise when you are speaking on behalf of an industry, you become the voice of commercial entities that really only care about profit. So for me personally, I felt really conflicted as a person.”
He goes as far as to say: “I really hated where I was at.”
Southern Medicinal executive director Greg Marshall says his team hopes to reduce the price of medical cannabis to make it more accessible.
Bowden’s business was smoked.
“In less than a year we lost everything. [And] it would be nice if you could note, for the record, about a year after it was shut down, after I’d gone, the market did move to the black market, and the drug did kill 60 or 80 New Zealanders, which is what I was trying to prevent.”
Bowden is right. By mid-2017 the NZ Drug Foundation reported that harm from synthetic cannabinoids spiked, with more than 70 deaths connected to the drug.
“In my opinion, that should have been rats that died…we made a choice.”
Meanwhile, Stargate Operations went into liquidation, owing more than $1.4m to creditors. Bowden’s properties were sold off. In one humiliating instance a $2.6m waterfront property on Auckland’s North Shore went to mortgagee sale, falling under the hammer for more than $600,000 under CV.
Bowden’s starpower tanked. He says animal testing – which was banned under the 2013 Act – particularly stuck in the public’s craw, and he was regularly derided as an animal abuser. He was threatened and sent abusive emails, he says.
“At the end of it I was painted as someone who wanted to kill your dog and poison your children, trying to make as much money as possible selling drugs.”
He and then-wife Kristi decided to take their two children to Thailand – he says on the advice of his lawyer. Bowden was threading a needle. Bankrupts must ask for permission to leave the country. Stargate Operations was liquidating.
Seeing the writing on the wall, they headed to Asia, settling in Chiang Mai which Bowden nostalgically describes as a monastic citadel. From there he declared bankruptcy. He recognises it probably looked like he’d run out on his responsibilities, letting “so many people, my staff, my creditors, my customers, down”.
Cue scenes of Bowden in Thailand, learning to meditate, sitting silently in monastaries, and “having a long hard think about what I’d done, and what I could do to be my best self and to recover”.
Seeing the pollution in Thailand, and with remarkable foresight given what was to transpire, Bowden says he began importing, selling and distributing masks.
“You can imagine my concern when I saw people wearing paper masks during Covid. If you exhale and your glasses fog up, that tells you the air is going around the mask, not through it.”
His children went to school; Bowden says he did aid work. In 2018 Thailand decriminalised cannabis – the first Asian nation to do so. That same year, Bowden returned to New Zealand to officially request permission to leave.
“I didn’t want to be a fugitive,” he explains. “I returned to clear my name and notify the authorities, so I could face the music – if there was anything I needed to face.”
Bowden is deadpan, almost shy, as he continues: “It turned out I’d done nothing wrong and my only transgressions were fashion crimes.”
He was allowed to leave again. He decided to try out the Netherlands as a new home, the potential future of progressive global drug policy, but soon left after discovering the region had had enough of drug tourism. The Netherlands was cold. It was hard to make friends. Bowden returned to Thailand, and then, when the pandemic arrived, his family went home to New Zealand.
When Bowden touched down in Auckland it had been six years since the prohibition on synthetics, and the government had enacted the Medicinal Cannabis Scheme. The following year there’d be an [eventually failed] referendum on decriminalising cannabis. Had the tide turned on the war on drugs?
“Globally, people are seeing that the prohibition system was an idea that didn’t work,” says Bowden, “And many of the natural substances which we Westerners [think of as] taboo, are most effective therapeutically than anything else on the market. If you look at the States, and… Australia, all around the world ideas are changing.”
Bowden returned to the North Shore (he’s renting) and began work with global pharmaceutical start-up BioPharm, which touts itself as a leader in psychoactive drug development.
In 2022 Bowden incorporated Xtralife Health Science and began selling New Zealand manufactured supplements purported to help with “detoxing”, anti-ageing, and “cognitive restoration”. One is marketed as helping people recover from Covid. Bowden is uncomfortable talking about this. “It’s basic fear about getting blasted for something, you know.”
All of which brings Bowden to his latest grand plan. He wants to tackle the mental health epidemic, he says. Particularly he thinks he can help people experiencing PTSD, anxiety and depression.
“The solutions we have for those currently are mere band-aids,” Bowden says in a script-like lilt. “Medicines which shut down any form of emotional processing, and it’s not sustainable to have the majority of the population using [them]. What we need are fast acting solutions which can bring change within a few sessions.”
Can you see what’s coming?
Bowden thinks the drugs showing promise in this area are ones like psilocybin (magic mushrooms), MDMA, (ecstasy), LSD, and ketamine. Australia has moved to use psilocybin as a medicinal treatment and from July, psilocybin-containing medicines can be prescribed by authorised psychiatrists for people experiencing treatment-resistant depression.
In New Zealand, University of Auckland associate professor Suresh Muthukumaraswamy is also conducting research in the area, thought to be the country’s first class A psychedelic study.
But rather than using existing and known substances, Bowden’s “preference” is to create new, custom-designed psychotherapeutic compounds. He cites LSD’s long duration of effects, or MDMA’s neuro-toxity. Ironically, it’s the Psychoactive Substances Act in 2013, the one that saw the downfall of Bowden’s business, that he sees as being the door to his new venture.
NZ Drug Foundation director Sarah Helm says research and evidence suggests an exciting opportunity for more effective products for people struggling with mental health issues.
The foundation was “hopeful” for what models and trials applied overseas could mean for New Zealand, however the legislation as it stands is prohibitive. Exemptions can be provided on an individual basis only, although that is yet to be tested. Any broader access would require reform.
That said: “I don’t think Parliament has its head around this just yet. To be fair, it’s early days.”
But Helm is sceptical about creating new substances. “I would be very cautious about that – there is solid evidence for existing substances like LSD, MDMA and psilocybin, that is not there for new compounds.”
Bowden is in the early stages of planning. This, he thinks, is what he’s been building to all along. He’d like to crowdfund, and he’s still talking to experts in the field; getting the band back together. He recognises he might not be best placed to run a new venture.
“I’m good at seeing the direction, but I’ll have somebody else manage it. My other business failed to pay its bills, so it’s not my strength. I’m a communicator, and a visionary, and I can play the guitar.”
When he was running Stargate he also ran a costume shop, and photos of Bowden in Stuff’s archives show someone used to being a bit of a chameleon: short hair and suits one year, long bleached hair and checks, stripes and beads the next.
After Bowden meets our photographer, he explains his outfit choice by text: “The suit I picked because I have to look a bit business, but we want to say artist and Thailand as well.”
Bowden loves clothes, and what they say about personal growth and transformation.
“When people put on a costume they can experiment with a new personality and a new way of being, and they can take that home and keep it at the end of the night, if they wish – so long as they bring the costume back.”