Mind-bending "legal weed" is in the spotlight as the Government prepares to tighten controls on products such as Kronic, Spice and Aroma.
It's New Year's Eve at Mount Maunganui and one 17-year-old girl is afraid she's not going to live to see 2011.
She's shivering, her eyes are heavily dilated, her heart is soaring at 190 beats per minute and she pleads to Pat Buckley: "Please, can you make this thing stop?"
The girl has taken STP, a psychedelic substituted amphetamine.
Unfortunately, Mr Buckley can do little for the terrified girl but help her to relax in the back of his ambulance.
Mr Buckley - a volunteer ambulance officer, youth campaigner and drug and alcohol counsellor - says he has seen "mirror image" symptoms in other young patients who have had adverse reactions to "legal highs".
With brand names such as Spice, Aroma, Puff, Dream and Kronic, they are behind superette counters in little black and green bags and peer at us through tobacconists' cabinets.
These products - sold in the form of "pre-rolled joints" in one case - usually contain vegetable matter treated with synthetic cannabimimetic substances to produce psychoactive effects similar to those of cannabis.
Products in Kronic's R18 range are available at more than 20 outlets in the Western Bay and often contain the 1,1-dimethyloctyl homologue of the substance CP 47,497 - a synthetic substantially similar to the main active component of cannabis THC.
Some have also been found to contain substances from the naphthoylindole chemical group, including the pain-killing chemicals JWH-018 and JWH-073.
Because it's legal, it must be safe - that's the lie
Mr Buckley says he is sick of seeing the effects these substances have on young people.
"They're usually anxious and paranoid, everything is magnified, and sometimes it's as if their senses are on fire. Their mouths are often dry from dehydration, they can experience locked jaws and grinding of the teeth and they can get photophobic, or sensitive to the light."
A recent assessment of JWH-018 and JWH-073 by New Zealand's Expert Advisory Committee on Drugs (EACD) sits on Mr Buckley's Hairini dinner table, scrawled with yellow highlighter.
One paragraph, detailing the case of a 20-year-old who admitted himself for detoxification after consuming 3g of Spice Gold daily has been furiously highlighted.
It reads: "By day four the patient had developed increasing internal unrest, a strong desire for Spice Gold, nightmares, profuse sweating, nausea, tremor and headaches which did not improve following sedation.. ."
Statements from one industry submitter claiming synthetic cannabimimetic substances had a "valuable harm-reduction role to play" and that fatally overdosing from them was "not possible" are summed up by Mr Buckley in one scribbled yellow word: "Whatever."
"But what really burns me is the perception that because it's legal, it must be safe - that's the lie," he says.
Why the hell do we need it?
Also on his table is a recent Bay of Plenty Times article about a mother outraged that "legal weed" was being sold at Bellevue Superette - metres from Otumoetai College, the Western Bay's largest secondary school.
A superette worker assured the newspaper the store had a strict policy of asking anyone buying legal highs to produce their ID, and when we tested the store this week, our 17-year-old volunteer was turned down.
But Otumoetai College principal Dave Randell was still uncomfortable with the fact that 18-year-old college pupils could come to class high on the products, or supply them to under-aged mates.
"This just adds another dilemma we don't need," Mr Randell said. "When I read about this mum in the paper who was angry about it, I just felt for her. Why the hell do we need it? These are things that schools are left to deal with every day."
No quantified data on the use of herbal smoking blends in New Zealand is available, although a survey by the University of Auckland last year showed use of the products was low but might be increasing.
The Ministry of Health has reported that marketing and availability of herbal smoking blends has increased "substantially" recently.
Some product websites have heavily discounted blends.
They have offered promotions such as "buy one ounce, get one free" - roughly equating to hundreds of doses for $300.
They become all consumed by it
The EACD report suggested aggressive marketing and free giveaways could boost the products' appeal to young people, citing an offer by one manufacturer of a pre-rolled, foot-long joint as a prize to the person who invited the most people to join its Facebook page.
Mr Buckley believed young people were especially vulnerable to legal highs.
"Often young people make many decisions without the insight or understanding into how detrimental these substances can be to them. Those I've talked to have told me it's affected their studies and their friendships - they just become all consumed by it and it does them no favours at all.
"One even told me, in his own words, 'I've got to have it every day sir'."
Tauranga student Robert Moore, who spoke out in the Bay of Plenty Times this month after experiencing paranoid episodes and chronic depression after four months of regular use of Kronic, also claimed to have become addicted.
When Mr Moore, 23, went cold turkey last month, he experienced 72 hours of cold sweats, itches, sleeplessness, irritability and loss of appetite. He is on a two-month programme at Greenlane Hospital to help with side-effects. He says healthcare workers have likened it to a "bad meth habit".
This week, Mr Moore said his chemical dependence was gone but he still had cravings, mainly in the evenings.
"I have not used since but that's not to say my brain doesn't remember the high and the fact that an intense and instant escape is available at most convenience stores. But through treatment and support, and realisation of the damage abusing these substances have caused me, I'm over synthetic cannabis for good."
Mr Moore says the products should be outlawed here, as JWH-018 and JWH-073 have been in numerous countries including the UK, Germany, Italy, Sweden, Ireland and France.
"Research needs to be carried out - the fact no study has been completed globally is worrying and irresponsible by the companies pushing these products," he said.
"Proper research on the side-effects may even produce a safe alternative. Unfortunately, people assume banning is just to ruin their fun, but for new, largely unknown chemicals, it is to ensure their safety as users in the short and long-term."
Mr Moore has written to Associate Health Minister Peter Dunne, demanding New Zealand follows the US' lead. After 500 cases of adverse reactions were reported in the US, the Drug Enforcement Administration banned the chemicals used in manufacture until research was done.
However, the Government has moved only as far as proposing new controls making it illegal to sell products containing synthetic substances to people under 18 - a restriction Kronic and other companies already uphold.
The amendment to the Misuse of Drugs Amendment Act 2005 is awaiting its second reading, but is not expected to come into effect until next year.
An R18 restriction is already in place under the Smoke-free Environments Act 1990 for any substances defined as "herbal smoking products", however a spokesman for Mr Dunne told the Bay of Plenty Times Weekend that description did not apply to all synthetic cannabinoids.
People should be careful with any drug
Tauranga MP Simon Bridges backed the amendment, saying it was wrong for the products to be widely available without strong controls on them.
Senior constable Wayne Aberhart, the Police Association's Bay of Plenty representative, said any substance that gave off a marijuana-like high was a concern to police, as well as society as a whole: "I guess my question would be, how long will it be legal for?"
Party-pill king Matt Bowden supported the proposed age restriction but stopped short of supporting an outlawing of cannabimimetic, which he said would be "discriminatory".
Kronic spokesman Ben Thompson has defended synthetic cannabis, saying it was not as harmful or intense as cannabis and had offered many former drug users a source of rehabilitation.
One user posted on an internet message board that herbal smoking blends were "much less addictive than the real thing, very similar feel generally, little mental stress paranoia-wise and I'd personally guess no psychosis unlike [marijuana] and easy as hell to get. Win win".
Another former marijuana user said blends came with "no craving, no mental off-balance ... I'm very grateful to have found something I can enjoy, while having my life completely in balance ... I smoke two days a week, most weeks and then just go on with my life normally. What a difference!"
Mount Maunganui GP Tony Farrell believed synthetic cannabis posed a low risk compared with hard drugs.
"But that's not to say it's without risk.
"People should be careful with any drug. It's certainly been judged safer than alcohol but I still don't think it's safe for young people and I think there has to be stringent enforcement on its R18 classification.
"From a clinical point of view, I haven't seen a lot of people in trouble with these things. I haven't had anyone come in saying 'I've had trouble using Kronic'."
But for Mr Buckley, the thought of synthetic cannabis always brings him back to the desperate face of the girl crying for help in the back of his ambulance.
"At the moment, it's open season for these companies. Police are so inundated with work that the effects of this stuff is just being overlooked." he said.
"The police are too busy dealing with crime - and because this is legal, it's all just going to keep slipping under the radar.
"Meanwhile, everyone's clipping the ticket, including the dairy owners.
"I guess at the end of the day, the question really is: Would they sell it to their own kids?"