They're marketed as 'legal highs' and available for a few bucks from your corner store. But as reports of severe adverse reactions to high strength synthetic cannabis products flood in, angry communities and lawmakers are fighting back. Brendan Manning reports.
Until this week, a product labelled as dangerous as methamphetamine has been readily available over the counter at suburban dairies.
Daily reports have emerged of teenagers collapsing in shopping malls, suffering hallucinations and seizures, and users being sedated and put in isolation at hospitals for their own safety.
Synthetic cannabis has been marketed as a legal way of getting high, but it's causing mayhem in local communities.
Increasingly a popular target for armed hold-ups, the designer drugs are not subject to toxicity testing but are making the manufacturers "mega bucks".
Concerned mothers nationwide are now demanding consumers "vote with their wallet" by boycotting dairies that sell the recreational drugs - campaigns supported by local police, schools and community groups.
Just last week, Associate Health Minister Peter Dunne announced a Temporary Class Drug Notice, banning substances found in one of the most popular synthetic cannabis products, K2.
Coming into effect on Thursday, the ban brings the number of substances banned under temporary notices to 35, with more than 50 legal high products now off the market.
"This is another blow to the industry and one of many we have delivered. But I fully acknowledge it is more of the cat-and-mouse game until we can deliver the killer punch in August, when the Psychoactive Substances Bill will become law," Mr Dunne says.
The bill will force manufactures to prove legal high products are safe for human consumption.
The unregulated legal high industry is estimated to be worth tens of millions of dollars.
Chemical structures found in synthetic cannabis have already been banned in more than 20 countries and Mr Dunne's bill has not come soon enough for those who have witnessed the drugs' devastating effects first-hand.
A veteran Northland lawyer has written to Health Minister Tony Ryall asking him to immediately ban synthetic cannabis products, which he says are as dangerous as methamphetamine.
Whangarei lawyer Dave Sayes has voiced concern about the products' effects due to the "psychosis, paranoia, seizures and gratuitous violence in seemingly non-violent people" they have caused.
"It's turning people violent. It's turning people ugly.
"It's got the same effects that methamphetamine has."
A Dunedin father says he was tossed around his house "like paper" last month when his son tried to go cold turkey from synthetic cannabis.
Wayne McFadyen's 24-year-old son ended up sedated in hospitalised isolation following a psychotic episode.
His son had smoked K2 for a month, developing a two-packet-a-day habit, but decided to go cold turkey after seeing the effects it was having on friends.
"His thinking and behaviour just went haywire.
"He couldn't control himself and ran around our house at a 100 miles per hour, would jump up, and be crying 'help me dad, help me dad'," Mr McFadyen told the Otago Daily Times.
His son was admitted to the care of mental health authorities.
Meanwhile, a Christchurch shop assistant had a screwdriver held to her throat late last month by a man demanding synthetic cannabis, cigarettes and cash.
The incident followed an aggravated robbery of a Dunedin dairy, which prompted police to warn shopowners about the dangers of selling synthetic cannabis products.
But despite the dangers to dairy owners and staff, many continue to stock the product due to its profitability.
A Dunedin dairy owner faces potential prosecution after allegedly filling re-sealable bags with cut-price synthetic cannabis.
Police say the dairy owner admitted buying synthetic cannabis in bulk then "used primitive measuring techniques - a spoon - to measure out the quantity".
It was then sold for as little as $16 per packet - an estimated profit of at least $10 per bag.
Police say the incident was not an isolated case.
Christchurch police have fast-tracked their campaign against synthetic cannabis after a 13-year-old who had taken the substance collapsed last month in New Brighton Mall.
Police subsequently distributed posters to businesses saying "We choose not to support the sale of synthetic cannabiniods" - hoping to put pressure on retailers who stock the products.
A similar campaign has been under way in Gisborne, where local mother Michelle Lexmond is urging parents to boycott diaries that continue to sell legal highs to their kids.
With so many negative headlines surrounding the risks associated with legal highs, why do recreational drug users continuing to smoke or ingest the products?
Victoria University school of psychology Professor Susan Schenk says "you've got to be nuts" to take legal highs.
The problem with the "designer drugs" is that their parent compounds are tweaked, creating adverse side effects.
"With K2 you're seeing things like kidney problems and psychosis and all kinds of mental problems, which are no doubt related to all this other stuff that they're throwing in.
"As soon as they catch this and they remove it from the shelves, then some chemist comes up with a new tweaked compound so it doesn't look like K2 any more - now it will look like K4.
"And then they'll outlaw that, it just goes on ad nauseam."
Manufacturers are "making mega-bucks," Prof Schenk says.
Synthetic drugs are dangerous. Claims they are "low risk" are not backed up with credible toxicity testing evidence, Professor Schenk says.
"As soon as you start changing the chemical composition, you start changing the way the liver metabolises them, you start changing the way the kidney excretes it and you get all kinds of effects, none of which you can actually anticipate.
"We have no idea what's in them ... you've got to be out of your mind to be taking this stuff."
However, the STAR (Social Tonics Advocacy and Research) Trust is defending the products and the right of consumers to use legal highs.
Spokesman Grant Hall says less than 1 per cent of legal high users require medical attention and no one has died from cannabis consumption - "synthetic or natural" - in New Zealand.
However, synthetic cannabis is stronger and "marginally" more dangerous than the natural product, he concedes.
The reality is that some people abuse synthetic cannabis while others have bad reactions to the drugs.
The trust represents about 80 per cent of Kiwi legal high suppliers, manufacturers and distributors. It was established earlier this year in response to the Psychoactive Substances Bill.
The trust supports the Mr Dunne's bill because "the only way to control legal high products was to regulate them".
"If you don't regulate them and we just ban them, which is prohibition, all you're doing is handing over control to organised crime," Mr Hall said.
Synthetic cannabis has been on the Kiwi market since 2000 with a "big appetite" from consumers, he says.
The Psychoactive Substances Bill
The bill has been tabled in Parliament and is expected to pass by August 1.
The bill will restrict the importation, manufacture and supply of psychoactive substances and only allow the sale of products that meet safety and manufacturing requirements. Legal high manufacturers will have to prove every product is safe before it goes on sale.
A regulatory body will be set up within the Health Ministry to approve and decline new psychoactive substances, issue a manufacturing code of practice, importation, manufacturing and sale licences, and carry out monitoring and product recalls. An expert advisory committee will also be established, to provide the authority with technical advice
Products will be banned to those under 18, and restrictions will be placed on where the drugs can be sold. In the meantime, the Temporary Class Drug Notice will force more K2 off the shelves, Mr Dunne says.
"There is no goodwill and there is no decency in this industry, and that is why we are legislating. They prove day-in and day-out that they cannot be trusted."
The two substances being banned are BB-22 and 5F-AKB48. From Thursday it will be illegal to import, manufacture, sell or supply the substances, with penalties of up to 8 years' imprisonment.
"We need to apply pressure from all ends on a dirty industry until we can get our world-leading legislation in place," he says.