Synthetic cannabis is still a problem in the Western Bay of Plenty more than 18 months after it was banned, with users turning to "synnie" houses for their fix.
Since the introduction of the Psychoactive Substances Act, which banned all existing synthetic cannabis products in November 2014 and introduced strict testing regimes for the introduction of any new substances, no synthetic cannabis products have been approved for sale.
People spoken to by the Bay of Plenty Times Weekend said there appeared to be less of the product available in the region since the ban - although one social agency said users were making their own synthetic cannabis.
Detective Steven Burborough of the Rotorua Police told the Rotorua Daily Post last week that their district had seen no decrease in synthetic cannabis.
Tauranga Women's Refuge manager Angela Warren-Clark said synthetic cannabis had become less prominent since the ban, although it was still a big problem.
"We are still encountering it. Not as much as we used to when it was still legal, but what we are finding is it's more underground.
"Instead of going to a tinnie house, users go to a synnie house."
It's a very scary type of violence.
Mrs Warren-Clark said whenever refuge staff came into contact with users, it was always for a negative reason. Users exhibited erratic behaviour and often psychosis.
"The chemicals that go into these products are really, really toxic. They are basically huffing, it's the same kind of products going in, but they are smoking it instead.
"They are pouring chemicals over a green leaf product and are smoking it."
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Before the ban was introduced, almost every second partner of a woman seeking help at the refuge was a synthetic cannabis user. Now, it was closer to one in 10.
"That's because it's gone underground and it's illegal now."
With other drug and alcohol users, abused women would learn behaviour patterns and try to keep the peace.
But, like methamphetamine, synthetic cannabis made users unpredictable.
"It's a very scary type of violence."
The police said there had been significant amounts of synthetic cannabis in the Western Bay, but this had dropped off after a series of raids at the end of last year and early this year.
A police spokesperson said significant amounts of synthetic cannabis had been coming into the Western Bay of Plenty from outside of the area.
The situation had changed after the raids, particularly in the central Tauranga area, although there has been further work done in other areas of Tauranga since," the spokesperson said.
The composition of the product appeared to vary dramatically, with resultant behaviours mirroring the composition of the product.
"At times, this has seen violence displayed, at other times cognisance and awareness significantly impaired."
Bay of Plenty District Health Board mental health clinical director Sue Mackersey said while she believed synthetic cannabis was still a problem in the community, there had not been a significant number of presentations to the emergency department in recent months which could be attributed to synthetic cannabis use.
Dr Mackersey said people were still seeking treatment for synthetic cannabis abuse, sometimes in conjunction with other substance abuse or symptoms of mental illness.
In this sense, it is still a problem but again, significantly less so than cannabis or alcohol.
She said there was no particular pattern with presentations. Use often had more to do with the availability of other substances.
It was more common to see more men presenting with synthetic cannabis use than women, and younger men rather than older men, she said.
"For those young people under 18 referred to Sorted, synthetic cannabis is still a presence, but a diminished one, compared to before the ban - although even then it was still not commonly a substance of choice for young people.
"We might get two or three young people a month referred who report using synthetic cannabinoids in the last month. In this sense, it is still a problem but again, significantly less so than cannabis or alcohol."
Dr Mackersey said people should be concerned about the use of all synthetic cannabis.
The components of different synthetics varied hugely as did the effect of the psychoactive substance on different people.
Dr Mackersey said there was a wide variety of psychological and physical symptoms that could occur in users of synthetic cannabis, which could sometimes be similar to smoking cannabis.
"Effects can include changes in thoughts, feelings and memories such as aggression or relaxation. Physical symptoms might be a fast heart rate and dry mouth."
The Drug Detection Agency has noticed a considerable decrease in the number of people testing positive for synthetic cannabis use in the workplace, chief executive Kirk Hardy said.
"When things are made illegal, it does drop drastically. We saw that in 2006 with BZP when that became a classified drug."
Mr Hardy said before the ban, it was a lot more common as people believed it was a safe way to get around drug tests.
How a product is approved
• On November 3 2014, the moratorium on processing applications for psychoactive products ended. All psychoactive products must have approval from the Authority under section 37 of the Psychoactive Substances Act 2013 before they can be sold on the New Zealand market.
The products must pose no more than a low risk of harm to users, and go through a pre-market approval process similar to that required for medicines. This approval process ensures that the products have been formulated, manufactured and tested to a high level of quality and safety that satisfies the Authority and meets the intention of the Act.
• Products that previously had an interim product licence will have to reapply for approval and meet the new requirements. Approvals will not be automatically renewed.
• The pre-market approval requirements means that comprehensive information on the product needs to be provided - this includes developing quality systems for manufacturing and testing for safety which includes the specific, pharmacological, psychoactive and toxicological effects of the substance. It also includes the potential for dependence, the potential misuse of the substance, and its effects on vulnerable members of the community.
• All this information will need to be created, collated, assessed and approved. It is considered that the first product approval would not be able to be granted for at least two years after an application has been submitted.
- Psychoactive Substances Regulatory Authority