The history of legal highs

By Roger Moroney

K2 is a form of synthetic cannabis first developed at Clemson University in the US more than a decade ago where the developers were creating synthetic cannabinoids not for the aim of getting high, but therapeutic purposes.

What they created has become a clear and present problem.

There is concern that it continues to be sold over the counter, fear of what it can do to the minds and bodies of some users and confusion over what is happening to get it off the shelves.

And questions about just how the ingredients of the smartly packaged and presented product was able to be brought into New Zealand or created here.

In many well-documented cases the effects of K2 have been horrific, leading inevitably to people asking "How come it's legal?".

Simple really - it was legal because the ingredients contained in it were not illegal.

That is set to change.

It takes extensive laboratory testing and evaluation to determine if a substance is dangerous, and what follows is a legislation process which must then be carried out to introduce a ban.

The fix is not an overnight one.

Basically, it could be said products like K2 have slipped through the back door in that there was nothing to prevent them being imported or produced here.

K2 is what is known as a "designer" drug.

It is not cannabis, but looks like it and allegedly creates a "high" like cannabis.

The green flakes of dried plant are herbal, but it is what is added to the otherwise innocent looking mix which has created the storm.

Synthetic chemicals are sprayed into the leafage to mimic the effects of cannabis.

It has been around for just over a decade with the original premise being that the products were simply herbs - legal ones - ones that gave a "safe" cannabis-like effect.

However, it began to emerge that all was not herbal and that the synthetic ingredients being used did affect the human body in the same way as the THC in cannabis.

It was not just two or three synthetic ingredients coming to the attention of laboratory analysis though. The range simply expanded as fast as agencies could identify them and begin researching them.

Only in the past three years has the hand of the law begun to come down firmly.

Synthetic cannabinoids used in the growing range of products like K2 have been declared illegal in several European countries and the "get rid of it" movement has been active and aggressive in the US since an incident in June 2010.

Iowa Teenager David Rozga shot himself in the head with his father's hunting rifle in an apparent suicide. Friends told police they had been with him smoking K2 an hour before he took his life.

Investigators concluded the young man had been under the influence of a mind-altering drug when he pulled the trigger.

His death sparked major political lobbying against the production and sale of K2 and other "herbal" products like it.

There had also been incidents of people suffering seizures, nausea and anxiety attacks, becoming aggressive and being hospitalised with erratic heartbeats and soaring blood pressure.

An act to ban the use and distribution of the drug was was proposed by Senator Chuck Grassley and it was approved into legislation by the United States Congress a year later.

It banned synthetic compounds found in the synthetic cannabis.

Other states began picking the legislation and enforcement up.

K2 and other synthetic mixes are already banned in Britain, Germany and France, and moves to outlaw the substances used in it, and similar products, are widespread.

But it has effectively been a case of when one substance is outlawed they find another. You outlaw that, and they start synthesising again and inevitably find another one.

Varieties of cannabinoids outlawed by legislation can be tweaked in the laboratory into something new, and outside the legislated outlaw list.

It's all about avoiding or sidestepping present legislation which was built around cannabis and not synthetic derivatives, although that is now changing.

- Hawkes Bay Today

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