Hawke's Bay Today continues its campaign against K2. Sam Hurley talks to Dr Brad Sandleback, of the Emergency Department at Hawke's Bay Hospital, about his daily battle to help those who opt for legal highs.
Violence, pyschosis and kidney failure. These are some of the acute symptoms a local doctor deals with during every shift. The cause - synthetic cannabis and the now-infamous K2.
Hawke's Bay Hospital emergency doctor Brad Sandleback says synthetic cannabis and K2 are causing all sorts of problems in our community and are reaching all age groups.
"It affects people's judgment - people start doing things that aren't so bright.
"We are seeing an increasing amount of 40- and 50-year-olds being admitted, suffering from its effects.
"That creates all kinds of issues because these people are often on other forms of medication, for their heart or diabetes as well."
Local health authorities will continue to target the younger population, as they are seen as most at risk, after reports of children as young as 14 were seen buying the drugs from dairies.
"We are focusing our efforts on teenagers in the community but it is being used by people who you think would know better."
Synthetic cannabis is an unpredictable mixture of shredded plants, sprayed with artificial chemicals that can be either smoked or made into a tea.
Despite being sold as herbal highs or legal cannabis, it does not contain THC, the active ingredient in cannabis. It is sold under a variety of different brand names such as K2, Spice, Northern Lights, Kryptonite, Puff and Kronic.
"It's just too easily accessible.
"It would be much more difficult to get if you could only get it online, then you have to enter credit card details, an address to send it to, which in a lot of cases would be your parents' address."
The nature and inconsistency of the drugs mean people with pre-existing mental health conditions are also at an increased risk of psychosis.
"Each batch is different - we don't know what is going into these synthetic drugs or how much."
Dr Sandleback said the reason these drugs were so dangerous to people's health was because there was no testing on the products.
"They are being made to get around the law. It doesn't go through any testing to see whether it is fit for human consumption, so we don't know the short- or long-term effects.
"Without testing, we don't know how it's affecting brain chemicals, brain cells, cognitive function and the ability to think."
Thankfully, they don't see to many people make repeat or regular visits to the emergency room as a result of synthetic cannabis abuse.
"We don't typically see the same people. Hopefully the message is getting through.
"But there aren't studies to say what addictive properties it has."
Hospital authorities and Dr Sandleback said the legal highs used up a lot of first response units' time, money and resources.
"It uses up our doctors, supervision, security, police, and St John services as well.
"Some chronic users of the drug have longer issues, like withdrawal."
He said the differences between synthetic cannabis and natural cannabis were the variation of the chemicals sprayed on the drug and when compared to other crippling drugs such as P, he said each posed its own problems.
"Each has its own nasty problem and side effects. It's hard to compare the two, but each are very dangerous."
Associate Health Minister Peter Dunne recently announced a Temporary Class Drug Notice banning substances found in tested samples of K2 synthetic cannabis. The ban comes into effect on May 9.
Those importing, manufacturing, selling or supplying the substances after that date will breach the Misuse of Drugs Act, and leave themselves open to penalties of up to eight years in prison. The two substances being banned, BB-22 and 5F-AKB48, have been found in K2 products.
The latest ban brings to 35 the number of substances banned under temporary notices and more than 50 products containing those substances were now off the market.
"The problem is accessibility. It's just too accessible to go down to the dairy and buy it," said Dr Sandleback.
"Ban it, and the problem will start going away.
"A simple legislation can help curb this."