Teen's horrific tangle with legal highs

By Rebecca Ryan of the Oamaru Mail -
An Oamaru teen was spending $120 a day on legal highs, when he started to get involved in crime to fuel his habit. Photo / Sarah Ivey
An Oamaru teen was spending $120 a day on legal highs, when he started to get involved in crime to fuel his habit. Photo / Sarah Ivey

An Oamaru teenager who became so addicted to synthetic cannabis he resorted to illegal activities to fuel the habit, wants to use his story to warn others.

The 16-year-old, who has been clean for almost seven months, will not be named due to the sensitive nature of his story and to protect his family.

It was almost two years ago that he tried synthetic cannabis for the first time. He had just turned 15 and gave it a go because that was what everyone else was doing.

"Just because all of my other friends were smoking it and I just thought I'd give it a try," he said.

"I started smoking it, along with marijuana, it gave me that escape, that's all it was and then everything turned to custard."

He enjoyed it, so he kept using it and the addiction began.

Although he was too young to buy the product from local dairies, he had associates over the age of 18 who would buy it for him.

It started slowly. Initially, he was having a couple of bongs of it a day, that turned into a packet a day, and before he knew it he was smoking six bags daily.

At $20 a packet, he was spending $120 a day to fuel the habit. That's when the crime started.

Come midnight, he would sneak out and break into cars. He and police estimate he broke into more than 300 vehicles under the influence of synthetic cannabis.

"I would break into cars, steal cars, steal things from inside the cars just to try and get some money so I could pay for it."

His health deteriorated and he began to hang out with the wrong people.

"Next thing I knew the police came around to my house," he said.

But that did not stop him and his offending continued for another month, or so. At his lowest, he was stealing a car and travelling at 200km/h through Timaru.

His mother watched him get worse during his 18-month addiction and said the affect it had on the family was "huge".

"He started becoming quite isolated from his family and his mood, temperament all changed," she said. "At the time I didn't realise how much, or what exactly he was doing. You could just see all of the changes in him.

Last November, he finally got help, but it was a struggle to get him the care he needed, his mother said.

"I went to Mental Health because he was starting to show signs of paranoia, believing that there were things happening that weren't happening, almost to the point of psychotic and he needed help," she said.

It was not easy to get help, his mother said, and during the waiting time he got worse but she was pushy and eventually he got the rehabilitation he needed.

"You've got to push," she said.

When he was admitted to hospital, doctors commented on his high potassium levels - all linked to the synthetic drugs.

"They said I would've had to have eaten 3000 bananas to get a level that high," he said.

He was at the psychiatric hospital for nine weeks and was "very sick".

After leaving hospital things were looking up. He found a flat, got a girlfriend, started a course and life was good. But the effects of the synthetic drugs reared their heads again and he relapsed.

"I had major withdrawal symptoms and that's when I realised I was addicted to it. They say you can't get addicted to it, but you can, that's for sure," he said.

"I had suicidal thoughts, I thought people could hear what I was thinking. I thought that the dog was talking to me."

He's seven months sober, but he's still on medication as he continues to suffer withdrawal.

"[Synthetic cannabis] has destroyed his mental wellbeing. We're hoping that he will get better over time, but it's just a gradual thing, he's not going to get better overnight," his mother said.

He sees a psychiatrist once a fortnight and will do so until 2016.

Mostly, it's affected his social development. His mother has seen her once-outgoing teenager, now struggle to cope being around large groups of people.

"I can't socialise, I have panic attacks," he said.

He gets constant twitches in his leg, which his doctors link to synthetic cannabis use.

While he is still suffering, he's not dwelling on the past, instead thinking of it as life experience and a learning curve.

"It's been really tough, but I've managed to be able to get through it and stop, but unfortunately, the long-term effects are still being shown," he said.

- The Oamaru Mail

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