Battle lines drawn over synthetic cannabis

By Brendan Manning

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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 parents 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.

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 over 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 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.

A passerby who tried to assist the 13-year-old told a local paper: "They said what they bought had cost $12 and was enough to get all three of them high and completely wasted - they told me that they normally smoke weed but this was easier and less expensive to get."

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 underway 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 continue 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 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 anymore - now it will look like K4. And then they'll outlaw that, it just goes on ad nauseum."

Manufacturers are "making mega-bucks", Professor Schenk says. People are attracted to the products because they are similar to cannabis.

"They didn't have any problems with [cannabis] and now they can do this legally."

But 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, STAR (Social Tonics Advocacy & 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 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 this year in response to the Psychoactive Substances Bill.

Mr Hall concedes he has never smoked synthetic cannabis, but tried the product in pill form for the first time recently at his niece's 9th birthday party. "I just had one pill and it was very good."

He does not deny rogue elements exist in the legal high industry and says selling synthetic cannabis in dairies and making the product too strong is "irresponsible".

The trust supports 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."

Synthetic cannabis has been on the Kiwi market since 2000 with a "big appetite" from consumers, he says.

Asked whether the notorious K2 product is safe, Mr Hall says the trust deems the product "low risk" when consumed according to directions.

"Low risk doesn't mean no risk, there's a very small percentage of the market place [where] people actually have a predisposition to psychotic reactions to psychoactive [drugs]. Unfortunately some people will have these reactions. No one had died, and we certainly hope that doesn't change."

He also warns some manufacturers may take advantage of the "window of opportunity" between now and August, and put untested products on the market "at a strength level that's not suitable - especially for first time users".

- Rotorua Daily Post

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