'Legal high' addiction rate shocks health professionals
The speed at which people are becoming addicted to synthetic drugs has shocked alcohol and drug services, who say people are becoming hooked on "legal highs" in a matter of weeks or months.
MidCentral District Health Board's Alcohol and Other Drug Service's Ann Flintoff said they first saw an increase in the number of patients in November and December, shortly after 28 synthetic cannabinoids were banned.
At that time, they saw three or four people a week.
Seventeen people had been seen by the service in the past month, and there was a steady flow before that, she said.
Most patients were in their 20s, but there were some in their 40s.
Ms Flintoff said people had been "badly served" by the names of synthetic cannabis products, the "legals", and there was a lot of concern from parents and family doctors concerned about people acting out of character or agitated.
Dr Sarz Maxwell said symptoms varied, "intoxication" stages appeared similar to cannabis, but people in withdrawal quickly developed a physiological dependence, resulting in nausea, vomiting, and excessive sweating.
"One guy said he sweated through the mattress, dripping onto the floor. I saw a guy with his hand [on the table] and I saw a stream of sweat, not dripping, coming off his hand." Psychologically, the effects were much worse," she said, including agitation, rage attacks, severe paranoia, and cravings.
Dr Maxwell said she had some patients put together a comparison between cannabis and synthetic drugs.
One had smoked a small amount of cannabis regularly for years, with mild withdrawals and cravings and didn't have to increase the amount they used.
With synthetic drugs, one man who was using them to get off cannabis, said he knew within two weeks he was "in trouble", increasing his use from one pack a week to four a day, unable to function while using it and when not using it, and suffering severe cravings.
To make the products, numerous chemicals were sprayed onto vegetable matter, usually leaves that had psychoactive properties themselves, and sold as legal highs.
The problem was, most people were using it for the "right" reasons, she said.
"Their employer is about to start drug testing, they don't want to lose their job, but they still want to do something on the weekend. So here at the dairy while they are picking up milk, they see this, can't be tested in urine, let's do this."
But they are optimistic the upcoming law change, which will see synthetic cannabinoid products banned from dairies, petrol stations and convenience stores from July 10, combined with community education, will reduce the risks to young people in particular.
When the Psychoactive Substances Bill is passed into law, manufacturers will have to prove their products are low risk before they can be sold.
They agree taking a prohibition stance wouldn't work.
Alcohol and Other Drug Service's clinical director Dr Jerry Verghase said people would always experiment, and taking a moral position on the rightness or wrongness on the use of substances wouldn't achieve any good.
"Instead we need to highlight the dangers of these mind-altering substances, whatever they may be, ensuring the public are aware of what they are exposing themselves to, and the problem is, we don't know what they are exposing themselves to."
One in four of the new patients he had seen in the past month had used some kind of synthetic cannabis, and he had seen an increase in paranoia, agitation and suicidal thinking.
For those who already had mental health problems, the effects were even worse, and they had a poorer response to treatment.
"But while the synthetic drugs were worse than cannabis, that didn't mean cannabis was safe, he said.
People who were concerned about their addiction, or had concerns for others, should contact their doctor, surround themselves or others with supportive people and get away from triggers. Withdrawal symptoms could be managed medically, and took from four or five days to a few weeks to finish up.