Dozens of synthetic cannabis brands have been cleared for sale by health regulators, despite some containing chemicals linked to psychosis.
On Wednesday, the same day that police charged the first person with selling synthetic cannabis illegally, the Ministry of Health cleared nearly 50 shops to continue to sell similar, but approved, legal highs.
The ministry says 28 legal-high brands have now received interim approval. Approval was given if the brand had been on the market for more than three months without users reporting any serious adverse side-effects.
But toxicologist Leo Schep, of the National Poisons Centre, said there was not enough information to say whether newly approved products were safe.
"It's like the early days of BZP [party pills]. We just don't know yet."
The approved brands might not have been linked to severe side-effects, but many contained drugs that had, he said.
One chemical, known as PB22, was found in at least five of the newly approved products. It was also the active ingredient in other brands that had caused users to hallucinate and fall into psychosis, he said.
"We still have to prove they're safe because, at the moment, the evidence is not available."
Stewart Jessamine, group manager of the ministry's Medsafe, said bad side-effects were often linked to poor quality control, rogue chemicals or uneven doses, rather than the drug itself.
The approval for some products was only temporary, and they would still need to pass more rigorous testing later in the year before gaining a permanent licence.
Approval for any product was based on the best available evidence, and could be withdrawn at any time if it was found to be harmful. "We are encouraging people to report in if they do have concerns."
Grant Hall, of legal-high industry body Star Trust, said the brands received only a provisional tick and many would probably not pass the higher hurdle for permanent approval later in the year.
However, the bad side-effects associated with synthetic-cannabis products had been overblown, particularly when compared with alcohol, he said. "By any measure, these products are incredibly low risk."
In total, 28 synthetic cannabis brands, including AK47, Black Label Skunk and WTF, have been given interim approval, allowing them to be sold at selected shops.
Another 33, most of them types of synthetic cannabis, are still being assessed but can be legally sold for now.
So far, the ministry has not rejected any brands as too dangerous.
The products can be sold only through approved stores, with 46 shops receiving interim licences as of yesterday. Another 147 can continue to trade while their applications are being assessed.
In Wellington, 21 retailers can still legally sell synthetic cannabis.
Ten companies have also received interim licences to manufacture legal highs, seven to research them, and 23 to sell them wholesale.
HIGHS AND LOWS
WHO CAN SELL?
Licensed 18+ specialist shops, such as adult shops or tobacconists, but, as of last month, not dairies, liquor stores, supermarkets or service stations.
WHAT CAN THEY SELL?
A brand must have an interim licence, provided by the Ministry of Health, or be waiting for approval for it to be legally sold. This interim approval will run until the ministry devises a more rigorous permanent licensing regime, expected before the end of the year. Retailers, manufacturers and importers also need an interim licence and will need to reapply. All products need to be clearly marked, with ingredients and contact details for the National Poisons Centre.
WHY CAN SOME PRODUCTS BE SOLD AND NOT OTHERS?
Brands approved for legal use must have been on the market for three months already without any reports of serious side-effects, such as vomiting, collapsing or hallucinations.
- © Fairfax NZ News