New Zealand legal highs law subject of global survey

LEGAL HIGHS: The 2015 Global Drug Survey will examine New Zealand's brief stint with a regulated market in legal highs like synthetic cannabis.
LEGAL HIGHS: The 2015 Global Drug Survey will examine New Zealand's brief stint with a regulated market in legal highs like synthetic cannabis.

New Zealand's abandoned experiment with legal highs will be the subject of an international survey of drug use.

The annual Global Drug Survey, launched in New Zealand today, is expected to attract more than 100,000 participants. It will examine drug use across 20 countries - and New Zealand's short-lived scheme for regulated legal highs will be a key focus.

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"We'll take a close look at New Zealand and see what has happened to the use of traditional weed now that once-legal synthetic versions have at least for the near future been withdrawn from sale," Global Drug Survey founder and British-based consultant psychiatrist, Adam Winstock said.

A regulated market for synthetic cannabis was established here in July last year. Substances marketed as legal alternatives to cannabis were licensed for sale but authorities had the power to remove anything deemed unsafe. The scheme prompted international interest but was abandoned this year after widespread concern about the dangerous effect of some substances.

Winstock said New Zealand came out ahead of all countries in last year's Global Drug Survey for the rates of synthetic cannabis users seeking emergency medical treatment after using them.

"Was it a surprise? Not really," Winstock said.

"When one set of synthetic cannabinoids are regulated for, there's a whole fresh truck full waiting to be dissolved in acetone, sprayed with damiana and lettuce leaf, dried, packaged and sold for a hefty profit."

It was estimated that the risk of seeking emergency medical treatment after using synthetic cannabis was at least 30 times higher than with natural cannabis, he said.

In the regulated market, less-potent products that had previously been used were replaced by less-familiar and often more-potent synthetic cannabis products. It appeared some people preferred to use synthetic cannabis because it was cheaper, he said.

In May, MPs had a change of heart over the legal-highs scheme. Legislation banning synthetic cannabis was rushed through Parliament, and shop shelves were cleared of the products overnight.

New Zealand's brief experiment with a regulated market enables researchers to this year see how law changes can effect the use of natural and synthetic cannabis. It's expected Kiwis who take the survey will help shed light on how people respond to changes in the law, which could help other countries to settle on their policies.

The survey will also examine the risks of dependency, problems with withdrawal, and the health risks or benefits of using synthetic cannabis, rather than natural cannabis.

The Global Drug Survey, in its fourth year, examines how people around the world are using different kinds of drugs, including alcohol, cannabis and even laughing gas.

Alongside several other media like Britain's Guardian and the Huffington Post, Stuff is a media partner for the survey, encouraging readers to take part and then publishing the results in June next year.

* is the official media partner in New Zealand for the Global Drug Survey. You can join more than 100,000 people expected to take part in the survey here. It's anonymous and completely confidential. Results will be published in June 2015.