Synthetic cannabis risk 'vast'

Synthetic  cannabis puts more New Zealanders in hospital per use than any other drug and experts say it is a ''timebomb'' that will strain the public health system for years to come.

Results from this year's Global Drug Survey, conducted in partnership with Fairfax Media, found almost 4 per cent of synthetic cannabis users sought emergency medical treatment. More than a quarter of those were admitted to hospital.

The survey of 5731 New Zealand respondents found more than 10 per cent had used synthetic cannabis in the past 12 months - second only to Britain, on just under 11 per cent.

Click here to see our interactive guide to drug use in New Zealand. 

''We are sitting on a timebomb with these,'' said Leo Schep, of the National Poisons Centre.

''It's not just the acute effects, it's the long-term psychological effects.''

Even if the Government banned all legal highs tomorrow, users would have ongoing issues, he said.

''They are going to be a huge burden on the state, possibly for the rest of their lives.''

Under the Psychoactive Substances Act, introduced in July last year, licensed retailers can sell drugs deemed to pose a low risk of harm.

But the Health Ministry can ban approved products based on reports of adverse effects provided to the Centre for Adverse Reactions Monitoring (Carm) and the National Poisons Centre. 

Canterbury District Health Board chief of psychiatry Sue Nightingale said the number of calls to the National Poisons Centre had increased along with visits to emergency departments by patients suffering adverse effects from the drugs.

Patients were typically between the ages of 16 and 22.

Many were teenagers, with patients as young as 13 reporting that they were regular users.

Side-effects included anxiety, vomiting, chest pain and headache, as well as recent cases of kidney failure, seizures, psychosis and heart attacks, she said.

The survey authors said the much higher rates of  synthetic cannabis users seeking emergency treatment suggested those products were ''vastly more risky than natural cannabis''.

Only 0.15 per cent of cannabis users had sought out emergency treatment.

''[This] does suggest that New Zealand has chosen to regulate the more dangerous of the two forms of cannabis,'' the survey report said.

Sergeant Bevan Seal, of Chris church, said he saw a drop in synthetic cannabis-related crime when the legislation was first introduced, but now it had returned to previous levels - even with fewer outlets and fewer products on the market. 

The drugs made people aggressive and paranoid, especially younger users. 

Last week, police picked up a young woman who, while under the influence, had put her head through the back window of a police car, he said.

She had no memory of the incident when she recovered.

However, Grant Hall, of legal high industry lobby Star Trust, said an independent study it commissioned showed all forms of cannabis were low-risk.

''The general public is being continuously fed a diet of media-driven propaganda against consumers of low-risk psychoactives,'' he said.

''This discrimination needs to stop.''

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The Press