Double standards on drugs

02:18, May 12 2014
Paul O’Regan
DRUG STORES: But are the right drugs being targetted?

It is before 9am on a work day and outside the shop where customers seek their fix, there are already some bleary-eyed characters waiting for the sliding doors on the concrete bunker building to open.

Neighbouring retailers on the town's main street complain that shifty-looking people can be seeing exiting the store at all hours, often consuming the product they have just bought. They can be aggressive and threatening to others in the area, and litter the streets with discarded packaging.

Hospital emergency room staff report that addicts clog their facility, and in the throes of their dependency can exhibit psychotic and dangerous behaviour.

A neighbouring business owner said customers and staff had been subjected to verbal abuse from users. It was a hindrance to business and shoppers as the store attracted some questionable characters and antics.

Other main street business owners reported seeing fights, children left in the cars as parents went to get their fix, and verbal abuse, he said.

The businessman said it upset the atmosphere of the area and other business owners he had talked to were frustrated and looking at moving out of the area.


He had called the police numerous times because of disturbances, rude behaviour and language, particularly in the mornings when the shop opened. The situation had improved, with police starting to patrol the area in the mornings.

Moving his business was an option he was considering, rather than dealing with the carnage on the street.

He said it gave the city a bad look. "I am not happy," he said.

Here at the Nelson Mail we've embarked on a campaign to highlight the harm done by this legal product, and that is why we've published front page photos of people walking into the legal establishment. It is not only to stigmatise them for behaviour that some in the community disapprove of, but to document the extent of this pernicious scourge to society. We are responding to outrage from the community over the availability of this harmful product, and perhaps hard-hitting coverage can convince the Government to take action.

Here comes a customer leaving now: Click. Click. See? They are holding the legal drug in full view, with no shame: A slab of two dozen DB.

Substitute "legal highs" into the story above and it is almost a duplicate of recent coverage. I copied most of the above paragraphs directly from the Mail's front page story of April 26, which was accompanied by a photo, from behind, of a man entering Gizmos, which sold legal highs before they were banned this week (but also, it should be noted, jewellery, clothes and other markers of what it calls "alternative hardcore" culture).

But it was not just the Nelson Mail. Similar stories ran in media all across the country, highlighting our extraordinary double standards when it comes to drugs.

I believe synthetic cannabis is a harmful product. And let's call it what it is, because the term "legal highs" manages to be both inflammatory (oh no, the kids are getting high) and mundane (sugar is also a legal high).

I've never smoked it but I trust the NZ Drug Foundation, which says common reported effects include a similar effect to smoking cannabis - relaxation, euphoria, disconnection from thoughts, feelings, memories and sense of identity, and lowering of inhibitions.

Adverse effects include rapid heart rate, hypertension, rapid breathing, abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, chest pain, heart palpitations, severe paranoia, hallucinations, delayed reaction time, dry mouth, racing thoughts, seizures, tremors, hallucinations, and psychosis, sometimes lasting for several days.

Synthetic cannabis is manufactured to mimic the effects of THC in cannabis, and to look like dried cannabis. Were cannabis not illegal, there would be no demand for synthetic cannabis, which has far more dangerous adverse effects than the plant itself.

Again, drawing on the expertise of the Drug Foundation, the effects of cannabis use include relaxation and loss of inhibition, increased appetite, altered sensory perception, loss of coordination, impaired thinking and memory, talkativeness, drowsiness, decreased nausea, dryness of eyes, mouth and throat, and red or bloodshot eyes. Greater quantities of cannabis can cause unpleasant effects including confusion, mild hallucinations, paranoia, impaired coordination, restlessness and depression.

Our moral panic over synthetic cannabis seems to be based on judgments about people seeking out a product that alters their consciousness.

Given that such an impulse has been present throughout human history and in every culture, I find it hard to imagine that we will ever suppress such a deep-seated human desire.

And so our approach should be on reducing the harm from drugs. Regulating them, researching them and educating people about their effects will be more effective ways of reducing harm than stigmatising them, suppressing them and forcing them underground.

The recently overturned law on psychoactive substances was, according to Doug Bell, the executive director of the Drug Foundation, a "very thoughtful law" that was created after examining the previous 10 years of failed attempts to suppress synthetic cannabis. It attempted to protect the safety of people who chose to use such drugs, and now the Government's reversal on synthetic cannabis will create a black market of unregulated products that are more dangerous.

Were cannabis to be decriminalised (and the form that might take is a whole other debate), there would be no demand for synthetic cannabis. Decriminalisation would also wipe out the black-market profits which lead to most of the ancillary harm and offending associated with the cannabis market. Simply stated, were cannabis something that cancer sufferers could grow in their backyard rather than having to go to gang-controlled tinnie houses to buy, we would be a safer, saner, healthier society.

The police and justice resources we devote to enforcing the criminality of the cannabis plant could be redirected to the harm reduction of what every police officer in New Zealand would tell you is the country's most harmful drug: alcohol.

Half of all serious violent crime in the country is related to it; more than 300 alcohol-related offences are committed every day, drink driving kills more 100 people a year, and between 600 and 1000 people die every year from alcohol related causes.

And yet we glorify alcohol. It is central to our sporting codes, otherwise-respectable Kiwis think nothing of drinking to excess as their main form of socialisation, one in six adults has a potentially hazardous drinking pattern according to the Ministry of Health, and harmful alcohol use costs the country about $5 billion a year.

So, where do you think our lens should be trained?

The Nelson Mail