Synthetic highs 'legal but dangerous'
Already battling a monster, police Sergeant Terry Johnson fears he may soon have to face a more dangerous beast.
For the last three years the New Plymouth police officer has often been the face of the community's fight against synthetic cannabis and legal highs.
It was he who provided the energy to get it out of all but the most obstinate Taranaki dairies before new laws forced it off their shelves and he has tirelessly worked to stop the flow of the legal drugs into the hands of children.
But now, with just five licensed sellers in Taranaki left and community pressure building to marginalise and close even those, he wonders if the battle should be settled with a truce.
"The laws around it have to reflect what the community wants. But we have to be a little bit careful that if we drive it underground, we don't end up with a bigger monster," he says.
While he agrees a total ban may take the temptation away from a certain segment of society who do not want to do anything illegal, at the same time a ban would drive the industry underground into the unregulated hands of criminal gangs. A ban, he says, would also drive up the price of a substance known to be dangerously addictive.
"It's not too much of an extrapolation from that to say some users will get that money through crime," Johnson says.
He knows synthetic cannabis is a menace to society. Even its sellers and countless users know that when smoked in excess, legal highs can be very bad news. More and more of those who abuse it wind up in court, the hospital emergency wards or in the mental health system as their lives spiral out of control.
"There is no debate we don't want it but there are a lot of people that can throw the same argument at other legal substances. Alcohol is still the biggest cause of harm in our community," Johnson says.
These are facts that can be relied on: Between 1 October 2012 and 31 January 2014 there were 102 adult referrals for synthetic cannabis to the Taranaki District Health Board's Drug and Alcohol Service. Over the same period 301 adults were referred for problems stemming from "organic" cannabis and 774 for alcohol.
These numbers would seem to be backed up by the 5731 New Zealanders who completed the 2014 Global Drug Survey. Of those, 6.8 per cent had used synthetic cannabis in the last 12 months, 33.5 per cent had used organic cannabis and 91 per cent had used alcohol.
But in that same survey just under one per cent said their use of alcohol had resulted in them ending up at the hospital emergency ward. It was down to 0.15 per cent for "organic" cannabis while for synthetic cannabis users that figure was four per cent.
Synthetic cannabis users may be fewer but their habit is more likely to put them in hospital. This single fact alone has the often toxic right wing blogger Cameron Slater calling for the legalisation of cannabis, simply because it's less costly to society than the legal alternative.
But such figures push New Plymouth Mayor Andrew Judd to a different approach.
Like the Taranaki medical officer of health Jonathan Jarman, he wants synthetic cannabis banned because of the harm they do. They are not alone. All around the country communities are putting pressure on the retailers of legal highs to get out of town.
Judd knows he can't force that yet, but on May 6, New Plymouth district councillors will debate their Local Approved Products Policy that will determine where legal highs such as synthetic cannabis can be sold. It is a given Judd will call the government's Psychoactive Substances Act 2013, which seeks to regulate the legal high market rather than prohibit it, a cop out for not banning the substances.
On a local politics level, at least, opposition to the act is a no brainer. The tide of popular opinion is strongly against legal highs, which have been the subject of more news stories in the last few years than any other substance people use to get out of it.
A study out of Australia's Curtin University said media coverage there helped increase awareness of banned products and helped create a widespread "moral panic" about synthetic cannabis. How could it not? Almost all stories of the substance are terrifying.
There are the users spitting up blood, others suffering kidney failure and those who "lose the plot" while using. Then there are those who are throwing their life away, ditching school and begging on the streets to support their habit.
How representative such incidents are of all users is nearly impossible to tell. A request last week by this paper to speak to users in person about their experiences was not short of volunteers. as long as their identity was not revealed.
A New Plymouth mother of three said while in the grip of an addiction to synthetic cannabis K2, she would have been willing to give up her kids if it would allow her to keep smoking. One year on, she still wakes in panic at the person she became.
Another user said he switched to K2 after 17 years of smoking cannabis and within days was an out-of-control addict.
"I've abused my body over the years but I have always had control of my mind. But this stuff, it's portrayed as being synthetic cannabis, but it has the same effect as LSD."
The product that caused those problems was withdrawn voluntarily by licensed sellers last year and is no longer legally available. But products that are advertised as having the same effects as K2 are still on the shelves. And if you know where to go, K2 is just one of the many brands allegedly still for sale at "tinny houses" in New Plymouth.
"They come in here asking where the tinny houses are all the time," said the manager of a New Plymouth store licensed to sell legal highs who spoke to the Daily News on the condition they were not identified.
They say the problems with legal highs started when they became available in dairies and fell into the hands of children. As the government scrambled to ban products hitting the headlines, manufactures scrambled to make new products that were not covered by legislation. That legal scoot-around kept synthetic cannabis on the shelves but it also left everyone in the dark about their potential harms.
"It might be a coincidence but that's when it got bad," the seller says.
"At this stage it is up there with cigarettes and alcohol. If you ask me, it's less harmful than alcohol. They smoke it and generally mellow out.
"You will always get the odd person that reacts differently but I have never heard the horror stories reported in the media from my customers."
But the horror stories do exist and unfortunately the problems synthetic drugs cause are not replacing those already created by alcohol or illegal drugs such as cannabis. Rather they are making things worse, says Child Youth and Family Taranaki site manager Francis Farmer.
"What we are dealing with is a substance that makes people aggressive and often violent. And it's highly addictive.
"The harm synthetics are creating is similar to drugs and alcohol. Some of the behaviour might be a bit different but the harm is often the same." "
Though unable to put a number on exactly how many families have had issues with synthetics, she acknowledges CYF only saw the tip of the iceberg.
"We deal with the ones people notice. The ones where the impact is more visible," she says.
Anecdotally one of the main reasons for people using synthetic cannabis is so that their drug use goes unnoticed in a way it would not if they smoked their often preferred "organic" cannabis.
Not only is synthetic cannabis legal, it is often not tested for by employers says Bruce Jackson of Maori health provider Tui Ora.
In 2013 the New Zealand Drug Detection Agency carried out 81,410 urine tests for illegal drugs. Of these 5.5 per cent found traces of drugs, with 71.4 per cent of non-negative results being for cannabis.
By comparison, for the same period NZDDA carried out just 12,760 synthetic cannabis tests, even though it is widely acknowledged as often being stronger than "organic" cannabis. Of those tests 3.3 per cent returned non-negative.
The long term mental and physical health impact of using synthetic highs, often as a substitute for illegal highs, has been described as a ticking time bomb by Dr Leo Schep of the National Poisons Centre and Jackson agrees users could face years of problems.
"In terms of toxicity, it's hard to know its impact. Some people will be bulletproof and others will become extremely unwell as a result of usage, whether it's singular or ongoing," he says.
"We do not have any information at this stage that informs us about the long term outcome or harm of synthetic cannabis on a person's mental or emotional well being."
That lack of hard facts and peer reviewed research has created a vacuum often filled with the most extreme outcomes, much to the frustration of the retailers of the synthetic products who are consequently wary of talking to the media for fear the agenda, the moral panic, has already been set against them.
Two retailers approached by the Daily News for this article would not talk directly but one did respond through Angela McInerney, research manager of The Star Trust, an advocacy group for drug policy reform.
New Plymouth online retailer Nic Cairns says he has no moral problem with selling the synthetic cannabis products, but that is not to say he is happy about it.
"It is deeply frustrating being limited to synthetic cannabinoids when safer organic cannabis is prohibited. In a few years when cannabis is legalised, synthetic cannabinoids will disappear. Until that time, the only way we can meet the licence costs is by selling the products currently approved under the psychoactive substances act," he said through McInerney.
Cairns is wary of prohibition and says 99 per cent of customers find synthetic cannabis a pleasant experience anyway.
"While there will always be some teething problems while society adjusts to a regulated market, I strongly believe the positives far out weigh the negatives and that things will only get better as common sense slowly prevails."
LEGAL HIGHS EXPLAINED
Under the Psychoactive Substances Act 2013, legal highs, including synthetic cannabis, can be granted interim licences to be sold if they pose "no more than a low risk of harm" to the consumer.
There are currently 42 products with interim licences. Eleven products have had interim approvals either refused or revoked.
Many of these products are expected to be gone by mid 2015 when strict and expensive regulatory requirements for legal high products come into force. It is not known how many products will be licensed by 2015. Estimates range from two to 10.
Under the Act councils cannot ban legal high retailers from their area but they can develop a Local Approved Products Policy. Effectively this will be used to determine where legal highs can be sold.
New Plymouth District Council is developing theirs in conjunction with Stratford District Council. South Taranaki is developing their own.
Both the government and drug policy reform lobbyists The Star Trust think the legislation is "world class".
It doesn't ban particular chemicals or products. Instead it puts the onus on manufacturers to prove their products will pose "no more than a low risk of harm" to consumers, thereby closing a loophole that in the past allowed them to "tweak" the chemical composition of a product to get around bans.
Make no mistake, this act is seen as a "liberal" approach to drug control. It will be under the international microscope.
MODERATE USE: Fast and irregular heartbeat, relaxation, euphoria, rapid pulse rate, heavy chest, racing thoughts and racing mind, delayed reaction time, dizziness, anxiety, paranoia
SOURCE: LEGAL HIGHS NZ
HEAVY USE: Rapid heart rate, hypertension, rapid breathing, abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, chest pain, heart palpitations, severe paranoia, worrying about dying or thoughts like "am I going to die?", tremors, seizures, hallucinations, disconnection from reality, psychosis, in some cases lasting for several days.
Taranaki Daily News