The Canterbury District Health Board is treating a couple of people a month for addiction to legal highs or synthetic cannabis.
The Kennedy Detoxification unit at Christchurch's Hillmorton Hospital, which serves all of the South Island, treats people for substance addiction, including synthetic cannabis abuse.
Addiction services clinical director Alfred Dell'ario said an average of "one to two" patients a month with an addiction to legal highs or synthetic cannabis had been seen at the detoxification unit in the past 12 months.
Additional patients being treated for an addiction to other substances had also been regular users of synthetic cannabis, he said.
Blenheim woman Anesha Stratton will be treated for synthetic cannabis addiction at the detoxification centre when she is admitted next week.
The 19-year-old smoked legal highs for less than a year before she realised in September that the habit had become an addiction while she was living in Nelson.
She said on Tuesday that she woke up at least three times a night to smoke synthetic cannabis because she woke up feeling sick and needed it to sleep.
"I'd wake up during the night with hot and cold sweats," she said. "I had to have another smoke so I could stop feeling sick."
She was not hungry when she was sober but ate when she was high, causing her to vomit every morning when she woke up.
She used her benefit money, about $210 a week, to pay her board. The rest went on AK47, a type of synthetic cannabis that has since been taken off the market.
At her worst, Stratton smoked 3 grams a day which cost $20 and gave her up to 50 hits using a bong, she said.
"The initial high only lasts 10 minutes, so you'd just sit around all day and continually smoke it."
She lost motivation for anything other than getting money to fund her habit and her weight dropped from 55 kilograms to 48kg.
By October, she was behind in her rent and was kicked out of the boarding house. She did not tell anyone about her addiction because she was ashamed, Stratton said.
Her mother, Tracie Stratton, moved to Australia in August and did not realise the extent of her daughter's addiction until she visited her in Queensland in November.
She moved back to Blenheim to get help for her daughter.
"She was rocking back and forth, just crying and rocking," she said. "She was really messed up."
Dell'ario said treatment for synthetic cannabis abuse was difficult because doctors usually had no idea what chemicals were in each product.
Some patients who were doing well after treatment had relapsed after using synthetic cannabis, he said.
"Synthetic cannabis, or legal highs, can cause serious problems and harm, both for people who have never used it before but in particular for our existing mental health clients," he said.
Patients going through withdrawal from legal highs could face insomnia, vomiting, diarrhoea, cramps, sweating, hot and cold flushes, shakes, tremors, rapid heart rate, high blood pressure, irritability and anxiety. Some patients also suffered from psychosis, he said.
Synthetic cannabis abuse has also been linked to seizures but no patients had experienced that while in the unit, he said. Detoxification at the Kennedy unit takes between seven and 10 days and is followed by treatment and rehabilitation.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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