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afterthesmokehascleared
May 4, 2014 | by  | in Features Homepage |
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After the Smoke has Cleared

The story of Jesse Murray was first reported in The Press in early April. Jesse had started smoking synthetic cannabis when he was 14 to cope with a family trauma, but he was soon hooked on the stuff. By the time he was 17, just three years later, Jesse was on the streets, stealing video games and begging from strangers just to scrape together enough to sustain his habit.

The next week, Jesse’s story was picked up by Campbell Live. In one segment of what became a fortnight of extended coverage on the subject, Jesse’s mum told the 7 pm faithful of her horror at seeing her son struggle through withdrawal: she watched him curled foetally on the floor in a pool of his own vomit and blood, convulsing and crying in pain. He was trying to quit, but, without synthetics, he couldn’t eat. Without eating, he had lost a third of his body weight in a matter of weeks. Without synthetics, he thought he was going to die.

We soon learned there were other stories like Jesse’s. In The New Zealand Herald we heard of Rose, a 17-year-old from Auckland who tried synthetics just for fun but quickly became addicted. Her personality changed, she said, and she started to suffer panic attacks. $1000 her dad loaned her disappeared in a puff of smoke. She lost her job, her friends, and much of her body weight. It was not until she was told by her doctor that she was developing psychosis – she was literally losing touch with reality – that she decided to quit. And it wasn’t just the kids. The Herald profiled 34-year-old Waikato dairy farmer Scott, a seasoned cannabis user, who became addicted to synthetics in a way that had never happened with its organic cousin. Paranoid, he began watching his girlfriend’s house for two hours a night, believing her to be cheating on him. He also thought his cows were out to kill him.

Jesse, Rose and Scott are three of a growing legion of faces of a frenzied moral panic engulfing New Zealand, a panic evident in the headlines describing lives devastated by addiction that have filled newspapers from The Southland Times to The Nelson Mail to the Western Leader. Synthetic cannabis is, this month, the acid corroding the moral fabric of our nation.

The story we heard over and over again was, at its heart, the same. A casual experiment turns into an addiction that can’t be broken. An initial buzz fades to numbness, an emotional void. Money gone. Broken families. Good kids wasting away. All of these, real stories of anguish – anguish that, channelled into protest placards and vitriolic editorials, demanded that something needed to be done.

It was as if nothing had been done.

But something had been done. We had heard this story before.

***

The first we heard about synthetic cannabis was in mid-2010 – at the bottom of an article in The New Zealand Herald about Whangarei teens turning up to school wasted on party pills. Although they had been on the market for nearly a decade by this point, it was not until the nation’s paternal instinct had finally disengaged from the teens-on-party-pills frenzy that the media noticed that something known as ‘synthetic marijuana’ was being sold in convenience stores, petrol stations and novelty shops across the country. It was a big seller among teens – a bigger seller even than party pills. But these were early days: what was this stuff?

When synthetics first entered the market in the early 2000s as ‘Spice’, it was commonly believed its psychoactive effect was achieved simply through a mixture of legal herbs. But it soon emerged that it wasn’t the herbs that were the active part – it was lab-made chemical compounds with names like HU-210, AM-2201 and cannabicyclohexanol that are sprayed onto the herbs. These compounds mimic the effect of the compounds found in natural cannabis like THC, inducing in the user relaxation, a sensory dissociation, and a mild euphoria.

But clinically designed synthesised compounds bind much more strongly to the brain’s THC receptors than ordinary THC, making the effects less predictable, more powerful and often more dangerous. Hence: extreme anxiety, paranoia, and hallucinations. And these adverse effects happen a whole lot more often than with ordinary cannabis: as this year’s Global Drugs Survey showed, nearly four per cent of synthetic-cannabis users sought emergency medical treatment, compared to 0.13 per cent for ordinary cannabis users. But these statistics are recent – when Spice first appeared, little was known about it, little other than that it was a new and novel way to get high.

Much of the early coverage was in rural papers. The Southland Times reported on Invercargill teens getting stoned off ‘Kronic’ bought from convenience stores. The Northern Advocate reported on a Northland mum whose 14-year-old son had become addicted to ‘Dream’. The Otago Daily Times located the drug’s accidental inventor, John Huffman, an American emeritus professor who had developed the compounds in the ‘90s as a replacement for medical marijuana. His advice was blunt: “stop smoking these products.”

But demand was growing. Kids were buying the stuff because it didn’t show up on tests for cannabis and, most importantly of all, it was, unlike ordinary cannabis, legal. The law surrounding designer drugs was a free-for-all – until a specific drug was listed as a classified substance under the Misuse of Drugs Act, it was legal and unregulated. Synthetics could legally be sold anywhere and to anyone. In fact, they were being sold in over 4000 outlets nationwide in over 100 varieties.

By 2013, with the national well of moral panic flowing freely, synthetics were public enemy number one and the media was plumbing new depths. Seemingly unaware of comments made by Matthew Wielenga, the Auckland-based manufacturer of Kronic, which attributed the growth in demand to the media’s coverage of the issue (“Every time someone does a story we just get bigger and bigger. We have had literally millions in free marketing.”), Radio Live’s Duncan Garner got high on national television. His purpose was the same as that of Campbell Live’s Tristram Clayton, who had done exactly the same thing in 2011: to show not only that it’s hard to appear on national television while stoned and surrounded by cameras, but that something needed to be done.

The Government had tried to deal with the problem as far back as 2011, implementing a ban on all known synthetic cannabis products like they had with party pills half a decade earlier. But the industry, knowing this was coming, simply returned to the lab and tweaked the formula. ‘K2’ and ‘Kronic’ were gone, but within days, ‘Juicy Puff’ and ‘Tai High’ were on the shelves.

When 2013 rolled around and public outrage reached a crescendo, Associate Minister of Health Peter Dunne stepped forward with a bold new plan. Dunne had realised that the previous ban-and-wait approach wasn’t working. Not only was it simply creating a game of cat-and-mouse between government and manufacturers, but overseas experience had shown that total prohibitions simply pushed the market underground, changing nothing.

“The pressure on us was to do something lasting,” Dunne told Salient, “I talked to similar ministers in other countries and they were all expressing a similar frustration. So we got the idea of saying well, why don’t we turn the game on its head? Why don’t we say, you prove your products are ‘low risk’, then you can sell your products. And the standard that we’ll use is something equivalent to the test you have when you want to bring new medicines to the market.”

The result was the Psychoactive Substances Bill. It did several things: it implemented an age restriction on purchase and possession; it established that only products proven to be “low risk” could be sold; and it gave local councils a broad discretion to regulate where it could be sold. Until a proper testing regime could be established, interim licences were granted to all products on the market which had not been associated with adverse effects. In July 2013, the Bill was passed with a majority of 119–1, and the Wild West was replaced with a regulated but government-certified market.

The impact was immediate: the number of outlets dropped by 95 per cent, the number of products by two-thirds, and the National Poisons Centre reported that fewer people were presenting themselves with difficulties. Dunne’s bold response seemed to be working.

***

Then came April.

We met Jesse, Rose and Scott. We saw images, broadcast on Campbell Live, of addicts lining up outside adult shops in Papakura and Naenae at nine in the morning. We saw protesters take to the streets across the country from Whangarei to Dunedin demanding action. Despite the Psychoactive Substances Act – a manifestly reasoned attempt to control the problem but avoid the adverse effects of total prohibition – people seemed, in the words of Dunne himself, “more agitated than ever.”

Could people simply not see that the law was working? Dunne claimed that the media had blown the issue out of proportion. The success of the regime in reducing the number of retailers by 95 per cent meant that the harms were more concentrated and therefore more visible. One adult shop selling synthetics to 50 customers in a line is more visible than 50 convenience stores each selling synthetics to one customer.

But this is little consolation to those – like Jesse Murray and his family– still suffering first-hand the harms of synthetics. That things are better doesn’t mean that they are fixed. The regime was meant to restrict sale to “low risk” products, yet dozens of the products that seemed to have been long a part of the problem were still being sold under interim licences. People were still addicted. Kids were still getting high.

“Our decision to let the 43 products on the market stay on the shelves for three months was a pragmatic decision,” Dunne told Salient, “no adverse effects had been associated with them to that point. At the time it was 50. We have since had problems associated with nine of them and they have been withdrawn.”

What, then, did people want? Calvin Hooper, a farmer from Blackhead, summed it up nicely to The Herald: “I want every single crumb of it removed off the market and nothing to replace it.”

The problem was that it wasn’t just about the Jesses of New Zealand and their moving and well-articulated personal stories we could empathise with and understand. It was also about a man in Naenae captured briefly on Campbell Live, swaying by a playground at 9 am, unshaven and dishevelled, with a joint of synthetic cannabis in one hand and a bottle of vodka in the other. It was as though we felt that if we just banned synthetics we could make not just the joint disappear, but the whole ugly scene. We wanted to wave the magic wand and make it all go away.

But no matter how hard we may wish, this is reality, and in reality, magic amounts to little more than wishful thinking. There are some things laws cannot change. Certain things remain constant. People still want to get high. Dunne to Salient: “Would I go back to a ban? No. Because we would go right back to where we were.” That was Wednesday two weeks ago. The following Sunday, the Government announced that all synthetic cannabinoids being sold under interim licences would be banned until the new testing regime comes into force. Until they can be proven “low risk”, all synthetics are off the market as of next Monday.

Just like magic.

We care about Jesse, Rose and Scott, but reality also includes those unfit for in-depth profiles, those that made up the lines outside the adult stores in Naenae and Papakura. Despite appearances, these people wanted exactly the same thing those watching Campbell Live sought from their evening glass of wine: a little bit of relief. But they waited outside adult shops the midnight before Good Friday because they, well aware of the pain of withdrawal, dreaded the long weekend. Welcome now to a very long weekend.

_________

Minister Dunne offers the following advice for people who are dependent on synthetics and want to stop:

  • Where to get help: If you’d like confidential advice and support to get help for yourself or someone you know, there are a range of free services, including the Alcohol Drug Helpline (0800 787 797). There is also a comprehensive range of treatment providers and support services (by region) through the Addictions Treatment Directory ( www.addictionshelp.org.nz).

  • The Ministry’s website has health information on synthetic cannabinoids, including symptoms and getting help, at: http://www.health.govt.nz/your-health/healthy-living/addictions/alcohol-and-drugs/synthetic-cannabinoids.

  • DrugHelp ( www.drughelp.org.nz) is a website for people who are concerned about how drugs are affecting their lives – whether it’s because of their own use or because someone close to them has a problem. It includes information on drug-treatment options, including support groups, residential treatment, intensive outpatient programmes, one-on-one counselling and drug-treatment units, as well as support for family and Kaupapa Māori.

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About the Author ()

Ollie served dutifully alongside Asher Emanuel as Co-editor of Salient throughout the tumult of 2012. He has contributed to Salient since 2011 and intends to do so for the rest of his waking life.

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