Hard News by Russell Brown


How harm happens

During the election campaign, I was working on a feature looking at how New Zealand arrived at a synthetic cannabinoid crisis that had seemed to come out of nowhere – and what I was finding was making me angry.

The story is the cover feature of the new issue of the New Zealand Drug Foundation magazine, Matters of Substance, and you can read it here.

The harsh truth is that the crisis did not come out of nowhere. It was developing even before the 2014 amendment to the Psychoactive Substances Act took all synthetic cannabinoid products off retail shelves. And for a range of reasons, almost no one saw it happening or, in some cases, did not wish to see.

Former Associate Health minister Peter Dunne traced the story back to the previous general election campaign, in 2014, when the headlines were jammed with alarming reports about the consequences of legal sales of some synthetic cannabinoid products under the Psychoactive Substances Act. These products had been sold for years before, but a radical cut in the number of outlets had focused media attention on the stores that made the regulatory cut under the Act, and on the dependent users who were experiencing real problems.

The National government, says Dunne, simply wanted to get the issue out of the headines and raced to amend the Act to foreclose its interim regulatory period and ban all sales. After that, the government wasn't interested.

“There was a certain dishonesty there," Dunne told me.

Paula Bold-Wilson, who led a campaign to get synthetics off the shelves, saw the same thing:

“At the time we were campaigning, we were trying to raise awareness of how many people were still extremely sick afterwards and that actually the government had a responsibility to tidy up the mess of those who’d become addicted through those products being legal in our community. But they left the community to tidy up the mess really.”

I don't hold Dunne entirely blameless here. In 2015, working on a different story, I spoke to two ESR scientists who told me that not only were they still receiving synthetic cannabinoid samples from Police and Customs for testing, there were "significantly more" of them and most were new substances that had never been sold in stores.

Dunne continued to insist that his advice was that there was only a "comparatively small" market in synthetics, trading in products stockpiled from the old legal regime. I sensed that the scientists copped some heat for saying otherwise. But they were right.

And ESR was right again this year, when its Forensic Chemistry Manager Kevan Walsh dispelled a lot of damaging Police blather about adulterants and mystery ingredients and pointed out that its testing of Police samples had consistently revealed a particular chemical: AMB-FUBINACA.

This chemical has been associated with "zombie outbreaks" in several countries in the past two years – but in New Zealand, the dosing in black-market products is 10 to 30 times higher than elsewhere. That's why people have been dying. It's not fucking fly spray.

When I re-read the published story yesterday, ESR's role as an honest broker stood out all the more. Its advice came as Police and the Coroner's office were publishing information that was vague, incomplete, irrelevant – and sometimes simply wrong. Other parties who could have helped chose to say nothing – the Auckland DHB's communications office refused to let me speak to the emergency doctors who have been dealing with as many as 20 synnies patients a day.

The drug early-warning system (EWS) touted in news stories after the synnies crisis broke is a mirage. The various agencies and specialists who generate and act on drug market information don't talk to each other in any organised way. The Ministry of Health admits there is as yet no dedicated funding for an EWS.

And worse, we're in danger of knowing even less. Police funding for two long-running drug use surveys was cut off this year.

This shouldn't rely on Police budgets. We have a new government now, one which has consistently talked about drug use as a health issue, not a criminal one. Well, with more than 20 deaths and hundreds of emergency admissions in mere months, we have a public health crisis. Peter Dunne's drug policy delegation has passed to the new Minister of Health, David Clark. It's up to him to bring order and transparency to a system that does not do what we need.

The keynote of our National Drug Policy is the prevention of harm. As things stand, our systems do a poor job of that. And because of the welter of other interests in the field, sometimes the system makes the harm worse.  Drug stigma and the particularly marginalised nature of the people who use synthetics makes it worse again. We need to fix this, because it will all happen again if we don't.

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