Hard News by Russell Brown


Something we ignore at our peril

Six months ago, I published a post based on information I had been given by ESR that began:

Synthetic cannabinoids are being prepared and sold on the New Zealand black market, more than a year after they were banned from public sale by an amendment to the Psychoactive Substances Act. And a report provided to me by ESR shows they are not leftovers from the old regime, but largely new chemicals.

The sole regret I have about that post is that it brought down some grief on people who spoke to me in good faith. What was true then is true now: removing synthetic cannabinoids from regulated sale did not prevent their import, manufacture, sale or consumption, it merely drove them underground.

So I was pleased to see this excellent report by Michael Morrah on the same issue, for TV3's 3D. My post was just something that didn't fit in with another story I was researching. This is a well-handled, accurate and wide-ranging report into exactly what's going on. And what's going on is a textbook case of what happens when a formerly legal product is handed to the black market.

Morrah presents evidence that not only are synthetic cannabinoids (yes, I know, they're more properly referred to as cannabinomimetics but thats a long word) being imported and prepared for sale, they are being manufactured here through dubious processes. And where they can't be easily manufactured, dealers are soaking mixed herbs in fly spray and selling that. It is, according to a couple of his sources, bigger than P.

The two black-market samples taken for testing by ESR contained, respectively, 5f-PB-22 and AB-FUBINACA. What Morrah's story doesn't say is that both have been legally sold in New Zealand. Products containing the former were revoked both before the amendent to the Psychoactive Substances Act, and when that amendment took all synthetic cannabinoids off the market in May 2014. I noted in a post leading up to the amendment that AB-FUBINACA products had been identified as a problem by users. 

Would it have been better if the synthetic cannabinoids had never been available? Well, yeah. I think they were poor candidates for regulation and that the Psychoactive Substances Act would have fared better had they not been the test case. But we didn't have that choice.

Synthetic cannabis products had been available for years in shops and New Zealanders were buying them in significant quantities. The progressive banning of earlier products had the paradoxical effect of ushering in more harmful and less well-understood substitutes. AB-FUBINACA was a very late entry to the market.

But even then, for all the failures in execution of the Psychoactive Substances Act, we had some control over dosage and purity. Now, it's in the hands of criminals. Morrah's story suggests that dosage has increased. That's bad. His two former dealers talked about the whites of their eyes turning yellow from use – which indicates liver damage. The story hinted that medical presentations have shifted from psychological distress to acute emergency.

So why aren't we seeing the same headline-grabbing problems as we did during the PSA's interim regime? Probably because it's off the high street and therefore out of mind. Some of the people who were buying because it was legal have stopped. The balance of usage has shifted to kids in suburbs and towns we never hear about in the news.

In that sense, it's probably similar to methamphetamine, which became much less of a story when advertising executives and property investors stopped using it, even as it took off in poor, brown communities. And perhaps the push back against these drugs will, similarly, come at a community level.

It's important to remember that these drugs entered the market as legal substitutes for natural cannabis. That's a textbook prohibition story: the thing you ban or chase out will give way to something worse. Whether simply legalising cannabis now would entirely drive out these drugs is less certain. The hard stuff is probably here for good. The drug environment is a hell of a lot more complicated, and dangerous, than it was when I was 20.

But what we can't do is pretend there isn't a problem. I have, as ever, some sympathy for Peter Dunne – he is now being pilloried for both introducing the Psychoactive Substances Act and for the National Party amendment that has for the time being rendered it almost inoperable. I presume he hadn't actually seen the 3D report when he sent back the comment that cannabis was a much greater health problem for New Zealanders than the synthetics. Because I think the evidence is now that something pretty bad is going on. Something we ignore at our peril.

PS: That was a very important report from a programme about to be shitcanned by TV3's management. We might want to think about that too.

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