Hard News by Russell Brown


Synthetics: We need to stop calling it cannabis

There's a problem with "synthetic cannabis", and not just the one you think. It's the name.

We're in the midst of a wave of news stories that link synthetic drugs to serious harm, through deadly road accidents and accidental overdoses (which have killed more than 80 people in two years). It's a public health crisis and it's ruining lives.

It's also not cannabis. Yet the news stories almost invariably refer to "synthetic cannabis" and often, simply "cannabis" further into the text. There was a time when this kind of confusion might have seemed harmless enough. After all, when these drugs first arrived in New Zealand in 2006, they were usually sold – and bought – as a substitute for natural cannabis. The fact that, unlike cannabis, they couldn't be detected in urine tests helped make them popular.

But they are not cannabis. They're not even one drug, but an expanding array of poorly-understood chemicals, in at least seven different groups, that have just one thing in common: they act on the same two receptors in the brain and central nervous system as THC, the psychoactive cannabinoid in natural cannabis. While a few of them, chemically speaking, look a little like a cannabinoid, most – including the ones that are killing people – are nothing like THC.

For a while, it was easy enough to use "synthetic cannabis" as a handy shorthand. I did it myself, or opted for "synthetic cannabinoids" or even "cannabinmimetics", meaning substances which mimic cannabis. But none of those terms are really accurate. Not only are these drugs nothing like cannabis on a structural level, their effects on humans are very different too. They are far, far stronger – and while it's functionally impossible to fatally overdose on natural cannabis, we've seen waves of deaths when someone, somewhere in a garage sprays synthetics on leaves and gets the dose even slightly wrong.

So why is this a particular problem now? For one thing, because we're embarking on a debate ahead of a referendum on whether to legalise and regulate the use and supply of cannabis. Continuing to call a whole group of dangerous drugs "cannabis" when they assuredly are not introduces an unhelpful element of confusion.

On a more acute level – but one very much tied to the referendum debate – we have been confronted this year with news stories about several horrifying road accidents linked to synthetics use. Commentators and victims' families have called for the introduction of roadside saliva testing to prevent further such tragedies.

But here's the thing: there is currently no available saliva test that will detect synthetics. Even the fledgling systems being tried in other countries only pick up a handful of synthetic drugs from a constantly-expanding group of them. The very real risk is that over-reliance on saliva testing will nudge some cannabis users towards synthetics, much as workplace drug testing did 13 years ago. But all that context gets lost when you're using the word "cannabis" for drugs that are not cannabis.

There is a whole other conversation about whether betting everything on saliva testing is the right approach – as opposed to the existing field sobriety test, which actually measures impairment – but, again, we're not going to have that in any sensible way until we use clearer language. Because language matters and guides choices – we saw that in action when the most recent attempt at a New Zealand Drug Harm Index farcically grouped natural cannabis and synthetics together under the single heading "cannabinoids", despite acknowledging that they were actually different things. 

So, please, let's stop talking about "synthetic cannabis". Even "synthetic drugs" is technically a bit meaningless, but it helps make the distinction. Or perhaps we can simply say "synthetics" or even "synnies". They're not technical terms either – but they are New Zealand terms for a very New Zealand problem. And at least then we'll actually know what we're talking about.

This post is based on a column that was first published in the New Zealand Herald.

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