Fake dope does real harm

Vol 46, No. 5 | NZPA | Sat June 1st, 2013

Away from dramatic headlines about drugged teens, police on the ground are genuinely worried that the popularity of synthetic cannabis is becoming a serious driver of crime. Deb Stringer reports.

As with alcohol, trying to control the sale and use of a legal drug is never straightforward and synthetic cannabis has become one more factor police have to take into account on the job.

Hawke’s Bay Inspector Andy Sloan says encounters with young people high on synthetic cannabis, often bought from their corner dairies, are a regular occurrence. Users can display violent and erratic behaviour, which can put officers in dangerous situations, he says.

Burglaries and robberies committed by synthetic cannabis users were also on the rise.

In the South Island, Dunedin Police senior analyst Heather Dunne is seeing the same trend. “We have dealt with five or six burglaries in recent months where the offenders have been addicts who have on-sold stolen items to buy more synthetic cannabis.”

In an aggravated robbery in the city, two offenders raided a dairy and stole cash and up to 200 packets of synthetic cannabis.

It’s the same story for Timaru police officer Sergeant Mike Miron, who says there has been a rise in domestic incidents involving people who are “high” or “out of control” on synthetic cannabis. “It’s really hard seeing the damage this drug is doing to the community, and it’s a really difficult thing for police to manage because, at the end of the day, it’s legal.”

Meanwhile, hospital emergency rooms are coping with the physical side-effects that synthetic cannabis cause in some people, including paranoia, panic attacks, headaches and prolonged vomiting, and, in extreme cases, psychosis, kidney failure and heart conditions.

Police officers say it seems incredible that there is a substance legally available that can cause severe psychosis.

Last month the Government issued two Temporary Class Drug Notices for chemicals BB-22 and 5F-AKB48, two of the compounds found in a popular synthetic cannabis brand, K2, meaning that from May 9 it was illegal to import, manufacture, sell or supply these  substances.

Because synthetic cannabis isn’t covered under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, the Temporary Class Drug Notices are currently the only way to regulate psychoactive substances, with the total number of notices issued standing at 35 (also covering the chemicals in party pills).

Synthetic cannabis packsTo ensure dairies, along with other outlets, were adhering to the ban on K2, Police launched a nationwide crackdown the day it came into force. Officers are also continuing to urge dairy owners to stop selling any brand of synthetic cannabis (such as those pictured, left).

Associate Health Minister Peter Dunne described the ban as a blow to the trade, though he realised it was “a cat and mouse game” between the Government and the manufacturers until the Psychoactive Substances Bill becomes law in August.

Auckland K2 supplier Ben Thompson told The Press newspaper that retailers wouldn’t have to wait long for a new shipment of a reformulated product. He said it was “quite easy” to alter the product at short notice.

Come August, though, manufacturers won’t have such an easy option. The legislation, which will be a world first, will require manufacturers of legal highs to prove that any psychoactive substance is no more than “low risk” before being sold. That would involve pre-clinical and human clinical testing, with manufacturers who want to sell the substances having to cover the costs, estimated at $2 million per substance.

All approved products will have to list their ingredients, have standardised doses and provide health and safety messages, something manufacturers are not required to do now.

Supervising these processes, approving applications and monitoring any illegal importation, manufacture and sale of products will fall to a new body, the Psychoactive Substances Regulatory Authority.

Party pill advocate Matt Bowden told The New Zealand Herald he welcomed the legislation. It was something New Zealand could be proud of. “While other places around the world have used prohibition, the Government has taken back control, which is good to see.”

The Police Association also welcomes the bill, with some reservations, which it presented to the Health Select Committee last month. While it believes that placing the onus on suppliers to prove a substance is safe prior to sale is a good move, it has suggested a few amendments to the bill, including raising the purchasing age from 18 to 20, tighter restrictions around internet selling of psychoactive substances, banning online advertising and having packaging restrictions.

The Association also suggests that the Land and Transport Act 1998, section 57A, be amended to include any psychoactive substances in the definition of a “controlled drug” to cover the increasing number of drivers that police have noticed being affected by legal highs. Without this change, it is potentially legal to drive while high on a psychoactive substance.

Police Association President Greg O’Connor says it is important that the legal-high industry be regulated. However, he told the committee that police might be reluctant to enforce the new laws as the cost of testing whether a substance was banned would outweigh the maximum $500 fine. The enforcement of the regime would be bolstered by approved party pills and synthetic cannabis being labelled correctly.

Investigations by Police News on the day the BB-22 and 5F-AKB48 ban came into force found that at least one New Zealand synthetic cannabis supplier, Wicked Habits Ltd, was already selling a different version of K2 (K2 Black) in its Auckland store, although, when asked, the retailer did not know what the new K2 contained. Manufacturers of the brand subsequently decided to stop supplying the drug to New Zealand until new regulations are imposed, according to a spokesman.

Synthetic Cannabis posterMeanwhile, police are continuing their campaign against retails outlets, particularly dairies. Some businesses are responding, but with a profit margin of about 200 per cent on a $20 2.5 gram packet of synthetic cannabis there’s little incentive to change. Marlborough Police has asked local businesses to stop selling synthetic cannabis because of the number of people ending up in the hospital emergency room after using it. Social media campaigns have called for boycotts on retailers and, in some cases, have been carrying out name-and-shame campaigns.

Some dairies have voluntarily decided not to sell the product and are displaying posters that say, “We choose not to support the sale of synthetic cannabinoids”.

Above: Sergeant Andrew Judson with a poster opposing the retailing of synthetic cannabis. Image: Christchurch Star.

What is synthetic cannabis?

In the mid-1980s, scientists in the United States, led by organic chemist John William Huffman, started creating synthetic cannabinoid compounds for use in developing medical therapies. Over the next 20 years, the team made 450 synthetic cannabinoid compounds to assist with research into multiple sclerosis, Aids and the use of chemotherapy.

Cannabinoids include THC – the active ingredient in cannabis – but also other substances that interact with receptors in the brain and play a role in regulating appetite, nausea, mood, pain and inflammation. The synthetic compounds were widely discussed in scientific publications over the years and Emeritus Professor Huffman told media recently that ''evidently some people have figured out how to make them and are putting them in products''. In the late 2000s, two of the compounds were first marketed in Germany, under the names K2 and Spice, as alternatives to marijuana.

The professor warned that the compounds were not meant for human consumption and ''absolutely should not be used as recreational drugs''. ''Their effects in humans have not been studied and they could very well have toxic effects. We simply don’t know what the health effects might be.”

Sources: Wikipedia; Otago Daily Times

Gone to pot

As New Zealand grapples with the problem of so-called legal highs, some police forces in the United States are finding out what it’s like to live with legalised marijuana.

At the end of last year, the states of Colorado and Washington passed new laws that give limited legal status to some use and cultivation of cannabis.

In Colorado, Amendment 64 allows “personal use and regulation of marijuana” for people aged over 21. That includes being allowed to grow up to six cannabis plants, as long as they are in a locked space, and being allowed to possess up to one ounce (28 grams) of marijuana and to give up to one ounce to other people aged over 21. Smoking the drug in public is banned.

The sale and distribution of marijuana are being assessed by state authorities with a regulatory framework due to be set out in July. It could include setting up shops or cafes to sell marijuana, as is done legally in Amsterdam.

In Washington, Measure No 502 allows for legal possession of up to one ounce of marijuana for people aged over 21. Cannabis enthusiasts in Washington will not be able to grow their own plants unless they have medical authorisation. Washington is also considering provisions for the legal sale and cultivation of the drug. The legislation in both states is in direct conflict with federal laws that prohibit the selling of marijuana. Potentially, the “Feds” could pull rank and shut down retail outlets.

Captain Frank Gale, national second vice-president of the Fraternal Order of Police, told Police News that state police had been forced to rethink their actions on marijuana, but there were still laws to be enforced. Legalisation was expected to drive the price per ounce down enough to price out existing gangs and cartels, the source of most criminal behaviour. However, he said, the combined state and local sales taxes might be as high as 40 per cent on each sale. “If gangs can beat that price, the problem could grow for enforcement.”

Colorado’s law enforcement agencies were part of the task force that made recommendations on Amendment 64. Captain Gale said one of their suggestions was the requirement that the recreational marijuana industry be vertically integrated (as the existing medical marijuana industry is), with the aim of controlling the raw material at source, rather than opening it up to competing companies. The marijuana lobby favours horizontal integration.

Opponents of the new law, such as Colorado group No On 64, have said the amendment would lead to more deaths on the road because more people would be driving under the influence of marijuana. Captain Gale said police were also worried that legal recreational use of cannabis would become a road safety issue. Police are supporting legislation to establish a standard of no more than “five nanograms” of THC per litre of blood (one nanogram is the equivalent of 0.001 micrograms).

On the other side of the debate, entrepreneurs have been organising tours to cash in on an expected surge of recreational cannabis users travelling to Denver (Colorado) and Seattle (Washington), and established medical marijuana companies are considering their marketing options.

The promise of millions of dollars in tax revenue from such sales, some of which could fund health and education projects, was promoted as a major benefit of the law changes. But the Bloomberg Businessweek website has reported that figuring out the tax benefits of marijuana sales is tricky and estimates have ranged wildly: in Colorado, from US$5 million to US$60m. It also noted that a Colorado think tank found that when the costs of enforcing the  new laws were taken into account, legalising marijuana wouldn’t even pay for itself.

Bloomberg Businessweek reporter Elizabeth Dwoskin wrote that because the drug had never been legal before, putting marijuana on the market involved a lot of guesswork. “Researchers have had to ballpark the number of future customers, the quantities they will  buy and whether their buying patterns will change over time after what they call the ‘wow factor’ wears off.”

State agencies would have to hire inspectors to enforce scores of rules governing  dispensaries, from placement of video cameras to keeping track of inventories. “This enforcement won’t come cheap, which means, oddly enough, that states looking for tax revenue… are counting on people to smoke – or at least buy – a whole lot of pot.”

Now that it’s legal to use the drug recreationally, will officers be taking up the habit?

Captain Gale said the law change would have no impact on existing bans on officers using marijuana when off duty. Although it would be the decision of each agency, he did not expect any would allow off-duty use. “Prohibitions such as this are legal and if drug testing or other evidence shows an employee to have used marijuana, they would be subject to discipline and most likely loss of employment,” he said. – Ellen Brook

Sources: dailymail.co.uk; washingtontimes.com; businessweek.com; guardian.co.uk


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