Photo by Flickr user Ali Wade
Over the last couple of weeks, much has been written about Spice, a synthetic herbal-based substance that has reportedly resulted in a number of Russian deaths. In 2011, a synthetic cannabinoid called Kronic, made Australian headlines. It began with Western Australian miners smoking the substance to avoid detection at work and resulted in the banning of the product. This has subsequently led to an ongoing cat and mouse chase, where the government bans a substance, a chemist then alters a molecule of that substance, and a new product is legally presented on the market.
Synthetic cannabinoids and other such substances with mind-altering properties, are termed novel psychoactive substances (NPS). The 2013 National Drug Strategy Household Survey found 1.2 percent of the population, around 230,000, had used synthetic cannabinoids in the last 12 months, and 0.4 percent had used other novel psychoactive substances.
Recently a new bill has been introduced at the federal level, which could see the blanket banning of all such substances. Yet many involved in the NPS industry believe that increased legislation is redundant. They're calling for a legalised and regulated market, where licensed venues can sell labelled amounts to adults.
Nick Wallis is a social tonic researcher for the Eros Association, Australia's peak adults-only association. He explained that NPS range from synthetic cannabinoids to mephedrone to bath salts, and are produced in Asia and Europe. Although their usage has decreased over the last year, synthetic cannabinoids, which produce a similar effect to cannabis, are the most popular NPS on the Australian market. They began appearing in the mid-2000s and can often be purchased legally.
Wallis said, of media reporting on NPS: "They basically have said: Here's a drug. It's harmful. If there's one bad experience, this will be reported in the media as: Harmful Drug Hospitalises Somebody. Even though, everyday in Australia seven people die from alcohol. If we just had the same kind of reporting on alcohol, we'd have saturation."
On the issue of Russia's Spice, Wallis believes it's sensationalised and that other substances, besides synthetic cannabinoids, could quite possibly be involved. "I know in places like Russia, synthetic opioids have been sprayed onto herbal matter and used for smoking," he said.
Since the Kronic headlines of 2011, about 40 new pieces of legislation affecting NPS importation and possession have been introduced at the state and federal levels. Ray Thorpe, director of the Happy Herb Company, is speaking out about these "knee-jerk" laws at the 2014 Entheogenesis Australis conference in Melbourne in December. "These laws are so vague as to potentially include anything as strong as coffee and we really don't want to see any more safe useful herbs banned," Thorpe said. He's been active in trying to put a halt to legislation that bans medicinally helpful plant-based substances and favours pharmaceutical companies.
"A properly informed public using safe non-addictive products for medicine, recreation and nutrition," is what Thorpe envisages. "Compare this to the current reality where alcohol, tobacco and harmful chemicals are consumed on a massive scale every weekend, while criminal gangs make huge tax-free profits from illicit markets."
The latest piece of legislation, the Crimes Amendment (Psychoactive Substances and Other Measures) Bill 2014, was introduced to the lower house of federal parliament by Minister for Justice, Michael Keenan on July 17. It seeks to ban the importation of psychoactive substances that do not have a legitimate use, are not already prohibited or are presented as a legal alternative to illicit drugs. The bill is yet to go before parliament for debate.
It is written in the bill: NPS do not appear to be present in Australia on the same scale that they are in Europe. However, they have become established here, as in other Western countries, and both sides of federal politics agree that there is a need to develop a better response.
Similar reasoning to this led to the prohibition of cannabis in Australia, with the government following the lead of the United States, in complying with the 1925 Geneva Convention, even though there was no real local problem. This led to an increase in the recreational use of black market cannabis amongst young adults several decades after it was prohibited. And according to president of the Australian Sex Party, Fiona Patten, a comparable situation developed in Ireland after NPS were banned, as they now have the highest use amongst under-30s in the EU.
Patten was at a senate committee inquiry into the bill on September 2. She said traditional prohibition practices, as set out in this bill, won't work, because chemists in Asia and Europe are developing new substances every few days. "What it might do is stop some of the more careful and cautious bigger operators and you will see backyard operators coming in," she said. "The prohibition of already illicit drugs isn't working, so to think that they can prohibit drugs that they don't know what they are… or look like is ridiculous."
A regulated market, similar to the recent New Zealand model, is what Patten is calling for. The NPS products would be sold from age restricted venues in packaging clearly stating ingredients and dosage.
"If you were to tax these substances in the same way that you tax alcohol or cigarettes, then you could control them far more and they would actually prove to be a good revenue raiser for the country, which in turn could be put into community health and education," Patten added.
However a spokesperson from the Justice Minister's office told VICE that people use NPS because they are presented as "legal" and the misconception that they'd been assessed as safe. And that the bill would result in a reduction in use and no subsequent black market.
"The bill is intended to ban people from importing new, synthetic versions of known illicit drugs, and to allow the Australian Customs and Border Protection Service and Australian Federal Police officers to seize those drugs where they detect them," the spokesperson said. "These drugs are potentially very dangerous and have been connected to a number of deaths and serious health incidents across Australia and the world."
The New Zealand model is often cited as the way forward. It came into effect on July 18, 2013 after the passing of the 2013 Psychoactive Substances Act. A regulated interim marketplace was established with 150 licensed retailers selling NPS. The products were subject to recall, based on any adverse reports to the NZ Poisons Centre. During the time the marketplace ran, no deaths were reported and recorded incidents of illicit drug offences reduced by 22.7 percent. But on May 8, 2014 the NZ Parliament revoked all interim licenses, stating that NPS must be proven safe before being made legal. For now the system is on hold.
Grant Hall, managing director of the Star Trust, explained that after the regulated marketplace was closed: "It forced all of the market underground, so organised crime picked it up. It didn't stop consumer demand and interestingly enough, I had a meeting with the Ministry of Health and they assured me there wasn't a single case of addiction to NPS in New Zealand."
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