Synthetic cannabis, to the none-the-wiser, sounds like a plant grown in a lab, or something altered at a chemical level to be a superior product.
But it’s actually dried and shredded plant matter from miscellaneous flora – anything from herbs to tea – shaped into a fake bud and sprayed with a chemical compound that contains synthetic cannabinoids. These can be structurally similar to tetrahydrocannabinol (THC, or the main psychoactive compound in cannabis) but the effect on the body is far different.
You might know it as K2, Kronic or Spice. And, whether you remember it or not, you’ve probably seen it in your local dairy.
Sam* was 14 when they first encountered synthetic cannabis. They thought it was the real deal.
“I was already smoking weed, like, every day by that point, '' Sam told VICE.
“We just went to our usual tinny house, right across the road from our school, did our usual thing and then went back to my friend's basement.”
Although Sam and their friends suspected something was up, as the buds lacked the bright green hue they were used to, they “didn't think anything of that”.
“We were just like, we've got some shit weed.”
From the first bong rip, it was obvious something wasn’t right.
“I've had bad experiences with normal weed before, quite a lot, but this was so different,” Sam said.
“We were stuck in that basement for, like, seven hours.
“My stomach just started churning and my heart just dropped because I kind of knew what was happening. Immediately my head was spinning. I couldn't really open my eyes because the world was too bright. I couldn't speak for an hour. I ended up throwing up eight times.”
Not quite what teenage hash smokers are hoping for when they light up in front of an episode of Planet Earth.
WHAT IS IT?
Synthetic cannabinoids, known scientifically as Synthetic Cannabinoid Receptor Agonists, are psychoactive substances like LSD, amphetamines and, perhaps surprisingly, alcohol. They alter the mental state, perception and consciousness of the consumer. As its name implies, it's a man made substance.
The term synthetic cannabis does get used colloquially, but the substance is not a synthetic version of the naturally-grown cannabis plant. The molecules in synthetic cannabinoids are drawn to the same receptors in the brain that THC and CBD, found in natural cannabis, are drawn to – which is where the comparison between the two products comes from. However, the effects of use can be much more intense.
A 2018 report by the New Zealand Drug Foundation that surveyed Synthetic Cannabinoid usage in Aotearoa found “very negative effects were common” in users, with almost half of the respondents having been “hospitalised and/or experienced seizures, and others experienced vomiting, psychosis, suicidal thoughts and blacking out.”
These extreme effects come in part from the unregulated potency of synthetic cannabinoids in the country. Often, the liquid substances can be sprayed and distributed unevenly on the plant matter, and the illegal importation of the ingredients incentivises producers to create smaller – and more potent – variations that are more easily transported through border control.
THE EARLY 2000s AND LEGAL SYNTHETIC CANNABINOIDS
The first commercially available synthetic cannabinoid products appeared in 2004 in Europe, being sold under the name Spice. By 2006, Spice was in Aotearoa, and in 2010 Matt Bowden – known mostly for his development and production of BZP-based Party Pills – introduced his own synthetic cannabis product, Aroma. One of New Zealand's most popular products was Kronic, created by another local, Matthew Wielengas.
Like party pills, produced and packaged synthetic cannabis was available over the counter in dairies, and the likes of Cosmic and adult entertainment stores. Due to its easy availability, Wielenga was said to be turning over $700,000 a month in sales during Kronic’s peak popularity.
The products came with an R18 warning, which legally banned its sale to anyone under 18, but underage New Zealanders had no trouble getting their hands on it.
Phoebe*, now in her twenties, told VICE that she used synthetic cannabis semi-regularly from the age of 16 as a substitute for real cannabis.
“I wouldn’t get IDed, or my brother would buy it,” she said.
Phoebe said she had mostly relaxing experiences with the drug, but the final time she purchased it ended in hospitalisation.
“I have never been so convinced I was going to die. It was horrendous.”
“Being in my body became really overwhelming and I could feel all of the synapses firing in my brain and the blood moving through my body. I was sweating and I couldn’t breathe and I started vomiting and I lost all perception of time. I couldn’t really move.”
Theo* also accessed synthetic cannabis through legal means as a teen.
“My brothers bought it and were trying to get me to do it. I was pretty anti-drugs but they were like, it's legal, it’s not even bad for you,” he said.
“I said okay, did it, and I didn’t feel anything the first time. I probably did it like three times and one of them was the best high I’ve ever had.”
However, Theo began noticing how different these experiences were from how natural cannabis had been described to him.
“One friend did it once and said she saw the devil and was hallucinating and couldn’t breathe and that’s when I was like: this isn’t like what people say weed is.”
THE 2010s AND THE NEW DRUG LAWS
As more and more problematic cases emerged, this period of legality came to an end in August 2011 when the government stepped in with the Misuse of Drugs Amendment Bill.
Synthetic cannabis products were banned for 12 months – with their use, manufacturing and sale carrying the same penalties as Class C1 drugs (such as cannabis, speed, ketamine and amyl). Those charged could face three months imprisonment or a $500 fine or both.
Forty-three previously legal products came off the shelves and the government worked on a longer-term response to synthetic cannabis's public health and social impacts. Synthetic cannabis was finally banned under a new Psychoactive Substances Act introduced in 2013.
But as with many other illegal and addictive substances, the banning of synthetic cannabinoids pushed the market underground.
“Once we shifted away from it being readily available, we still had a group that was [using] it,” Sarah Helm, Executive Director of the New Zealand Drug Foundation, told VICE.
“It's been particularly harmful to people whose lives are incredibly traumatic and have been through a lot of hardship. And so that's where we've seen the preponderance of harm.”
Helm explained that often the market responds by creating variations of the drug.
“You see people who are still quite desperate look for alternatives that can be more or less harmful,” she said.
This was proven in the case of synthetic cannabinoids, when brand new chemical compounds, such as AMB-FUBINACA, that had not been available during the legal period of synthetic cannabis, arrived on our shores.
By the mid-2010s, these variations brought synthetic cannabis to new, dangerous lows, and synthetic cannabinoid harm was declared an epidemic in 2017 when usage and fatalities spiked.
In 2018, St John Ambulance Services received up to 30 call-outs a week relating to synthetic cannabis overdoses. Between 2017 and 2019, more than 70 New Zealanders are alleged to have died in synthetic cannabinoid-related deaths. It had become the country's most deadly narcotic.
“We hadn't seen that level of overdose fatality occur here really before,” Helm said.
Recognising the correlation between synthetic cannabinoid fatality and the illegality of cannabis, 2018 also saw both major political parties propose the legalisation of medical cannabis.
But, shockingly, they failed to get public support and the 2020 New Zealand Cannabis referendum was voted down, 50.7 per cent to 48.4 per cent.
But Helm was not convinced legalising cannabis would stem the synthetic cannabis epidemic.
“I think our position on that has modified in response to who and why people use the substance. I don't think cannabis would give them the effect that they're actually looking for,” she said.
“The impacts of feeling relaxed, sleepy, dizzy, losing consciousness… That's quite different from the cannabis experience unless you've really overdone it. So by and large, I don't think that logic really applies. [Legalising cannabis] might have a positive dent on it, because it might be that some people might choose that instead. But by and large, it's not a very similar experience.”
WHERE ARE WE NOW IN THE 2020’s?
In 2023, five years after the spike in fatalities, synthetic cannabinoids remain present.
The New Zealand Drug Foundation confirmed to VICE that Aotearoa has seen up to 145 fatalities involving synthetic cannabinoids in total and, in 2021, seven New Zealanders were lost to synthetic cannabinoids, with 3 of those being to overdose.
The emergence of new variations remains a core concern of the New Zealand Drug Foundation according to Helm.
“I think one of the things that we're always increasingly concerned about is the illicit market responding to the blanket bans on substances and just continually creating new psychoactive substances,” she said.
So what else can be done?
“It's a terrible story, but it's a really important story for us to look back on. And consider what measures we need in place to prevent overdose fatalities from occurring,” Helm said.
“Improving our overdose response and improving the resilience of our community of people who have been traumatised by various horrible things in their lives, and homelessness, and mental health comorbidities. We really, really need to concentrate our effort on that.”
CHECK OUT THE FULL TIMELINE OF EVENTS BELOW:
- 2004 - The first commercially available synthetic cannabis products appear in Europe, being sold as Spice.
- 2006 - Spice enters New Zealand.
- 2010 - Matt Bowden, known mostly for his development and production of BZP-based Party Pills, introduces his own synthetic cannabis product, Aroma.
- 2011 - On August 2, amendments to the Misuse of Drugs Act are approved, which made synthetic cannabinoids illegal to manufacture, import, export, sell, or supply for 12 months.
- 2011 - On August 16, the ban is officially in place and 43 synthetic cannabinoid products are taken off the market.
- 2013 - The Psychoactive Substances Act is introduced as a way to regulate the production and sale of psychoactive substances in NZ. No psychoactive substances have since been approved as safe and legal under this act.
- 2016 - Synthetic cannabinoid, AMB-FUBINACA, is discovered in New Zealand among other previously unavailable variations.
- 2017 - Reports of death and synthetic cannabinoid related harm spike.
- 2018 - 45 people die in relation to synthetic cannabinoids, making it New Zealand’s most deadly illicit drug.
- 2018 - The NZ Drug Foundation is contracted by the Ministry of Health to gather insights about the synthetics crisis.
- 2018 - The Labour and National parties both propose bills to legalise cannabis as a response to the crisis. Neither pass.
- 2019 - Between 2017 and 2019 more than 70 New Zealanders are reported to have died in synthetic cannabinoid-related deaths.
- 2020 - New Zealand holds a referendum on the legalisation of cannabis, which received majority votes ‘against’.
- 2023 - Matthew Wielenga, creator of Kronic, faces felony charges of conspiring to distribute a controlled substance and money laundering in the US.
- 2023 - Fatalities related to synthetic cannabinoids remain present. The New Zealand Drug Foundation confirmed to VICE that Aotearoa has seen up to 145 fatalities involving synthetic cannabinoids in total
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