While Australia paves the way for legal medical marijuana, other "legal highs" continue to be pulled from the shelves. New South Wales has banned three types of synthetic marijuana, known collectively as "Spice," and reclassified them into Schedule 9—on par with heroin, ice, and cocaine. Nicknamed Pinaca, Fubinaca, and Chminaca, these three most recently banned strains were previously sold legally and marketed as recreating the effects of cannabis.
The move comes just months after 17-year-old Dean Shield was found dead in the NSW Hunter Valley after reportedly taking a synthetic form of cannabis known as Kronic. Despite successful raids on properties in the NSW town of Rutherford, where it's suspected Shield bought the Kronic a few hours before his death, no one has been charged.
As the formulas for these legal highs are constantly evolving, it is difficult for authorities to keep up and very little is known about the effects of each new strain. Users swap stories on drug forums, detailing highs offered by new products. Pinaca that was described by one contributor as "twice as strong" as other synthetic cannabis, offering a "drowsy type of high."
As VICE has reported, these synthetic products are made in research chemical laboratories in China where there are few regulations surrounding their grey market ingredients. Researchers have found the ingredients detailed on packaging rarely match the actual contents of synthetic marijuana. Instead, most packets contain some form of innocuous plant matter coated with a psychotropic chemical spray. Any high experienced has nothing to do with "herbs."
Little is known about the actual effect these chemicals might have on the brain—synthetic cannabis hasn't been widely tested on animals or humans. However, human reactions vary from agitation, to hallucinations, seizures, and even psychotic episodes.
Given these factors, it's no surprise that Dean Shield's death was not an isolated incident. Two men from Queensland died after smoking synthetic marijuana known as "Full Moon Tea," with one of allegedly taking a single drag before then passing out. Reports also found that in the US, deaths involving synthetic cannabis had tripled in 2015.
Synthetic cannabis became was banned across the country in 2012, but each state and territory takes a different approach to regulation. Only Queensland, New South Wales, and South Australia enforce blanket bans on products that offer a psychoactive effect.
Other state governments continue to chase new strains as they appear. In Western Australia, for example, if a seized synthetic isn't listed as one of the 33 banned substances in the state, it can be given back to the supplier, regardless of the harm it poses. Victoria has banned the eight synthetic strains, also putting them in the highest schedule. Conversely though, the state allows some synthetic strains to be prescribed by doctors and researchers in an upcoming clinical trial for epilepsy.
New South Wales' new regulations look set to be the country's toughest, with anyone who found selling or manufacturing the banned synthetic drugs facing a maximum penalty of life in prison.
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