Forty dead from synthetics in one year. It’s a horrifyingly high number, evidence that New Zealand has never faced an illegal drugs crisis as deadly as this one—not the rise of homebake heroin in the 1980s, nor the perpetual harm caused by meth. It is, to give the number some context, roughly two-thirds of the number of New Zealanders who are murdered each year.
In September 2017, the last time a shockingly high deathtoll was released by the Coroner—then 20—National was still in power, and cannabis law reform seemed a distant hope. With a new government and a referendum on legalising the personal use of marijuana to take place before or with the next election, one reaction to the latest grim toll has focused on whether legalising cannabis is the answer. It is probably part of it, but it’s a small part.
“Synthetic cannabis” is, of course, a different drug to cannabis, but the conflation of the two was once understandable. Synthetic cannabinoids work on the same receptors in the brain as does cannabis and once upon a time produced something approximating a weed high. But as the teeth were plucked from New Zealand’s once world-leading regulatory approach to synthetics and the drug was basically re-illegalised and driven underground, fatally strong strains of the drug—now including AMB-FUBINACA, “the crack” of synthetic cannabinoids—have flooded the market.
The illegal—therefore unregulated and hopelessly unreliable—method of production means there is no way users can know how potent any particular dose might be: whether that little bag of green kerosene-smelling flakes you’ve just bought for $20 is going to give you a buzz, turn you catatonic, or kill you. Dr Chip Gresham, a toxicologist at Auckland’s Middlemore Hospital, has previously told VICE that synthetics are up to 70 times as strong as cannabis. Dr Paul Quigley, an emergency medicine specialist at Wellington Regional Hospital, says that despite the very obvious and visible harms, users are still “avidly” consuming synthetics. “The very high potency of these agents,” he says, “means that [people] become dependent on them very quickly and need to continue to consume to prevent withdrawal.”
VICE has learned from former addicts that synthetics can be “harder than heroin” to quit. The nightmarish withdrawal symptoms are of the severity usually associated with the Class A drug: cramping, paranoia, the shakes, extreme nausea, mind-warping cravings. Users have complained that, after an addiction to synthetics, weed no longer has much of an effect: synthetics, under the auspices of the black market, have simply evolved too far from the drug they were designed to mimic, taking addicts along for the ride. There will always be dealers and producers to cater to that addiction, and weed just doesn’t work as a like-for-like replacement.
Access to cheap, legal, and always-accessible cannabis might limit the growth of the market for synthetics. Had it been legal in the days of over-the-counter synthetics, smokers may’ve had few reasons to switch—the fear of workplace drug testing, variable availability. But it wasn’t: into that void seeped synthetics, and the government’s subsequent mismanagement turned the drug into the crisis it is today.
“Not enough work is being done to investigate why users feel a need to use drugs and in particular synnies in the first place,” says Dr Quigley. “What is it about their lifestyle and psychosocial background that drives them to seek the escapism of drugs and alcohol to start with? Is there some form of community or social intervention we can do that would impact this dangerous demand?”
Those are the real questions. And the hope is that they will begin to be answered by the on-going Inquiry into Mental Health and Addiction, due to report to the Government at the end of October. As addiction service workers have told VICE, we need more beds, more funding, more social services: these, hopefully, are the things that loom as the government-led solution to the synthetics crisis, not the legalisation of a drug synthetics users are not addicted to.