Photo via Flickr user Scary_man8
Habitual synthetic weed smokers are being urged to seek help or face violent withdrawals after being forced to go cold turkey by the New Zealand government’s sudden reversal on its synthetic drug laws last week. Until then, the country had been attempting to regulate the drugs rather than criminalizing them, as bans often just resulted in manufacturers coming up with new compounds that weren't covered by the law.
The original long-term goal was to make it possible for New Zealanders to get high on a variety of synthetic drugs that had all been tested and proved to be low-risk. In the interim there were 36 products that could be purchased at approved dealers around the country. But parliament just passed a bill that makes it illegal to possess, sell, or supply any party with pills or synthetic cannabis. Violators could be sent to prison for up to two years or fined up to NZ$500,000 ($433,500 in American dollars).
The decision follows increasing reports of aggression, addiction, and insanely long lines of people waiting to get their highs. Prime Minister John Key conceded that the attempted regulation of designer drugs had failed, telling the press, "We should have removed all of them from the start."
The sudden ban meant there was a lot of product on the shelves to be dealt with. Anecdotal tales emerged of synthheads stockpiling and gangs taking hold of leftover drugs for black-market purposes, alongside very real stories of last-minute armed robberies and massive drug bonfies. Meanwhile, scores of people who have been using synthetic weed on a regular basis are set to suffer potentially serious withdrawal symptoms as their supplies dry up.
The Ministry of Health has advised hospitals to prepare for a surge in people seeking help after being forced to quit the potent dope substitutes cold turkey. Social worker Maggie Wood told Radio New Zealand that she had clients who were “terrified” because of the rapid change paired with a lack of support. “I'm working with a client right now that's in a real mess because of it, because it's got nothing available for him once it stops so what are we expected to do with the mess that's been created,” she said.
Because synthetic cannabinoids are a recent creation, information about their effects is limited, but toxicology experts have warned that severe withdrawals from synthetic cannabis can cause violence, psychosis, and suicidal thoughts. Paul Rout, CEO of New Zealand's Alcohol Drug Association, told me that over the last two years calls to the association’s helpline regarding synthetic drugs have increased tenfold, and are now on par with methamphetamine and marijuana.
Rout said he expects the helpline will only receive a “modest” increase in calls following the ban, but added that since publicity has emerged around the law change the number of people calling has jumped 63 percent, a figure which includes friends and family members of addicts seeking guidance.
“I think some people will move to other drugs such as natural cannabis as a way of managing their withdrawal symptoms,” Rout said. “But there will be a group, and we don’t know how big, that are likely to have significant problems withdrawing or want to stop and have found it is difficult to do so, so need some help.”
Like many people, Rout assumes the ban may simply push the drugs underground, where minors will be able to buy them. People may also turn to other, more harmful illegal substances. With the changes in law still so fresh, that all remains to be seen. But at least one person has already been caught selling back-alley synthetics and charged with selling a prohibited substance since the changes came into effect last week.
From here on out, any psychoactive substances that manufacturers want to peddle in New Zealand will have to undergo a rigorous testing process, paid for by the manufacturers, to prove that the product is relatively safe before it is allowed to be sold. One undeniable upshot of the legislative changes is that controversial animal testing was taken off the table for good.
All the talk around the subject of synthetic cannabis has renewed calls for legalizing the real deal. NORML spokesperson Chris Fowley said that as long as cannabis remains illegal, there will always be demand for synthetic substitutes.
“We stand with the vast majority of New Zealanders who believe cannabis is the safer choice," he told me. “We also believe that in the absence of comprehensive cannabis law reform, people will continue to use synthetics, but in even more risky ways.”
The country’s overall drug policies are due for review later this year.
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