The poisonous genie is out of the bottle
Sometimes, whatever the intention, things turn out differently.
Like when early colonial authorities introduced rabbits, stoats and weasels into our wilds to make the country look more like mother England. And, indeed, New Zealand started to look spectacularly like England once those new beasties began to have devastating effects on our native flora and fauna.
I’m not sure what the government’s intent was when synthetic cannabis found its way into New Zealand in the mid to late 2000s and little was done to investigate, control or ban it. In a conservative drug fearing place liked New Zealand, it seemed odd at the time.
Perhaps the politicians thought that allowing a ‘‘safe’’, ‘‘natural’’ and ‘‘legal’’ alternative – as these products had been marketed in Europe since 2004 – was preferable to decriminalising the real thing.
Perhaps they were sick of the marijuana lobby hassling them to legalise, and they thought they’d throw them a bone by letting this stuff out.
Perhaps they weren’t really paying attention to what was actually in it, thinking that, because it was legal overseas it couldn’t be all that bad.
In the US, the Synthetic Drug Control Act of 2011 banned several drugs, such as synthetic cannabinoids and, here, a temporary ban in 2011 was followed up by the 2013 Psychoactive Substances Act and a total ban in 2014 – but by then this poisonous genie had well and truly been let out of the bottle. Now synthetics are an entirely new and growing problem for society to contend with.
The ban drove the market from dairies to underground, where it seems to have only flourished ever since. It’s easy to ban marijuana, which gets its psychoactive power from just one ingredient, THC, which occurs naturally on the plant.
Synthetic cannabis is plant matter that has been sprayed with chemicals that mimic the effect of THC. The family of these synthetic cannabinoids have more than 700 researched chemicals.
This week, police joined forces with the chief coroner to plead with people to stay away from the drug saying that over the past month several people have died from smoking synthetics. At the press conference, they said seven people had died – barely a day later, an eighth person had died and before the week’s end police were investigating a potential ninth death.
Who knows what the heck has been in the latest batch that is having such lethal effects. Speculation is it could contain anything from weed killer to fly spray but the message from a senior policeman was brutally simple: ‘‘If we don’t do something about this, further people are going to die.’’
Police say users range from 13-year-olds to 64-year-olds while St Johns report up to two dozen callouts a day – it’s no wonder the word ‘‘epidemic’’ is being bandied about. And it’s not just an Auckland problem.
One wonders whether fears about one drug has inadvertently lead to something more lethal being unleashed.
The press conference embarrassed the government to some extent. This information must have been known by police and coronial services for a while, but Associate Health Minister Peter Dunne said he found out only an hour before it was made public.
His ministry will look into this and – it being an election year – will want urgently to look like it’s taking the problem very seriously by producing meaningful strategies.
Whatever efforts there are to stop this getting worse, it may already be too late.
Columnist Oscar Kightley.