The poi­sonous ge­nie is out of the bot­tle


OPIN­ION: 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 week 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.

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.

But what­ever ef­forts there could be to stop this prob­lem get­ting worse, it may al­ready be too late.


Os­car Kightley.

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