Synthetic drugs ‘dangerous epidemic’
In July last year, people around a subway station in Brooklyn, New York, were confronted with an alarming sight. Drug users who frequented the area had been turned into a tribe of ‘‘zombies’’. The affected people were wandering around staring vacantly, staggering, collapsing. Some lay sprawled unconscious on the footpath. The incident quickly became a mass casualty emergency and 18 people were hospitalised.
The so-called ‘‘zombie outbreak’’ drew public attention to an emerging and powerful illicit drug, identified as AMB-FUBINACA, which acts on the same receptors in the brain as cannabis but is vastly more potent. It is just one of a growing number of similar type drugs.
The ‘‘zombie outbreak’’ was widely reported, both in the media and in medical literature, and was made more famous by videos on YouTube. But everything that happened in New York, and worse, is now happening in New Zealand and it seems not enough people are paying attention.
New Zealanders are now dying from this dangerous drug. Seven deaths in Auckland in July were linked to AMB-FUBINACA. Coroners now say they are looking at a total of possibly 20 recent deaths nationwide.
In addition to the deaths, St John Ambulance has reported a significant number of non-fatal cases being hospitalised – sometimes 20 a day just in Auckland.
Police last week asked people to stop calling the drug synthetic cannabis, and it is easy to understand why. The name suggests some sort of benign herbal substitute, but AMB-FUBINACA is anything but. Its compound is very different to THC, the activating ingredient in cannabis.
It was developed by the pharmaceutical industry, but abandoned. It seems to have not been tested on humans. It is produced illicitly overseas in a powdered form, then mixed with a solvent and sprayed onto vegetable matter to be sold as a drug that looks like cannabis.
There are no controls therefore on the manufacture of the drug nor on how it is applied to plant material, leading to highly variable potencies.
The scourge of synthetic cannabinoids has been growing in New Zealand since the mid-2000s. Medical research suggests that as time goes on, more and more people are using them, and they are causing more harm.
New Zealand tried to regulate ‘‘legal highs’’ under the Psychoactive Substances Act in 2013, which allowed certain tested and approved substances to be sold under strict controls. Doctors reported fewer presentations to mental health services in the three months after the act was passed.
But the regulatory regime fell apart the following year amid public outcry that untested drugs were being sold, and because approving the drugs involved animal testing.
Police and Customs last week seized enough synthetic cannabinoids to make 75,000 doses.
But enforcement action is unlikely to cut off supply, and a regulatory system has been tried and failed. It is time now for people to see the use of synthetic cannabinoids drugs for what it is – a public health crisis. A dangerous epidemic.
That means communities taking responsibility for what is happening in their midst, convincing vulnerable or impressionable people to avoid using the drugs and informing the police about who the dealers are.
That may go against the grain for some people, but this is a deadly contagion which has to be stopped.