The Press

Synthetic cannabis: ‘More users will die’


Police have issued a stark warning after the deaths of at least seven synthetic cannabis users in Auckland over the past month.

‘‘If we don’t do something about this, further people are going to die,’’ Detective Inspector Gary Lendrum said at a press conference yesterday.

‘‘We’ve got reports of 13-year-olds right through to 64-year-olds using this product, so it’s right across New Zealand, and right across society.’’

Lendrum said synthetic cannabis had been a problem for some time, but there had been a sudden unexplaine­d spike in recent months.

‘‘There is clear evidence that it’s being distribute­d by gangs. Where it’s being manufactur­ed, and how, is less clear,’’ he said.

The deaths were confirmed in a joint statement released yesterday that included a further warning from Chief Coroner Judge Deborah Marshall.

‘‘I’ve also been advised by St John that there have been a significan­t number of non-fatal cases where people have been hospitalis­ed after using the drug, which is known to cause potentiall­y fatal seizures,’’ she said.

‘‘While the police and coronial investigat­ions are still at an early stage, and the final causes of death have yet to be establishe­d, the number of cases

"We have grave concerns as users don't know what poisonous chemicals they are potentiall­y putting into their bodies when they're smoking this drug."

where synthetic cannabis appear to have been a contributi­ng factor has prompted me to issue this public warning.’’

Lendrum urged users of synthetic cannabis to stop immediatel­y and called on their family members to intervene.

‘‘Please contact us if you’re aware of people in your community selling this drug,’’ he said.

‘‘We have grave concerns as users don’t know what poisonous chemicals they are potentiall­y putting into their bodies when they’re smoking this drug.’’

Synthetic cannabis can be much stronger than organic cannabis, and is an illegal substance in New Zealand.

Legal highs were permitted here until May 2014, when they were banned unless they could pass a strict testing regime to show they were safe.

Associate Health Minister Peter Dunne has said there was a stockpilin­g of legal highs in 2014 before the ban came into effect.

David Richards, Canterbury District Health Board’s emergency department clinical director, said they regularly saw people suffering from the ill-effects of both synthetic and non-synthetic cannabis.

‘‘It’s been noted there is a small change in the side effect profile of the synthetic drug in some people that could indicate there is a new substance, or new ingredient, around.’’

Christchur­ch police Detective Inspector Greg Murton said the drugs were ‘‘very prevalent’’ in the city.

‘‘In our view synthetic cannabis is as harmful . . . as many other drugs simply because of their chemical makeup. They’re not actually cannabis, they’re chemicals sprayed on plant material.’’

Labour leader Andrew Little said the reports were ‘‘incredibly disturbing.’’

‘‘I know police are saying they’re going to conduct an investigat­ion – the Minister of Health has got to be involved in that. We’ve got to understand what’s happened there.

‘‘It throws open the whole issue about the ability to regulate in this area and people’s safety with a substance that is constantly changing. It may well be time, even though it’s been a reasonably short period of time, for Parliament to review and revisit just what it has done in relation to synthetic cannabis.’’

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