SO-called ‘‘legal highs’’ have been around in NSW for a number of years, but in early 2011 they started to become more prevalent in the community.
Until then there had been a relatively small but growing group of consumers who preferred to use products that claimed, and mostly were, legal.
They had friendly types behind the counter who could rattle off all the good points of using this type of weed rather than cannabis, from the mild sedative effects and slight buzz to the biggest selling point – that it was legal.
It was a similar case to other substances, with pills, powders and potions all said to give you a particular high without the worry of committing a criminal offence.
Fast forward to October 2012 and the Newcastle region may have had its first death related to one of these products. While this is yet to be determined pending a police investigation and brief to the coroner, there is little doubt this substance had a severe psychotic effect on both the two users.
Tragically, a man passed away a few days after using the substance.
What we do know is the substance was sold at an adult store and marketed as a legal alternative to prohibited drugs, sometimes referred to as ‘‘bath salts’’ or ‘‘plant nutrient’’.
While these products are generally labelled not for human consumption, this is nonsense and, in my opinion, an attempt to absolve the seller of any responsibility should the user be adversely affected. These products are marketed on various websites describing the type of high you should get and comparing the products to the illicit substances they purport to mimic.
So what can or should we do? We often hear from eminent and not so eminent members of the community that all drugs should be legal. They wax lyrical about freedom of choice and about not putting young people in jail for using drugs, but we rarely, if ever, hear what a reasonable alternative would be.
As an aside, in 28 years in the police force, I’ve never heard of a person charged only with using drugs going to jail.
Back to the new synthetics. In July 2011, the NSW government, after consultation with police and health authorities, banned a number of synthetic cannabinoids.
These are the generally herbal mixtures that mimic the effects of cannabis. What happened immediately was that manufacturers altered the ingredients slightly to circumvent the legislation, so, while banning these products was a start, it hasn’t provided the solution.
Further work is being done at a Commonwealth and state level to find a permanent solution and there is a parliamentary law reform committee made up of a bipartisan group of state politicians researching this issue.
There is some evidence to suggest that many of the synthetic cannabis products seized by police since July last year contain one or more of the banned substances.
Further, some of the products marketed as bath salts or plant nutrient – and said to mimic the effects of cocaine, amphetamines or ecstasy – contain analogues of methcathinone or cathinone, both prohibited drugs in NSW.
What this means is, if you supply, possess or use one of these products, you are committing an offence under the Drugs Misuse and Trafficking Act, as analogues of prohibited drugs are treated the same as the prohibited drug listed in the Drug Schedule.
The problem is you don’t know what you are buying and this alone should ring alarm bells.
These products started life 40 or 50 years ago as research chemicals to see how they acted on certain receptors on the brain.
The fact they never made it to the pharmaceutical drugs market should be a good indicator that they never satisfied authorities they had a legitimate use.
These drugs are made in countries that don’t have the same stringent compliance issues as Australia.
They are not subject to any clinical standards that pharmaceuticals or even foodstuffs need to pass.
There are no ingredients listed, no advice on safe dosage levels and no information on what to do in the event of an adverse reaction.
The truth is we don’t know what the long-term or even the short-term effects of these drugs are. Research across the world shows there have been many adverse effects attributed to these substances and while some out there would argue that many others haven’t been affected, who knows how they will be affected in the years to come.
New Zealand has placed a temporary ban on these products pending testing.
While prohibition is not popular with some, it’s my view that if a manufacturer, distributor or retailer wants to sell these products then the onus is on them to show they are safe.
We should take the lead from New Zealand and ban these products until it is shown they have no harmful effects and don’t cause impairment issues. If a product is allowed on to the market, I guess it will then be up to a more informed consumer about whether they should make a purchase or not.
Detective Superintendent Nick Bingham is the commander of the NSW Police Drug Squad.