THERE'S a sign on the cash register at a suburban Newcastle tobacconist that displays "legal" synthetic cannabis in a glass cabinet near the door. The sign reads "Do not beg. Do not barter."
It doesn't surprise a woman we'll call Sue, 39, who is being treated in hospital this week after becoming suicidal on synthetic cannabis.
She has seen people beg.
"There's a sex shop where I used to get it," she said.
"They had a lot of people coming in for it, and they'd sell half a gram for $10 because so many people were short of money.
"They'd have people come in with only $7 or $8 so they'd cut back on the amount. Some people would get really agitated and aggressive."
Goods were bartered at the sex shop. Sue said she did not know if the goods were owned by the person doing the bartering, and there weren't many questions asked.
"Someone came in with an expensive guitar one day and they bartered it for the drug."
Sue agreed to speak to the Herald this week after the extent of the region's synthetic cannabis problem was revealed.
On Tuesday this week two men sat in their cars waiting for the suburban Newcastle tobacconist to open at 6.30am so they could buy products called Black Widow, Skunk and IBlaze.
Sue was surprised to hear it opened so early.
"I used to have to wait until 9am at the place where I bought my stuff," she said.
"If I'd known someone was selling it at 6.30am I would have been there instead. Definitely."
She wants the community to know how a single smoke of synthetic cannabis in 2011, bought from a Sydney tobacconist, quickly turned into a nightmare.
"I hate to be the wowser here, but people should not be using this stuff, and young people in particular," she said.
"I want to make sure young kids don't get on it by warning them, and their parents, that they shouldn't touch the synthetic stuff that's easy to get."
Sue is worried she has permanently damaged her health - both physical and mental - after just 18 months of using synthetic cannabis bought "legally" while legislation catches up with a dramatic increase in its availability, and use.
She was employed and working towards a postgraduate degree last year when her need for the drug took over.
"Once you smoke a little bit, it quickly escalates," she said.
"I'd start smoking in the morning before work, and I'd smoke so much that I'd be late. I was constantly coughing and sick, and it was obvious. The other people at work actually thought I was brave to keep working because they thought I was just sick with a really bad flu. They had no idea it was because of the drug.
"I would go home at lunch to smoke, so I'd have a long lunch. From August to October it was really bad and I was only working four hours a day. I could manage making two hours before I needed to go home to have a smoke."
There was a day when even she was horrified at the point she had reached, but it didn't stop her from using the drug.
"I was at home and I had what you'd basically call a bad trip. I got it, I had to smoke it, but after I did I started really freaking."
She threw the remainder of the drug into a garbage bin.
"I had to ring my partner and told him he had to come home from work because it was so bad."
Then the bad trip started to settle down, and the urge to have more of the drug kicked in.
"I searched through the garbage bin and found the rest and smoked it," Sue said.
She has seen the British film about drugs and drug culture, Trainspotting, and its famous scene showing a desperate addict diving into a toilet in search of a pill.
"I haven't dived into a toilet. I haven't been that desperate," Sue said.
"Although searching through a garbage bin is bad enough."
PAUL Dillon is spokesman for the Australian government-funded National Cannabis Prevention and Information Centre.
He has charted the rise of synthetic cannabis products in Australia since 2011, when the first media reports of synthetic cannabis in Western Australian mine areas appeared.
"It was something that was underground until there was some publicity about its use in mines to avoid drug testing, and then it moved into cities," he said.
The synthetic drug fell outside existing legislation, leading federal and state governments to ban eight groups of cannabinoids in 2011.
But manufacturers of synthetic cannabis have stayed ahead of legislation, leaving a legal grey area that allows products to remain in retail stores in NSW.
Dillon worries about a particular group in society at high risk during this legal limbo.
"The group I'm worried about is young people who have no interest in using an illegal drug, but who might consider a drug that's marketed as 'legal' and is available in shops," he said.
"They would look at it and think 'It's legal so it must be OK', and then find themselves in great trouble.
"It's an issue policy makers are trying to deal with, but young people are able to buy it today from a broad range of retailers.
"The kids I've spoken to tend to be buying it from tobacconists where they know they won't be asked their age, although I have heard of it being sold from surf shops as well."
The Herald has been told of synthetic cannabis being sold from service stations, stores in major shopping centres, clothing shops and even a sporting goods shop, along with tobacconists and sex shops.
The consequences are being seen in health services for people with drug problems.
"The number of people in NSW who are going to [state government-funded] cannabis clinics because of problems with synthetic cannabis is quite astonishing. It's very high," Dillon said.
The Herald is attempting to obtain a breakdown of cannabis clinic figures across the state, and in the Hunter, from NSW Health.
Dillon offers a strong warning to anyone considering taking synthetic cannabis.
"These are compounds that are experimental and brand new. We have no idea what the risks are," he said.
"What I can say is that anyone considering using synthetic cannabis should know that you really, truly, are being a guinea pig for the future because we're going into unchartered areas with these drugs.
"That even makes it difficult for hospital staff when people have problems and need treatment. Doctors won't really know what they're dealing with because no one really knows what's in each packet when it's sold."
A Hunter man called John, 34, has spent the past two weeks in a Hunter private hospital after more than a year of synthetic cannabis use.
He put himself in hospital after fearing he would "probably be dead" in the near future without seeking help.
In those two weeks John received a number of promotional emails from local synthetic cannabis retailers, including one offering a "Sampler super deal" with a $20 saving, and another to let him know that "after a lengthy wait" there was limited stock of a particular product.
John said 12 years of smoking plant-based illegal cannabis had not prepared him for the effects of synthetic cannabis.
"Almost from the first I was in trouble. It's very addictive," he said.
"I used it and the walls started melting around me. Standard pot sits you on your bum. You fall asleep. Synthetic cannabis is just like smoking fly spray. You'd sell your underwear to get it, and you don't know why. It's insane."
After articles about synthetic cannabis appeared in the Herald on Wednesday, a Newcastle woman, 22, sent an email.
"I want to tell you my story because I'm very lucky to be alive and the word needs to get out," the woman said.
She bought synthetic cannabis from a suburban Newcastle retailer last year and suffered a severe reaction, where her blood pressure raced to 185/155, during her first use.
But despite that she was craving more within 24 hours and developed an addiction to the product.
"My family was telling me how much I had changed and was asking what's wrong with me," she wrote.
"I had turned into a monster, an aggressive, paranoid woman, who was smoking herself to death."
In a bulletin on synthetic cannabinoids released last year, Paul Dillon assessed a growing number of scientific studies about them.
A 2010 study of people who were chronic abusers of a particular synthetic cannabis product "clearly demonstrate signs of addiction and withdrawal symptoms", Dillon noted.
A 2011 study of eight synthetic cannabis users who had experienced psychosis found it was linked to both acute psychotic episodes, and exacerbated previously stable psychotic disorders.
"They may also have a propensity to trigger a chronic psychotic disorder among vulnerable individuals," the study found.
Sue, who started with a product called Kronic, said she became suicidal after using synthetic cannabis throughout 2012.
During her years as a user of illegal plant-based cannabis, she had been able to work and study for a postgraduate degree.
Synthetic cannabis use disrupted both.
"This might sound weird, but while I used illegal cannabis I was always proud that I never once hocked a thing to maintain my habit, I never stole a thing, and I never lied, cheated or did anything dishonest to keep using," she said.
To maintain her synthetic cannabis habit she repeatedly used her partner's credit card, despite many promises that she wouldn't, and it nearly ended their relationship.
"That was just one of the reasons why I came to rehab. I had turned into someone even I couldn't recognise, and I wanted my life back again."