NEWCASTLE’S synthetic drug abuse epidemic has hit new lows, with fears of a mental health crisis that could eclipse that created by the powerful methamphetamine ‘‘ice’’.
Mental health workers, counsellors, nurses and paramedics have told the Newcastle Herald dozens of shocking front-line stories ranging from users suffering severe paranoia to violent psychotic episodes.
One Hunter man was found in a garage after using pliers to remove his teeth and collect them in a bowl.
When questioned about his behaviour, he explained that he didn’t want his teeth in his head any more.
Other users have attempted to stop cars by jumping in front of them, thought they could fly off buildings, self-harmed with fire and many are reported to have been ‘‘extremely violent’’.
Substances used ranged from synthetic cannabis to products designed to mimic cocaine, ecstasy, amphetamines and LSD.
A 37-year-old Maitland man was taken to a mental health facility on Wednesday after allegedly using White Revolver, or synthetic cocaine, and allegedly assaulting two police officers.
Health Services Union Hunter ambulance sub-branch president Peter Rumball said there had been a steep rise in mental health cases linked to synthetics.
‘‘These products are like pouring Drano into your brain,’’ he said. ‘‘Some of the people we have seen have been off the planet, they are hurting their families and themselves, it’s very sad.’’
A mental health worker based at Calvary Mater Hospital said services were bracing for an increase of people seeking help, following the state government’s 90-day ban of synthetic drugs.
She said the Hunter was widely regarded as one of Australia’s ‘‘hot spots’’ for synthetic drugs and some of the mental health impacts seen were “extreme”.
‘‘We are already seeing a lot of patients coming in with serious mental health problems and some will now face withdrawal,’’ she said.
“It is true that what we are seeing could be worse than the mental health implications we saw with ice, the problem is very serious and we don’t know enough about it yet.”
Hunter New England Health’s drug and alcohol services staff specialist Bob Batey said treatment facilities in Newcastle and the Central Coast were seeing more people addicted to synthetics per capita compared to Sydney.
Dr Batey said an increase in users seeking help would mean longer wait times for treatment programs and place further demands on the region’s emergency departments.
He said the problem was compounded by the fact that the withdrawal process for synthetic cannabis was longer than for marijuana and patients generally required more sedation.
Some addicts report preferring synthetic cannabis to marijuana because of the “stimulant high” it provides.
In the case of synthetic stimulants, Dr Batey said patients withdrawing could become depressed, get headaches, have a rapid pulse, suffer aches and pains and feel generally unwell.
‘‘A lot would have to get themselves off to a treatment agency or try to wean themselves off or tolerate the withdrawal symptoms at home,’’ Dr Batey said.
‘‘It really is a nasty area these drugs.’’
A Hunter New England Health spokeswoman said there were a range of services available to people experiencing issues with synthetic drugs, with people urged to call the Drug and Alcohol Central Intake.
Lucy Burns, a senior lecturer within the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre, said treatment services were not ‘‘geared up’’ for dealing with synthetic users.
Dr Burns said because the drugs were relatively new in Australia, very little research had been completed.
‘‘It’s a new area, work is starting to be done and by the end of the year we are hoping to have a clearer picture,’’ she said.
‘‘We don’t have a treatment protocol for these new drugs.’’
NSW Health admits it has no formal data on synthetic drugs because the sudden rise has outstripped data recording procedures.
The Herald reported last month that the complexity of synthetic drugs meant data collection systems had no codes when patients were treated at health facilities.
Cessnock MP Clayton Barr asked Mental Health Minister Kevin Humphries earlier this year if there had been an increase in patients presenting to NSW mental health units because of adverse reactions to synthetics drugs.
“Given the difficulties in adequately screening for synthetic drugs, there is currently no formal centralised collection of data on synthetic drug use,” Mr Humphries said.
The Hunter New England Health spokeswoman said due to the “constantly evolving chemical make-up” of synthetic drugs, it was difficult to pinpoint rates of use in the Hunter.
“In the past few years our services have cared for a number of patients we believe may have used synthetic cannabis,” she said.
“We are yet to understand the ongoing effects caused by these drugs, and they should not be considered any less harmful, or any safer an option than other drugs, including regular cannabis.”
Staff at several Hunter treatment facilities said synthetic addicts made up about one quarter of patients and the numbers were growing.
Conjoint Associate Professor from the University of Newcastle’s School of Nursing and Midwifery, Richard Clancy, is undertaking research into synthetic drugs and acute mental health patients.
The results are expected to be made public within six months.
A community mental health worker said there had been an increase in people using synthetics and many were not previous drug users.
At the same time a nurse from the Mater said many users had switched from illicit drugs to synthetics and reported “more extreme” mental health problems.
“We used to see a lot of patients on Kronic and now it’s the synthetic powders,” he said.
“These people are climbing the walls, they are scratching their skin apart. I have seen people who have got into White Revolver and they are totally psychotic, they are more paranoid and more psychotic than the other patients we see. They are dangerous and can be extremely aggressive.”