The synthetic herbal hoax

DEPENDING on a person’s point of view, the difficulty in detecting ‘‘synthetic’’ drugs in conventional urine tests may be either a problem or a virtue.

Those who like to use psychoactive or mood-altering substances may be drawn to concoctions that – unlike cannabis or alcohol – aren’t likely to be found by random workplace drug-testing.

That’s a concern for some employers, especially those whose workers handle heavy machinery and who might hurt other people if their performance is impaired. The Hunter’s coalmines spring readily to mind, and that explains why the mine owners are calling for action from the government.

Governments all over the world, however, are having trouble working out how to control these synthetic drugs.

From the perspective of a drug-testing laboratory, synthetic drugs can be a nightmare. In the case of synthetic cannabis, for example, at least a dozen chemical variants have been developed by manufacturers keen to get around prohibitions. Every time one is outlawed, a new version is developed and rushed onto the market.

Perhaps part of the answer might be countering the marketing nous of the drug sellers. Shops that sell synthetic cannabis display advertising material that is deliberately vague, but conveys the impression that the product’s mind-altering effects derive from ‘‘natural’’ herbs.

In fact, numerous studies have shown these products often bear little or no relation to the alleged ‘‘ingredients’’ listed on their packaging.

In some typical mixtures the chopped vegetation in the packet is merely a neutral product onto which laboratory-made chemicals are sprayed, often after being dissolved in acetone.

More than one alleged ‘‘herbal’’ preparation has been found to contain prescription medications. It should be obvious to anybody that taking powerful psychoactive medicines of unknown composition and unknown origin is potentially risky.

Not surprisingly, synthetic cannabis products have been associated with cases of psychosis, as well as with numerous physical symptoms of varying severity.

If more people knew the true nature of the supposedly ‘‘natural’’ herbal products they were using, they might hesitate before taking the risk.

In the meantime, governments will continue to attempt to regulate the supply of the products, trying to keep up with the well-funded international concerns that keep changing their formulae.

Choking is no game

IT is always difficult to know how best to deal with periodic reports of a resurgence in the so-called ‘‘choking game’’ in school playgrounds.

Some prefer to ignore the issue for fear of inciting copycats. Others argue that, unless parents are warned of the danger, they can’t explain the dangers to their children.

Clearly, there’s an element of truth in both. From a parent’s point of view it is perhaps worse to be unaware of a possible risk and learn later – possibly when it’s too late to help – that others had known all along but had elected to stay quiet.

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