Government urged to take action on synthetic drug deaths

Drive 28/07/2018
A man smoking synthetic cannabis. Photo: Getty.

Toxic synthetic drugs have killed dozens of people in the past year, a massive spike compared to previous years, according to the Coroner’s office.

Between 40 and 45 deaths appear to have been caused by “synthetic cannabis toxicity” since 2017.

There were only two deaths linked to synthetic cannabis in the past five years, with others suspected but not confirmed.

A lot of amateurs don’t know how to dilute this stuff.

Overseas pharmaceutical companies will research cannabis compounds in attempt to synthesise them, Ross Bell, executive director of the NZ Drug Foundation told RadioLIVE.  

Discarded pharmaceutical research is essentially free knowledge available for chemists to make into illegal substances for export, explains Mr Bell.

“The source of these compounds will be out of some quite massive labs in China,” he said.

Mr Bell explained that the “backyard manufacturing process” allows for ill-informed handlers to use far too much of the compound, which can exacerbate its toxicity for the user.

“A lot of amateurs don’t know how to dilute this stuff,” Mr Bell told RadioLIVE.

Issues with regulation

Former associate Health Minister Peter Dunne had originally championed the Psychoactive Substances Act (PSA), which passed unanimously in 2013. The legislation aimed to regulate synthetic manufacturers in order to protect New Zealanders, but came at a road block with its testing regime.  

Mr Dunne explained that Parliament had decided at the same time to ban animal testing for synthetic compounds, which made testing much more difficult.

“You couldn’t get the right level of testing to determine whether the products were no risk or not.”

Synthetics were soon pulled from stores, which some argue pushed the market back underground – handing power back to the black market.  

Mr Dunne, who joined RadioLIVE Drive as a guest co-host, asked Mr Bell how New Zealand could resurrect the PSA’s principles in regulating the market.

Mr Bell responded that until New Zealand has alternatives to animal testing, regulation is moot.

Government urged to act

The Drug Foundation is calling on the Government to ask community providers what help they need and to have agencies co-ordinate so that information and warnings are shared about dangerous drugs.

The group has been lobbying for an “early warning system” since 2012, which would encourage agencies dealing with synthetics to share their information. The previous National Government had prioritised such a system into its National Drug Policy, but Mr Bell says it has yet to be implemented.

“That was meant to be in place in June of last year. It’s still a thought on a piece of paper,” he said.

Listen to the full interview with the Ross Bell above.

Drive with Ryan Bridge and Peter Dunne, filling in for Lisa Owen, 3pm - 6pm Weekdays and streaming live on 'rova' channel 9 - available on Android and iPhone.