Dr Alex Wodak: ‘This is for me a strong argument for accepting the futility of current approaches to tackling drugs and trying to do something that will be effective.’ Photograph: Alan Porritt/AAP
Jan 23, 2015
The Guardian - Researchers say the substances in synthetic cannabis are difficult to identify and constantly changing, making both treatment and law enforcement difficult
The deaths of two men in central Queensland after they smoked synthetic cannabis highlight the need to regulate marijuana and allow its controlled sale, the president of the Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation says.
The men died after smoking a product called Full Moon, sold in sex shops as herbal tea. One of the men collapsed after taking just one draw of smoke and never regained consciousness, Queensland police told reporters on Thursday.
Wodak, an addiction specialist, said people were drawn to synthetic drugs because they could be easier to obtain and because of the misguided perception they were legal and safe.
“This is for me a strong argument for accepting the futility of current approaches to tackling drugs and trying to do something that will be effective,” Wodak said.
Allowing cannabis to be sold in this way would push users away from synthetic drug use, which has unpredictable side effects, Wodak said.
Researchers said the substances had caused problems throughout the country.
The director of the National Cannabis Prevention and Information Centre, Professor Jan Copeland, said clinicians had seen patients suffering cardiovascular effects such as high blood pressure and racing heart; seizures; kidney failure and severe mental health effects such as hallucinations, psychosis, panic and anxiety.
In 2012, Western Australia attempted to tackle the problem by identifying the substances in synthetic cannabis and banning them by name, when it became apparent workers on mine sites were avoiding detection during drug tests by using synthetic cannabis instead of marijuana.
“Once researchers identified more than 20 substances, they realised they were never going to get the job done,” Copeland said.
Each time a substance was banned, manufacturers would simply replace it with a new one.
“The Commonwealth then made a modification to the relevant legislation to make illegal anything mimicking the effect of cannabis and other illegal drugs, so that police didn’t have to test synthetic drugs and find out what was in them to justify seizing and prosecuting,” she said.
But manufacturers and retailers still attempt to bypass the law. Synthetic cannabis is sold in sex shops, online and by tobacconists as everything from incense to potpourri and herbal tea. But no matter what the packaging, the substance was not safe or legal, Copeland said.
“What is marketed as synthetic cannabis is essentially unspecified organic plant material that has been sprayed with chemicals and is then smoked in order to produce a feeling of being high,” Copeland said.
As a result, doctors have no way of knowing what patients are reacting to. Because of a lack of toxicological data, it is difficult to directly attribute deaths to synthetic cannabinoids, but anecdotally, emergency presentations related to the drugs are increasing.
Professor Jennifer Martin, chair of clinical pharmacology at the University of Newcastle in NSW, said hundreds of distinct potential synthetic cannabinoids had now been identified and more are released frequently.
She and her colleagues are in the process of establishing a national database listing the substances found in synthetic cannabinoids, which can be used to help treat the adverse reactions they cause as well as monitor the chemical composition of the synthetics being sold in Australia.
Using new technology, Martin will be able to test marketed samples and samples from patients to determine both what chemicals have been ingested and how much.
Previous technology only allowed for pre-determined substances to be identified and quantified.
“If you overdose on morphine for example, we know what to look for,” Martin said.
“With synthetic drugs, we don’t know exactly what we’re looking for, we just know there are a range of things you shouldn’t have in your body and we need to somehow find out what they are and how much of it there is.”
She and her team has been working with emergency departments throughout Australia and a US team based at the National Institutes of Health and hopes the first data will be available on the database for clinical use within nine months.
Following the most recent deaths, Queensland police carried out raids at sex stores in Rockhampton, Bundaberg, Mackay and Toowoomba, seizing a large quantity of synthetic cannabis. No charges have been laid and investigations are continuing.