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Legal highs: what should we do about synthetic cannabis?

Synthetic cannabis is a lab-made product that mimics the effects of cannabis to give users a high when smoked. It has been sold in Australia since 2011 under various brand names, with a range of chemical…

The products marketed as “legal weed” might cause more harm than the real thing. prensa

Synthetic cannabis is a lab-made product that mimics the effects of cannabis to give users a high when smoked. It has been sold in Australia since 2011 under various brand names, with a range of chemical compositions.

The product presents a unique challenge for drug policymakers. Despite 18 months of legislative action intended to ban synthetic cannabis, people in some states claim they can still walk into a sex store or tobacconist and purchase it. Clearly the legislative changes have not been totally effective.

Who uses synthetic cannabis in Australia?

Last month, we published findings from the first survey of synthetic cannabis users in Australia.

When we asked people why they had first used synthetic cannabis, its legal status was an important reason. While 39% stated that they first tried the product because it was legal, 23% mentioned its availability was important, and 8% mentioned its non-detection in drug testing as a key factor.

We also found that almost all synthetic cannabis users who participated in our study had previously or were currently using cannabis.

Furthermore, evidence from this study and from the wider literature (for example, by Christopher Hoyte and Maren Hermanns-Clausen) indicates that synthetic cannabis products may be as risky as or more risky than cannabis itself. This is due to the lack of information about the ingredients in synthetic cannabis products and the pharmacological profiles of different synthetic cannabis varieties. We have virtually no information about longer term effects of these drugs.

The current state of regulation

A year ago, we published a summary of the legal status of synthetic cannabinoids in Australia. Since then, the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) enacted new laws that prohibited eight broad classes of synthetic cannabinoids as well as any drugs that mimic cannabis.

Manufacturers often introduce a new synthetic cannabis product immediately after legislators prohibit an old one. miggslives

These laws were intended to capture synthetic cannabinoids that were yet to be identified or even synthesised, in order to put an end to the cat and mouse game, where manufacturers introduce a new product immediately after legislators prohibit an old one.

Despite the TGA laws being ratified six months ago, there does not appear to have been any prosecutions of manufacturers based on these laws to date.

While importation falls under federal legislation, most drug laws are state-based. And while the relevant legislation in some states such as Victoria refers to the TGA’s legislation, the drug laws in other states such as New South Wales do not.

Our advice from law enforcement representatives in these states suggests that prosecution using the TGA’s legislation can only occur in federal jurisdictions (such as border control) and requires involvement by federal agents.

Nonetheless, even in Victoria – where some stores have reportedly had their synthetic cannabis confiscated since the TGA’s laws were ratified – it is unclear whether charges will be laid. Until charges are laid and these cases tried, the impact of the new laws remains unclear.

In another development, Queensland moved to independently implement new legislation redefining a “dangerous drug” as anything intended to “have a substantially similar pharmacological effect” to a banned substance.

But this legislation was not ratified, which meant that Queensland police eventually dropped charges against a number of retailers whose synthetic cannabis was confiscated.

Assessing the regulatory options

Given the ambiguity regarding synthetic cannabis, a NSW parliamentary committee is assessing the regulatory options for newer synthetic drugs. Last month, the committee heard evidence from government officials, industry representatives and researchers.

We outlined the following five possible regulatory options for the committee, while also recognising that the evidence to guide decision-making is limited.

Around 39% of synthetic cannabis users first consumed the product because it was legal. JoelK

The first is to continue banning individual substances as they become known. This option results in legislation and services playing catch up to an ever increasing array of new substances. A risk is that it may contribute to more harm by driving newer and lesser known products onto the market.

The second regulatory option is to ban broad categories of substances, including ones that activate the same brain systems as currently prohibited substances. But these broader laws have so far not been successfully prosecuted. They also assume that drugs of a similar category or that act on similar parts of the brain have similar harm profiles, when this may or may not be the case.

The third is to use currently available laws for the regulation of medicinal or consumer products, as some experts recently suggested. While this option may have merit, it offers only limited control.

The fourth option is to follow New Zealand’s lead and implement a specific regulatory regime for new psychoactive substances. Under the proposed system, distributors will be required to establish the safety of their products at their own expense before they may be legally sold. This new regulatory regime offers an alternative policy response to mitigate against the harmful cycle of new, untested drugs being sold as “legal highs”, but its success is yet to be established.

The fifth option is to design a new legislative framework that regulates all psychoactive substances. This option is consistent with recent calls for drug law reform. However, the Gillard government has indicated that it will not consider this option, and we still know very little about what the supply, use and harms of synthetic cannabis would look like if cannabis were legally available.

Even though there is no clear evidence to guide policy making in this area, we do know that the emergence of newer synthetic drugs is a complex challenge that requires consideration of all available policy options. We await the recommendations from the NSW Inquiry, due in 2013, which are likely to guide the direction of both state and commonwealth policy reform.

Join the conversation

32 Comments sorted by

Comments on this article are now closed.

  1. Michael Shand
    Michael Shand is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Software Tester

    Ummmm, if synthetic marijuana is a problem...i dunno know....maybe...legalise natural pot?

    I know crazy right

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    1. Monica Barratt

      Research Fellow, National Drug Research Institute, Faculty of Health Sciences at Curtin University

      In reply to Michael Shand

      You'll notice we included many options for legislative reform, including the final one (option 5) - "design a new legislative framework that regulates all psychoactive substances" - that includes natural cannabis. We think all of these options need to be considered.

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    2. Debbie Hoad

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Michael Shand

      Exactly. Legalise pot and development of synthetic alternatives become a pointless, non-cost effective pursuit.

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  2. Leo Kerr

    Consultant

    It is patently ridiculous that the war on drugs will ever be won and a new approach is long overdue. It should be legalised for recreational use as it has now been in Washington and Colorado as well as other parts of the world. I predict it will not be long before other states in the US follow. When that happens where will that leave our spineless politicians who take their lead on all issues to do with drugs from the US?
    The arguments for legalising are overwhelming while the case against is pathetic. There would be no synthetic cannabis industry if this were the case and more tax dollars would not have to be spent in this silly cat and mouse game currently being played out.

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    1. Andrew Smith

      Education Consultant at Australian & International Education Centre

      In reply to Leo Kerr

      More importantly it will then allow more practical education at school and information from sellers as does happen in head shops in the US, Netherlands etc.

      In simple terms can be explained as type x is like light beer giving a pleasant buzz while type y is more like over proof rum with extreme paranoiac effects (be careful!). Presently in Australia it is a lottery......

      However, while our politicians and media follow US conservatives in a race to be more conservative not much is going to happen......

      Case in point when a Liberal (?) politician was interviewed claiming that cannabis was a "gateway" drug leading onto powders etc. his assertion was not challenged by the "journalist"? Further, it was revealed that in the late 70's early 80's high level wholesalers (complicit with corrupt police and politicians in NSW and elsewhere) purposely limited or withheld cannabis from the market so that much more profitable heroin could gain traction and users.......

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  3. Tim Scanlon

    Debunker

    Legalisation seems to be the best option. Take the black market power away and you reduce a lot of the negatives of drug use and sales.

    I'd actually like to see the usage data on synthetic cannabis, was it actually a significant population using it? I'm guessing not.

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    1. Monica Barratt

      Research Fellow, National Drug Research Institute, Faculty of Health Sciences at Curtin University

      In reply to Tim Scanlon

      Hi Tim

      There is no data on the prevalence of synthetic cannabis use - we only do a household survey (using a representative sample) every 3 years. The last one was 2010 and next will be 2013. Synthetic cannabis use only emerged in Australia in 2011.

      The survey we did was not a representative sample but simply one we recruited using online methods and some traditional media.

      One of the problems with the newer synthetic drugs is that by the time researchers have got any decent information on their use, they have been replaced by something else, making it difficult for policy to keep up.

      As you say, this process is driven by prohibition. The question is what would it look like under a regulated access policy (regulated legalisation)? We may find out by monitoring the synthetic cannabis use in Washington and Colorado.

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    2. Tim Scanlon

      Debunker

      In reply to Tim Scanlon

      Thanks Monica.

      Without that data on usage it really is hard to deal with the issue. It reminds me of the sketch The Chaser did recently did on "More and More" in the media. How much of an impact is actually occurring and how much is just hype?

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  4. john mills
    john mills is a Friend of The Conversation.

    artist

    i reckon its like this, some people can drink and some cant, or some should and some shouldn't, its no different with any mind altering drug, illegal, legal, prescription, chemist, or psychotropic, one persons poison is an others nectar, some can, some cant, what you have to do is be aware for you, what you can or cant have, that's all no big deal, especially if you've got some tuned in evolved friends who will look out for you, and after you, if you have something that causes you to spin out too…

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    1. Monica Barratt

      Research Fellow, National Drug Research Institute, Faculty of Health Sciences at Curtin University

      In reply to john mills

      Hi John, you ask a good question - one I can't really answer for you! But I would like to point you towards an organisation that also argues for freedom to expand our minds and imaginations through responsible/thoughtful use of psychoactive substances: http://www.entheo.net/ as well as this man Greg Kasarik, who is currently on hunger strike to draw attention to human rights to use substances as part of our religious expression: http://www.kasarik.com/Hunger-Strike-2012.php

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  5. Jeff Haddrick

    field manager

    One way out of the whole mess is to develop new recreational drugs that aren't harmfull, maybe even mildly beneficial, but are so 'good' that they make existing drugs obsolete

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    1. Monica Barratt

      Research Fellow, National Drug Research Institute, Faculty of Health Sciences at Curtin University

      In reply to Jeff Haddrick

      I agree - and if these drugs are produced and tested and found to be low enough risk, there needs to be a regulatory framework that accommodates them. And that is what the NZ option would allow.

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  6. Peter Ormonde

    Farmer

    It is a curious consequence of prohibition this. The ban on cannabis helps drive the "chemicalisation" of the drug culture.

    Certainly in the USA this "chemical arms race" between regulators and backyard innovators has fuelled an explosion of new compounds, miracle ingredients and stuff no one knows anything at all about.

    See? You though Governments and regulation just smothered innovation! Not true obviously. Perhaps we should ban solar panels.

    More seriously, part of this new and dangerous trend should be chalked up to those who've created the market for fast moving chemical substitutes. A collateral consequence of the "war on drugs". And once embedded, difficult to remove.

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    1. Monica Barratt

      Research Fellow, National Drug Research Institute, Faculty of Health Sciences at Curtin University

      In reply to Peter Ormonde

      I absolutely agree that this is a 'collateral consequence of the war on drugs'. The burgeoning industry of 'legal alternatives' (and harms arising from these) should be one of many considerations for those currently evaluating prohibition and its alternatives.

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  7. Debbie Hoad

    logged in via Facebook

    Monica Barratt said, "You'll notice we included many options for legislative reform, including the final one (option 5) - "design a new legislative framework that regulates all psychoactive substances" - that includes natural cannabis. We think all of these options need to be considered."

    This in response to, 'so legalise natural pot' is inadequate. A simple suggestion to legalise naturally produced cannabis is a far cry from legalising and creating a regulatory framework for all psychoactive…

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    1. Monica Barratt

      Research Fellow, National Drug Research Institute, Faculty of Health Sciences at Curtin University

      In reply to Debbie Hoad

      Thanks Debbie, you make some good points. It's not possible in a 900 word article to go into a full review of cannabis-related harms. Even if we are to evaluate cannabis as safer than many other drugs, it still has risks, especially when used heavily by adolescents or those with preexisting vulnerabilities.

      The reason option 5 points to a regulatory framework for all psychoactive drugs and not just cannabis and its substitutes is because this problem of new synthetic drugs reaches across other…

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  8. Dave Phillips

    logged in via Facebook

    Synthetic? What are the compounds making up this product, I mean if it is a vegetable or plant matter how is it synthetic? If it is truly synthetic and has absolutely no natural ingredients what ingredients make up the product and what are their properties? Surely the chemists and regulating bodies can examine that aspect and work towards defining the substance and have some information readily available as to its toxicity, effects on human biological functions and systems, apart from the obvious feel good of the high the user is chasing? Surely the ingredients can be regulated under the poisons schedules?

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    1. Monica Barratt

      Research Fellow, National Drug Research Institute, Faculty of Health Sciences at Curtin University

      In reply to Dave Phillips

      Hi Dave. If you go to section 2.7 of this pdf: http://www.tga.gov.au/pdf/scheduling/scheduling-decisions-1202-final.pdf - you'll find a list of the broad chemical categories of synthetic cannabinoids prohibited by the TGA (our federal poisons schedule).

      These chemicals are applied to relatively inert plant matter to create the synthetic cannabis products that can then be smoked.

      So, yes there are natural ingredients but these are not the primary psychoactive compounds in the products.

      Yes, there is an evolving body of work from chemists and psychopharmacologists on the toxicity of these substances - but there are literally thousands of different versions, which can have different toxicological profiles, so it makes it difficult to know exactly what is happening. And we don't always know what is in products sold - we can test them, this takes time, then the product's formulation may be changed by the manufacturers.

      It's a tricky area!

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  9. john mills
    john mills is a Friend of The Conversation.

    artist

    Thanks Monica, Ill check it out, I wrote a big letter, but its disappeared, 3 /4 pages, oh well, were probably all lucky :). I agree with what these people are saying, we need some dialogue and a connection with the young people, to be able to educate them better, connect with them better, try to hold their hands a bit of the way from teenager, into adulthood, the most difficult years, maturity and behavior always playing the major part in all our thinking and feeling despair, or confusion, example…

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  10. A White

    Mathematician

    A debate on synthetics, as many commenters have correctly pointed out is a debate on legalising cannabis, as it’s banning is the sole reason for this spy vs spy contest that governments are and always will be massively out-manned and out-manourvered in.

    The fact that users of synthetics (as legal alternative to pot) all use, or have used pot is a pretty good counter to the fallacious argument that legalising cannabis would lead to widespread uptake - if this theory were true to any significant…

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  11. john mills
    john mills is a Friend of The Conversation.

    artist

    government synthetic marijuana, synthetic heroin, synthetic morphine, synthetic speed, penny starting to drop yet. :)

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  12. Jeff Haddrick

    field manager

    I can finally see the peotic beauty, the symetry of our drug laws, they make perfect sense.
    Irrational behaviour matched by irrational laws.

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  13. Stephen Bright

    Registered psychologist and sessional academic at Curtin University

    I wanted to start by apologise for being absent from the discussion thus far. I have been off the grid for the past week or so due to travel and conferences.

    I would also like to reiterate what Monica has said regarding the need for broad evaluation of the current model of drug prohibition with consideration of the array of alternative models of regulation, ranging from prescription to regulated supply. Synthetic cannabis is but one drug trend that has emerged in response to the current model…

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  14. Josh Aod

    logged in via Facebook

    Legal highs of any sort are horrible. pumped full of chemicals and they make me feel absolutely crappy and really affect my body, personality and mindset. Normal weed - there is no simply no substitute and no proof that it kills you etc. People need to realise this.

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  15. Josh Aod

    logged in via Facebook

    **legal highs are the problem here, or harder drugs, not weed**

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  16. Monica Barratt

    Research Fellow, National Drug Research Institute, Faculty of Health Sciences at Curtin University

    Just to update our article, it's worth reading the following report: www.theage.com.au/victoria/legislation-anticipates-emerging-drug-threat-20121121-29q92.html

    (New commonwealth legislation passed recently... I'm unsure yet how to interpret this legislation and will be looking at it more closely)

    Link to new legislation: http://www.comlaw.gov.au/Details/C2012B00185

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  17. Jimmy Riccard

    Lawyer

    These legal highs that have seem to appeared out of thin air are of direct consequence of the War on Drugs. The synthetic drugs Give the illusion of regulation and a perfect substitute for an Illegal drug. When really People have taken them unknowing of their strength and O.D. There has been over 10 000 hospital admissions from smoking synthetic cannabis. A friend of mine smoked some and said it was the worst high imaginable. his body Couldn't move...and then at one point he couldn't breathe. He rang me to come over he said he was gonna die. when I arrived he has crawled up into a ball lying in his own vommit. Scary stuff.

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  18. James Bathersby

    logged in via email @yahoo.com.au

    Hey i'm a teenager. I'd just like to say The Age group who most likely use the synthetics would be us teenagers. The Demand is extremely high as the effects are stronger than alot of illegal drugs.You get good bang for your buck as one cone of (Slapper, Northern lights,) totally fucks you up, I've only done it once it was close to a near death experience..sorta like your floating out of your body. the main people to blame for the increased rate of use would probably be the media. It was free advertising for the synthetic companys ...before that crazy bath salts inncident hardly any body knew or cared about Legal Drugs. But as soon as they got some media attention....Bam!....everyone wanted it, everyone wanted to try it out. And there is a synthetic drug for all illegal drugs, its crazy. If australia is to really cripple the problem , i suggest they do what New zealand is planning on doing

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  19. Comment removed by moderator.