This Week in Weed News: The Synthetic Cannabis Epidemic in New Zealand

New Zealand Weed NewsNew Zealand is having a bit of a cannabis drought. Like any other developed nation in the world, a portion of New Zealanders like drugs. The domestic scarcity of cannabis is, inadvertently, making room for some of those Kiwis to try synthetic cannabis or other designer drugs. Also known as “legal highs,” many of the substances are available through online sources and often are chemically designed to mimic the effects of the more popular intoxicants and party drugs. This week in weed news, we look back at the month of July in the archipelago nation, New Zealand, as the use of synthetic cannabis has caused an epidemic claiming ten (10) lives in a single month and put over a dozen more into hospital.

The Danger of Legal Highs

News of weed synthetics is not entirely new, yet the health crisis in New Zealand has put them back in the spotlight internationally. Legal highs are potentially more dangerous than traditional drugs – cannabis included – for two reasons. First, each batch is an unknown quantity. Not much research has been conducted on many of the chemicals introduced to ‘legal highs,’ limiting the scope which clear indications of their effects can be made. Second, while many of these drugs were developed to mimic traditional drugs, some likely created to be safer versions, once the government caught on to the potential harm of synthetic cannabis, it became a vacuum eroding both potential actions the government of New Zealand can take and any ambition of synthetic drug producers to make a safe products.

It works like this:

  1. The government identifies a chemical contained within a representative sample of synthetic cannabis.
  2. The government bans the chemical.
  3. The producer of the synthetic cannabis causing the epidemic in New Zealand slightly adjusts the chemical structure, producing a similar but potentially less stable or safe synthetic.
  4. The product is rebranded, sold in stores and online.
  5. Someone gets harmed or killed.
  6. The government finds out, bans the substance.
  7. Repeat, with each product potentially more potent and less safe.

News of weed having bit of a supply crunch in the New Zealand has increased the market share of these easily accessible ‘legal highs’ – itself a misleading term. ‘Legal highs’ is more a statement of arbitration, meaning the government has not had a reason to ban it. Not only are the words ‘legal highs’ entirely misleading, they are often sold as incense, providing an additional shelter obscuring the legality of synthetic drug products. In other words, government pressure to stop the supply has encouraged suppliers to change the recipe often, creating products which can harm, making them more potent, and sheltering their sales under false marketing.

Why is this Epidemic a Huge Public Health Concern?

Synthetic MarijuanaIn the US, in Europe, drug cartels, international smuggling operations, and other forms of organized crime have access to tens of millions of potential customers. In terms of access, there are fewer suitable trade routes or viable methods to secure access into New Zealand for these types of criminal organizations. Because of the remoteness of New Zealand, the price of drugs like cocaine cost several hundred dollars – it is just not worth it for international smugglers.

The synthetic cannabis epidemic in New Zealand is a reaction to the absence of international drugs. While drug smuggling often is at the end of a long line of harm to communities and individuals – a good thing to discourage your nation from being part of – New Zealanders took it upon themselves to manufacture the drugs they could. Cannabis has long since been a hugely consumed drug in New Zealand, so the drought causing the spike in synthetic cannabis use relates proportionally to a popular intoxicant in the country for generations. Unfortunately, this familiarity with cannabis led ten (10) people to their death in July.

I am not saying cannabis is a gateway drug. Instead, I think people align comfort with familiarity, sometimes overriding the cognitive impulse that something may be harmful. The implicit familiarity with cannabis in New Zealander culture may encourage some individuals to connect in their mind the tried and true safety of cannabis with a synthetic version of cannabis, undermining the risks to themselves or others.

The epidemic in New Zealand shows how terms like synthetic cannabis and legal high, when combined with a supply shortage and lack of public awareness can develop into a health issue across a nation. Similar to the vacuum opiates such as oxycodone (Oxycontin) or hydrocodone (Vicodin) have left for drugs like heroin and fentanyl in the US, winning over consumers is as easy as having a stronger product at a smaller cost. Also, notice the US has responded by attempting to squeeze the drug supply, ultimately increasing demand for illicit substances. The difference is: the US has ties with international drug suppliers.

The Producers Input

While local New Zealand news suggests weed synthetics should be avoided, producers of synthetic cannabis have found the usage of their products – and the death toll associated with them – increased as the supply of cannabis has dwindled in the island nation. New Zealand had tried to deter producers from being able to legally sell synthetics by introducing a rule stating ‘legal highs’ can be sold legally, but only after the product has been shown to do no harm to humans.

Unfortunately, performing such product testing usually comes with high regulatory costs, in addition to research costs – not things producers of drugs who harm others, so they change the recipe would likely care to pay for. Instead, this would suggest a different approach may help, one attempting to reconcile the demand for cannabis in New Zealand with a more calculated health approach. Maybe something like legalization.

By Joey Wells