Legal synthetic drugs leading to arms race of prohibition

Few things underscore the failure of the war on drugs quite like the, well… failure of the war on drugs.

Two mornings ago I read in the press Synthetic drugs banned ahead of schoolies.

Attorney-General Paul Lucas said a further 19 cannabinoids, which are used to make fake illicit drugs such as the synthetic cannabis Kronic, have been outlawed. Mr Lucas said anyone caught selling them now risked between 15 and 20 years in jail.

Ten hours later I read Synthetic drugs seized ahead of schoolies, as police raided business across the Gold Coast to remove the obvious supply of, but not the demand for, synthetic drugs. No problems. Kids can go back to buying regular pot supporting organised crime in the time honored fashion. Perhaps amphetamine type stimulants (ATS) like ecstasy (or their safer legal cousins) will soon be managed identically, literally placing kids lives at risk.

Trying to terrify a nation Detective Superintendent Steve Holahan lies, “They’ve contained pesticides, crushed glass – extremely dangerous for human consumption.” Then, even though kids will now buy from organised crime figures with corrupt connections, zero accountability, no business to legally maintain and nothing in mind but an easy quick dollar we get Poe’s Law:

“Anything that you don’t know what it contains, should sound alarm bells straight away,” he said. “I really can’t emphasise enough, don’t ingest something that you don’t know what it contains.

“People need to understand they’re taking a very real risk both for their personal health…”.

In this 60 Minutes clip examining the status of “legal highs” – synthetic drugs that do not fall under the various misuse of drugs, or drug misuse and trafficking acts – vision of police savaging illegal cannabis growers struck me like never before. The recognition of futility, posturing and wasted public money was there. Yet more and more the anger I used to feel has given way to vague annoyance toward these pitiful people dressed up in action costumes to engage in what is a demonstrably futile endeavour.

Perhaps my annoyance peaked when NSW Drug Squad Chief, Nick Bingham angled to plead tough on “legal” drugs. He first admits to the difficulty of policing drugs that are not illegal then offers:

We have enough legal drugs on the market. We have tobacco, we have alcohol, we have your benzodiazapines. Why do we want to open up an avenue of all these synthetic substances to make them legal as well?

Er, firstly benzodiazapines area a prescription medication. Why not just rattle off the entire edition of MIMS there Nick? Next, there is no safe level of tobacco consumption. Which leaves alcohol – the most abused mind altering drug in the developed world clocking up a cost to public health that is approximately 15 times that of illicit drugs and once again wasting public money in policing violence. Lastly, regarding drugs that can’t be legally seized without legislative change there is no evidence anywhere of “opening up an avenue… to make them legal as well”.

Readers may remember back in June I covered the inaccurate “anecdotal” claims made by Steve Fielding on June 22nd in Questions without notice as he hassled Attorney-General Representative, Senator Joe Ludwig over what he intended to do nationally about Kronic. Fielding’s hysteria aside we still have no evidence to back his horror stories about what NSW health minister, Kevin Humphries told ABC Lateline was a “synthetic psychotic drug”. Indeed, despite years of sensational press and conservative panic the risk of chronic psychosis in people genetically predisposed to schizophrenia is roughly around one in 15,000 of regular smokers of illegal cannabis.

Of course, Fielding’s frown and Ludwig’s lament did nothing. It turns out Kronic derivatives remain legal and misunderstood. Colin Barnett, perhaps Australia’s most daring and dashing politician on the topic of illicit drugs banned Kronic in June promising maximum sentences of 25 years. Rather than understand the drugs and manage any issues we have simply enforced ignorance and expanded the supposed problem.

Surely now is the time for education and sensible regulation. In all the hype essential facts are lost and urban myths begin to emerge. “Synthetic cannabinoids” aren’t in many cases, cannabinoids. The European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction notes:

Although often referred to simply as synthetic cannabinoids, many of the substances are not structurally related to the so-called ‘classical’ cannabinoids, i.e. compounds, like THC, based on dibenzopyran. The cannabinoid receptor agonists form a diverse group, but most are lipid soluble and non-polar, and consist of 22 to 26 carbon atoms; they would therefore be expected to volatilize readily when smoked. A common structural feature is a side-chain, where optimal activity requires more than four and up to nine saturated carbon atoms. The first figure shows the structure of THC, while the others show examples of synthetic cannabinoid receptor agonists, all of which have been found in ‘Spice’ or other smoking mixtures. The synthetic cannabinoids fall into seven major structural groups…

This clip spends ample time allowing Matt Bowden, NZ’s incredibly successful legal drug producer to chat with Liz Hayes. With ATS we all know the status of mephedrone as illegal in Australia. Yet smart chemists have enough formulas for both ATS and cannabinoids to keep the production-ban-production-ban arms race going for some time. Slowly the rhetoric is changing. Less and less are we terrified with stories of mashed neurons, instant madness and blokes who ripped off their scrotum. It’s pretty simple. Impairment. Drugs, like alcohol, cause impairment. And no, we don’t want those we care about going about their business impaired.

We need open and honest discourse. Proper scientific understanding and advice strikes me as the only sensible, critical next step. Users do not deserve to be scared witless to the point of hiding and lying about what is in essence simple human behaviour. More to the point the action to ban synthetic cannabinoids announced the presence of such legal drugs to Australians sending sales to unprecedented levels.

The history of banning previously legal substances is one of failure. Perhaps we might like to not repeat this particular aspect.

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