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.


Banning synthetic cannabinoids – a “kronic” overraction?

During Questions Without Notice in the Australian Senate on June 22nd [Page 50], Senator Steve Fielding challenged federal Attorney-General Representative, Senator Joe Ludwig over his government’s intentions toward previously legal synthetic cannabinoid products, known quaintly as “synthetic cannabis”.

One particularly common brand is named “Kronic”. Fielding’s ignorance is telling. He refers to such products as being “sprayed with a synthetic chemical” and as such are “designed to manipulate people’s minds”. He further relays concerns about anecdotal reports, which whilst serious are not conclusive. No documentation or conclusive study is presently available leaving quantification and qualification impossible. No correction has been made for the use of other substances in conjunction with Kronic or pre-existing psychiatric conditions or symptoms. It is for the very reason we must take these reports seriously that they deserve proper scientific inquiry.

Ludwig admirably fills his time relaying the excessive reaction of W.A. in banning such preparations under the Misuse of Drugs Act (which provides for a 25 year sentence in certain cases). QLD will move to ban 15 of these products under the QLD Drugs Misuse Act. He omits that NSW is seeking to regulate “synthetic pot” at the level of heroin. One wonders at the logic of this rash action given the well documented failure of prohibition and the recent report from the Global Commission on Drug Policy, damning prohibition and urging implementation of legalisation models [CNN].

More prohibition opens the way for criminals to move from growing, harvesting, preparing and packaging cannabis for transport and sale, to switch to small vials of synthetic cannabinoids. These could be added to any legal vegetable matter or herb, in unknown concentrations and mixes further compounding already known problems arising from an imbalance in cannabinoids due to hydroponic growing techniques.

ABC Lateline gave a balanced report on these developments. When NSW health minister, Kevin Humphries, describes psychotropic synthetic cannabinoid preparations as a “synthetic psychotic drug”, one can be sure he’s not speaking from a position of evidence. Still, “synthetic pot” that’s been with us for four years, will now be as illegal as heroin, in NSW. As already noted anti-drug zealot and W.A. Premier, Colin Barnett was true to form in announcing 25 year prison terms for some offences.

The fact is we don’t know the full side effects of synthetic cannabinoids ingested without supervision beyond the certainty that inhalation of any combustible material is a dire challenge to pulmonary health. We may assume confidently that psychotropic effects are similar to cannabis. And we may ask genuine questions about the effect of significantly greater concentrations of THC in synthetic concoctions both as acute and long term (or chronic – no pun) effects. Paul Dillon raises good points about the rapid rise of availability, of varieties of synthetic drugs. Paul does raise a false analogy citing a synthetic THC cannabinoid – no doubt HU-210 – referring to it being 100 times more potent that natural THC. Had he taken the time to express the need for health responses here it would have been welcome.

Indeed, we don’t know the the effects of 22% of Complimentary and Alternative Medicines in Australian pharmacies that, lacking any trial data, were fraudulently submitted as “evidence backed” and rashly added to the Australian Register of Therapeutic Goods by the TGA. But there’s no rush to ban these products or to wage a War on Placebo, despite fears of adverse drug interactions or contamination with heavy metals and poisons. Regrettably, this clip has the standard file footage of unnamed researchers looking at brain scans as the voice over notes doctors concerns – despite only anecdotal stories of nasty side effects. Both good and bad effects are the same as cannabis. Sanity is provided by Alex Wodak and Robbie Swann.

Prohibition has failed splendidly, leading only to the creation of vast underworld markets. Here, we may watch it in action. I support warnings that smoking a loosely controlled herb dosed with cannabinoids is cause for caution. But removing the product from legal tax paying outlets and placing it in the hands of criminals who will now sell it as genuine cannabis – without the risks of handling genuine cannabis – is appallingly short sighted.

Ultimately, synthetic illicit drugs are here only because the certain profit provided by prohibition of already popular drugs, has empowered criminal enterprise to produce them. Perhaps it’s time we began to learn from history. I reject argument from antiquity – that humans have always used drugs and thus always will. But it’s irrefutable that without the lucrative market provided by prohibition many of todays problematic illicit drugs would not exist.

The Global War on Drugs has failed. Synopsis from The Global Commission on Drug Policy