27 Jul 2017

Synthetic cannabis addict: 'I'd use my money, my partner's ... I'd shoplift'

8:36 am on 27 July 2017

A father who had his three children taken off him because of crimes he committed to feed his addiction to synthetic cannabis says he's not surprised people are dying from taking it.

Synthetics - which are a range of drugs - were pulled from the shelves in 2015, which has driven the market underground.

The chief coroner and police issued warnings about the dangers of smoking synthetic cannabis last week, after seven people died in relation to the drugs. An eighth death has now been linked to the drugs.

Damon O'Rourke stopped smoking synthetic cannabis while in jail, and has been clean for a month.

Damon O'Rourke stopped smoking synthetic cannabis while in jail, and has been clean for a month. Photo: RNZ / Jemma Brackebush

In Palmerston North, Damon O'Rourke, 29, lives in a quiet cul-de-sac with his partner. His two young sons, aged six and one, have just come home, but his mother still has custody of their nearly two-year-old daughter.

He is serving a sentence of home detention for shoplifting, but recently spent two weeks in jail after breaching his conditions. It was behind bars that he stopped smoking synthetics, and he has been clean for a month.

He's been addicted to an assortment of drugs, including methamphetamine, on and off for 15 years, but says other drugs didn't affect his behaviour in the way synthetics did.

"I'd use my money, my partner's money. I'd manipulate for more if I could, and if I couldn't I'd shoplift to swap the products," he says.

As a consequence, he had to steal or beg for food so his family could eat.

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Photo: RNZ / Jemma Brackebush

He has also witnessed other addicts going to desperate lengths to get their hands on the drugs.

"I've seen others swap out their kids' shoes. I've seen somebody walk off and their kids don't have shoes on their feet because they've sold them on the spot," he says.

The deaths in Auckland aren't surprising because people don't know what chemicals they're smoking, he says.

O'Rourke's mother, Sandra Carol, had never seen him act the way he did while on synthetics, she says.

"He was so chemically addicted that he couldn't sleep. When he did it would be for 20 minutes, half an hour, and he'd be waking up and needing it again.

"If there wasn't any he would be needing money for it, and if there was no money for it he'd get totally aggressive and smash the place up. Rip a door off the hinges, smash holes in the walls..."

Synthetics being laced with 'anything that's going to shut the brain down'

The increasingly dangerous element of synthetics is the unknown chemicals used to create a psychoactive effect.

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Anjali Butler Photo: RNZ / Jemma Brackebush

Anjali Butler manages the Highbury Whānau Centre, which provides social services and co-ordinates programmes for youth. She says she is aware of children as young as eight who have tried the drugs, and has heard stories about what the drugs are being laced with.

"Aspirin crushed up and pasted on it, fly spray, ethanol, methylated spirits, anything that's going to shut the brain down," she says.

Families of addicts often find themselves in difficult and unpredictable situations as they wait for help, as resources are extremely thin, she says.

"When your only option is to either go on a waiting list for weeks on end or to pay thousands of dollars to go to an Odyssey [rehabilitation] house, then basically there's not much out there."

Education on synthetics is needed in schools, as it's often adolescents and teenagers who are targeted by those making and selling them, she adds.

Massey University drug researcher Christopher Wilkins agrees calling the drugs cannabis is a misnomer.

"We haven't even really verified that it's a synthetic cannabinoid.

"Even though it's a plant product ... it doesn't tell you what's actually in the product."

Damon O'Rourke has secured a spot on a 13-week-long rehabilitation programme and says it is working, but he also believes harsher penalties for those dealing synthetics will help to quash the market for the drugs.

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