11 Feb 2015

Synthetic cannabis goes 'underground'

9:52 am on 11 February 2015

Synthetic cannabis sales have gone underground, the Drug Foundation says after drug houses revealed.


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Photo: Diego Opatowski/RNZ

A number of private houses have been discovered selling synthetic cannabis in Tauranga.

People using the banned drugs have told Radio New Zealand News about at least five private houses selling synthetic cannabis in the city’s suburbs.

Police would not confirm the locations because it could compromise their investigations but said they had some prosecutions under way.

Jacob, 21, who did not want his last name used, went to a Tauranga house and paid $20 for about 2.5 grams of synthetic cannabis.

Buying the product from a house was cheaper than buying it from the shops but admitted he had no idea what was actually in the small plastic bag he bought.

The Psychoactive Substances Amendment Act came into effect in May 2014. Now, to legally sell synthetic cannabis, a product has to pass a testing regime and be sold with a licence. No companies have so far received a licence.

The Drug Foundation and other social service agencies had warned that removing all of the products would push them to the black market.

Tommy Wilson from Te Tuinga Whanau Support Services in Greerton said they were seeing the same clients with the same synthetic cannabis problem.

The only difference since the law changed was that the shop front had moved, he said.

Having the product available privately had brought a new set of problems for his agency to deal with. It was a “quick, easy, accessible high” and the gateway to illegal drug P, he said

“It’s the gateway to the main game.”

Drug Foundation director Ross Bell said the news that at least five houses in Tauranga were selling the banned products came as no surprise.

It's wonderful to be a world leader and have this great law sitting on your books but it's kind of embarrassing that the law isn't going to work.

The Psychoactive Substances Amendment Act, which stopped the products being tested on animals, made it almost impossible for the products to be tested to make sure they were safe, he said.

No one wanted to see testing on animals but, until an alternative came, the synthetic cannabis industry would probably stay underground.

Bell said other countries were watching New Zealand to see if the new laws would work - but they hadn't.

“It's wonderful to be a world leader and have this great law sitting on your books but it's kind of embarrassing that the law isn't going to work.”

Bell said the technical problems in the law needed to be fixed, but he did not think there was the political appetite to do it.

Tauranga GP Dr Tony Farrell, who has a fellowship in addiction medicine, said letting the sale of the drugs go underground was not a good move and regulating their sale would be preferable.

“People who sell drugs illegally aren't always the most honourable of creatures. And people who get into a dependable state can start putting things on tick,” he said.

“And if they can't pay, you often see violence and other issues, coercion into certain activities. So I think it's a recipe for disaster.”

Associate Health Minister Peter Dunne said the black market activity was the consequence of people stockpiling the drug.

Dunne said the legislation did not drive the market underground. “We are in a transition phase and I think we've got to be very careful about assuming that the spread of these drugs is as widespread as it was before the legislation was passed.”

Western Bay of Plenty Area Prevention Manager Inspector Karl Wright-St Clair said that police were taking action. “A case from Tauranga is currently before the court with the individual is charged with the illegal supply of psychoactive substances and awaiting sentence.”

Police asked that anyone with information about the illegal use or sale of synthetic cannabis to contact them.

Story by Natalie Mankelow, first published on radionz.co.nz.