Saturday, 11 May 2013

Much ado about nothing?

I have of late been watching with some interest media reports about synthetic cannabis products. Various iterations of these products have been available in stores for years, and reports about the terrible harms they cause appear from time to time in the media. In the last week or two there has been an explosion of stories prompted by the banning of the product K2 and other substances with the same active ingredient. The general tone has, of course, been one of much hand-wringing and tut-tutting about the evils of these substances, and they generally call upon the government to immediately ban all synthetic cannabis products. We've been subjected to images of college-age youths buying and smoking these products on the way to school, and we've heard many anecdotal tales about how addictive and damaging the use of these substances can be. So can the government ban them, and, more importantly, should they? Or is there a better way to tackle this issue?

Firstly, what is synthetic cannabis, and why is it legal to sell in the first place? This all hinges on the provisions in the Misuse of Drugs Act 1975. The act defines various controlled substances ("drugs") and breaks them down into different classes based on the harm they may potentially cause and the penalties which may be applied for the importation, manufacture, sale and possession of each class. Heroin, cocaine and a bunch of other drugs are considered Class A and are subject to the harshest penalties. Cannabis is generally a Class C drug and as such attracts less severe penalties. But what the act actually defines for each substance is the active psychoactive chemical. This is an important distinction because the primary active substance in cannabis is tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), a fairly complex chemical with the formula C21H30O2. What manufacturers of synthetic cannabis products do is change the active ingredient a bit, essentially tinkering with the exact chemical composition of the active substance without significantly changing its underlying structure. In so doing the chemical is no longer THC, and as such is not covered by the act. Substances infused with these THC-mimics are therefore not prohibited for sale and/or possession under the act, but still produce similar psychoactive effects as THC. Authorities wishing to regulate these substances end up playing a never-ending game of catch-up; as soon as one THC analogue is added to the act the enterprising purveyors of synthetic cannabis release a new product with a slightly different modification to the THC molecule.

So are they safe? Well, the fact is we really don't know. Given their chemical similarity to THC it is likely that their health effects are similar. Chopping a hydroxyl or methyl group off one of the benzene rings in THC and replacing it with, say, a phosphate or sulphate group is not too likely to cause significant harm, but without testing and/or data there isn't any way of telling for certain. I urge readers not to fall prey to the wailing and gnashing of teeth from the vocal minority which appear in the media. The reports of harm from these folk are almost always subjective and anecdotal, and while their stories are at times tragic they are not a representative sample of the whole population. The media are always going to report the most severe and tragic cases; there is no incentive for them to run a story about the majority of people who smoke synthetic cannabis and enjoy the experience with no adverse consequences. It is not at all sensational enough, and there does seem to be a bit of a negative bias in the media towards synthetic cannabis at the moment.

What is the solution then? The Hon Peter Dunne is proposing a new bill in parliament called the Psychoactive Substances Bill. If passed this bill will put the onus on the manufacturers of psychoactive substances to prove that "the degree of harm that the product poses to individuals using the product is no more than a low risk of harm." In principle this seems reasonable. My issue with this is the definition of a low risk of harm. How low is an acceptable risk, and who determines this? Could it be applied retrospectively, and if so could we see the likes of caffeine (known to be mildly psychoactive, addictive and harmful in high enough doses) fall foul of such legislation? And why single out psychoactives? Why not apply the same rules to food, for example? I can imagine a new brand of cracker, with a high salt and fat content, entering the market, and which could easily fail to meet the test that it posed "no more than a low risk of harm."

Personally, I don't like the knee-jerk calls to ban these things immediately they appear on the market. Firstly, there's a 50/50 chance that the newly banned substance will be replaced by a more harmful analogue. Secondly, for its entire history mankind has experimented with psychoactive substances, and repeated attempts to legislate against these substances just doesn't work. It does nothing to reduce the demand for them, and serves only to create black markets and to put the drug economy in the hands of gangs. This results in drugs being sold by people who willingly and actively flout the law, who care only about selling product, and care little about who they are selling to. It certainly doesn't help keep drugs out of the hands of children. And it criminalises a subset of humanity whose only "crime" is that they choose to imbibe a substance that a bunch of conservative middle-class white people don't like. Drug laws, as they are implemented, are fundamentally discriminatory. If you are in a lower socio-economic group, and especially if you are of Maori or Pacific Island descent, you are much more likely to be detained and convicted for drug offences. Maori comprise approximately 15% of our total population, but make up about 35% of all drug convictions. (Data from 2004)

A much smarter way to tackle the issue of synthetic cannabis is to destroy the demand. And there is a demand for these products for one reason and one reason alone: the illegal status of cannabis itself. If natural cannabis were to be legalised and regulated in much the same way as alcohol the "problem" of synthetics would disappear overnight, as would a range of social ills associated with the criminalising of cannabis. We already know that cannabis is relatively benign, certainly compared to a number of legal drugs. Yes, there are some known health effects, but these are far better managed under a regulated legal framework where they can be treated as any other health problem. We don't incarcerate and abandon alcoholics in their time of need just because they have a problem with alcohol, we choose to treat them for their addiction and any subsequent health problems. So why should we treat cannabis users as pariahs? By criminalising cannabis and those who choose to use it we create considerably more harm than we prevent. Let's have the courage as a nation to take a sensible stance on drug laws rather than introduce another piece of flawed legislation.

Personal disclaimer: I haven't tried any of these products, so am unable to comment authoritatively on their effect, either short-term or long-term. I'd welcome comments from folk who have tried them and who are prepared to share their experiences. Thanks for reading.

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