Hard News by Russell Brown

54

Dreaming of a world without evidence

Students of the Peter Dunne oeuvre will have had a smile this morning at the minister's anguished complaint to the Taranaki Daily News that he'd love to just ban cannabis-like legal highs were it not for the pesky law that required him to pay heed to, y'know, evidence.

In this case, the Expert Advisory Committee on Drugs looked at the cannabinomimetics currently being sold without restriction, generally as "herbal incense" or some other nonsense. The formal assessment presented to the committee is now online, and it is really worth reading.

Its scope is fairly broad: it considers both the psychopharmacology of the substances in these products and the subjective reports of users. Like the so-called "herbal" party pills, these substances are not anything you could grown in your garden.

The substances commonly found in the retail products are the naphthoylindoles JWH-018 and JWH-073,  which were first synthesised around 1995 for experimental purposes, potentially as a viable alternative to medicinal cannabis. They're imported and made into the smoking products here.

Remarkably, the legal-high industry body, STANZ, recommended that one of these, JWH-018, actually be made a Class C controlled drug (for short: banned) ...

... due to issues with toxicity and abuse potential. This compound has proved unusually problematic and has a particular tendency to cause anxiety and serious adverse reactions, even when diluted in herbal smoking blends.

The assessment quotes a consultant psychiatrist's report, via the Ministry of Health, into the use of cannabinomimetics at a "New Zealand secure inpatient mental health service". Where, it turns out, nearly everyone was on it, in part because these products didn't show up in urine tests.

Seven patients expressed predominantly positive attitudes to these products (e.g “I like it”, “I love it”, “it changed my life”) four patients described negative experiences (e.g I don’t like anything about it”) and one patient was neutral. The patients that had negative experiences described deterioration in their mental state listing symptoms consistent with psychotic relapse and anxiety. Three of these patients felt that this deterioration in mental state had resolved within days and the other two thought that it had taken weeks of abstinence from these products to recover.

The assessment notes that "the Ministry of Health suggests that these findings are likely not able to be generalised to the wider population."

The views of dedicated psychonauts are also canvassed, via TripMe.co.nz and BlueLight, and the paper notes that they reported "subtle differences in physiological effect between herbal smoking blends and leaf cannabis":

“There's something different about MJ to all of these. The fact that it's biphasic and in the second half you tend to become more introspective, I think that's a very important part of weed to me, and so far this hasn't been replicated with any of the other cannabinoids”

“It's a slightly different high than any strain of weed, but it's unmistakably cannabinoid in nature. Compared to weed, there is less sedation, less munchies, more tactile enhancement,. I also got some slight visuals the first time I smoked it”

While high doses reportedly produce anxiety, the lethal dose is, like cannabis, so high as not really be an issue. Many users reported that a weekend on the legals didn't leave them foggy-headed like getting stoned for two days might. There were reports that tolerance both builds and diminishes quickly. There was some evidence that if the products were banned, users would smoke more cannabis or drink more alcohol. As ever, the MoH advises that burning things and inhaling the smoke is likely to be harmful, although it's unclear how harmful.

The assessment notes one article documenting very heavy use by one subject which appeared to produce physical dependence. User reports generally leaned towards the products being less habit-forming than pot. Again, JWH-18 seemed to be the culprit where people had problems.

The assessment gave the committee three options - status quo, restricted drug, controlled drug -- and the committee advised the second as the best course, even though the assessment says that there is sufficient evidence for a ban if that should be the chosen course. The committee took the view that these substances were less harmful than cannabis (and, presumably, that they were displacing cannabis use).

Restricted drug status means this:

a. A minimum purchase age of 18 years.

b. Prohibitions on free of charge distribution or the offering of such products as a reward.

c. Restrictions limiting all advertising (except internet based advertising) to only the inside of a premise selling restricted substances and a requirement that such advertising not be visible or audible from outside such a premise

d. Prohibitions on selling such products from any venue with a liquor license, or from service stations, or from non fixed premises such as caravans or street carts.

e. Prohibitions on selling such products from places where children or minors gather including, but not limited to, schools, recreational facilities and sporting facilities.

f. Requirements for all products to contain warning labels, including warning against driving or operating machinery following use and contact details of the manufacturer and the National Poisons Centre.

g. Requirements that all such products be sold in child resistant and tamper proof containers.

I think this is pretty sensible, although I'm not wild about these products being sold at dairies (head shops, on the other hand, will generally give useful advice at the point of sale). I'm glad the crazy promotions one of these companies has been mounting via Facebook will be ended. And I'm absolutely delighted that a decision has been made on careful consideration of the evidence, rather than as a knee-jerk political response.

Dunne told the paper he was hoping that sort of carry-on would be put a stop to soon:

He said the current legislation was very old and written before the substances were available and hoped a Law Commission review of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1975, due out in about a month, would add more teeth.

"I would like to see the law made much more explicit, so that these drugs and others like them that come along can be banned outright," Mr Dunne said.

He wanted authorities to have the power to take a much more sweeping approach to drugs.

The Law Commission's final report is due out in the week after Easter. I'm not sure what it will say, but I could venture that if the Commission has done its job, it will not be to the liking of Peter Dunne.

NB: I have never tried any of these products. No, really, I haven't.

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