Hard News by Russell Brown

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Out of sight, out of mind: how we forgot about synthetics

Update: This week's Media Take looks at and compares the twin news stories of synthetic cannabis and "methamphetamine contamination" with social activist Denis O'Reilly, public health expert Papa Nahi, journalists Tony Wall and Baz Macdonald, treament professional Kohe Pene and the former chair of Ban Synthetics NZ, Stephanie Harawira.

The episode is available on demand along with an additional 15-minute discussion with all the panelists.

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There was "a certain dishonesty" in government actions after synthetic cannabis products were removed from shops in 2014, says former Associate Health minister Peter Dunne.

The comments come from a feature to be published in Matters of Substance, the magazine of the New Zealand Drug Foundation on October 25.

Dunne's Psychoactive Substances Act 2013 was amended in the heat of the 2014 election campaign to foreclose a system of interim approvals that allowed some existing products to continue to be sold under regulation. The amendment also banned animal testing, making it almost impossible for any other product to be approved under the law.

A wave of deaths and emergency presentations in recent months has underlined the fact that synthetic cannabis did not go away when it was blanket-banned – and that while the products are less widely used, the toll on those still using has become far worse.

"I wouldn't say we took our eye off the ball," says Dunne. "I think that more what happened was that as a result of the 2014 changes, there was a prevailing feeling that we had sorted the problem.

"There was a certain dishonesty there. I fought to maintain the integrity of the Psychoactive Substances Act. The National Party fought to get psychoactive substances off the shelves, and they weren't too fussed about the integrity or otherwise of the act.

"I continued doing my work, but it was in an environment where as far at the National Party was concerned, and in particular the leadership of the National Party, that all had been resolved. It was off the shelves and we'd dealt with it. 'Yeah, yeah, you can get your act in place, but frankly that doesn't matter. The stuff's off the shelves and that's all that counts'."

Henderson-Massey local board member and Unitec lecturer Paula Bold-Wilson, who led a campaign to end retail sales in West Auckland in 2014, "left the community to tidy up the mess, really."

"We always knew that the synthetics would go underground," she says. "We were pretty realistic about that. It's similar P, it's going to be sold. But you have to do education stuff, you have to raise awareness around the risks of smoking this product."

There were some indications that the problem had not gone away. The government forensic agency ESR said in 2015 that it was testing many more synthetic cannabinoid samples from the Police and Customs – including chemicals that had never been legally sold in New Zealand – contradicting assurances from Dunne that any cannabinoids on the black market had been stockpiled from the regulated period.

The Illicit Drug Monitoring Survey conducted by Massey University's SHORE Centre also picked up a shift to the black market in 2014 and 2015. At the same time, the survey found that the availability of natural cannabis had declined.

"One explanation might be that the people previously involved in cultivating cannabis have moved to synthetic cannabinoids because they're much easier to produce," says the survey's director, Dr Chris Wilkins. "You don't have to cultivate them for four months and then have a chance of the police swooping in. The fact that natural cannabis availability is declining indicates it's coming from the supply side. So someone previously involved in producing natural cannabis doesn't do it any more."

Wilkins also says that IDMS and its partner survey NZADUM (Arrestee Drug Use Monitoring) recently lost their funding, which came largely from the Police budget.

"Part of the problem with drug policy in this country is that they've got no research so they don't know what's going on. That's becoming more and more clear to me. So they tend to rely on the media – and synthetic cannabinoids was a classic example of that."

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This report is based on a Matters of Substance cover feature to be published on October 25.

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