Synthetic Cannabis And The Dangers It Poses

Synthetic cannabis seized in America
Synthetic cannabis seized in America

Last week a story which appears to have gone under the radar emerged again during an Oireachtas hearing on drugs.

During the hearing it was revealed that in the previous year synthetic cannabis was linked to the deaths of two individuals in Monaghan

At a joint meeting of the Health and Justice Oireachtas committees, Packie Kelly, a project coordinator at the Teach na Daoine resource centre in Monaghan told committee members of the tragic deaths

He said that the town had “lost two people in 12 months as direct result of synthetic cannabinoids.”

Neither death was directly from fatal intoxication, but appear to be suicides which allegedly were induced by, or where synthetic cannabis use was a considered a major factor.

Sid Kavanagh, the outgoing chairman of the Drogheda Community Drugs and Alcohol Forum recently expressed his concerns about synthetic cannabis

At a public meeting he said “A number of individuals who come looking for help following the use of this drug do so because of admittance to psychiatric hospitals or expressing high suicide ideation.”

He also alluded to the tragic deaths when he stated that “This drug was deemed to be a contributing factor in two deaths by suicide in Monaghan in the last few months.”

The first death occurred in October 2014, when a 22 year old male hung himself in the middle of his housing estate. In the aftermath of events there were a number of heated public debates

As reported by the BBC the mother of man stated that “I blame the Garda” as she believes “They know who the dealers are but they just turn a blind eye.”

Garda claimed their hands are tied by the legislation.

Just two months after the first tragedy there was a second suicide in the estate, which was again linked to synthetic cannabis.

These events lead to a lengthy report entitled ‘A community based study of Synthetic Cannabinoid use in Co. Monaghan, Ireland’ being released this month.

The report is based on interviews with users of synthetic cannabis in the locality and their experiences with synthetic cannabis.

Below are some of the findings:

– The report highlights cases of cross border drug tourism, with many of the consumers travelling north to buy the product.

– Participants described spending between €60 and €200 per week on synthetic cannabis for personal use, with the product costing €10 – €15 per gram

– User awareness around harm reduction and the dangers posed by the products is low

–  Users became aware of the fast progression toward regular and dependent use when it was too late.

– Acute physical withdrawal symptoms were reported to include chest pains, chest pressure, tachycardia and palpitations, lower extremity pain and spasms, nausea, sweating and vomiting

– Participants reported psychological symptoms such as anxiety, agitation, anger, paranoia, self-harm, psychosis, and suicidal thoughts during withdrawal periods. These were corroborated by users and parents interviewed.

– Over time all users described a decrease in functioning characterised by a loss of appetite, breathlessness, cardiac conditions requiring medication, skin ablations, tooth decay, lethargy, apathy, tremors and insomnia,

– These problems were exacerbated when attempting to cut back on use, with difficulties in eating being the most common

– All user participants described intentions to stop using, and how unpleasant physical and mental withdrawal symptoms inhibited achieving abstinence.

– The fear of stopping use was also grounded in youth psychotic behaviours, suicidal ideation and suicide attempts when in withdrawal

As the report shows there are a number of problems associated with the drug. Many users also found that the services they sought when seeking care were inadequate.

These are just some of the shocking findings, albeit from a small sample of individuals. You can read the report in full here

Ireland banned ‘legal highs’ five years ago following the introduction of the Criminal Justice (Psychoactive Substances) Act 2010.

This ban followed public and political backlash against the rise in shops selling the ‘legal highs’.

Earlier this year a man was jailed for six years following an arson attack on a Nirvana headshop on Capel St. in Dublin. The attack caused over €1 million in damages

A recent BBC news report suggested that before the ban was introduced there were at least 100 headshops selling legal highs in Ireland and that this number was now reduced to 0.

However, the accuracy of this claim is open to criticism. I am personally aware of at least two shops that currently sell synthetic cannabis marketed as incense.

I suspect they are not the only ones.

A BBC investigation found that garda are regularly unable to act against a range of legal-high type drugs because of problems with the legislation.

To bring a prosecution, garda must scientifically prove that a substance has a psychoactive effect. To date, there have been only four successful prosecutions in the five years.

18 months ago one shop owner was fined €15,000 for selling ‘legal highs’ in 2011 despite the ban

In recent years there has been a significant increase of new psychoactive substances on the market which mimic the effects of better known drugs.

A report published by the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction shows that 101 new psychoactive substances (NPS) were detected by their early warning system last year.

This discovery of 101 new substances compares to 81 new chemicals in 2013; 73 in 2012; 49 in 2011; and 41 in 2009.

In total, the EMCDDA said it was now monitoring a total of 450 NPS.

Of the 101 new chemicals seized in 2014, 31 were cathinones (chemicals which mimic the effects of amphetamine and MDMA), while 30 were cannabinoids (schemicals which mimic cannabis)

Realistically these figures likely only represent a fraction of whats on the market, which shows the extent of the new chemicals arriving on the market. Many of which appear to be dangerous.

You can read EMCDDA’s report in full here

A few years ago a Flash Eurobarometer survey of 13,000 people aged 15-24 in EU states, found that 9% in Ireland had taken an NPS in the previous year, compared to the EU average of 3%.

You can see the survey results here

Elsewhere, the risks associated with synthetic cannabis have been further established by another survey.

The Global Drugs Survey found that 3.5% of synthetic cannabis users had to attend A&E following its use. This compares to 0.4% for actual cannabis.

Across the globe there have been numerous stories of strokes, seizures and other serious adverse reactions to synthetic cannabis products.

Earlier this week the story of a young male in the UK who spent five days in a coma after consuming synthetic cannabis emerged

Ireland’s ban on ‘legal highs’ was recently a topic of discussion in the British parliament. Politicians across the sea are considering the introduction a ban largely based on Ireland’s policy.

However this proposal has critics who have described Ireland’s ban as “flawed”

As we have seen in Ireland even if a ban is introduced this will not remove the products from the streets. In fact it might not even remove them from all shops.

Many of these new psychoactive drugs emerged as a result of drug prohibition, and even more in the aftermath of the crackdown on ‘legal highs’.

Some possibilities must be considered.

Would these dangerous highs exist at all if it wasn’t for prohibition? Would making the products they mimic (which are often safer) available be a good thing?

Whether they like it or not these are questions politicians will have to address at some point.

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