Synthetic drugs posing increased risk to Australians, Global Drug Survey reveals

Posted: June 14, 2016 in Global Drug Survey, synthetic cannabis, Synthetic cannabis deaths, Synthetic drugs
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Synthetic drugs posing increased risk to Australians, Global Drug Survey reveals

Experts urge public education campaign to get out message that ‘traditional’ illicit drugs are safer than new substances

A joint is rolled using a synthetic cannabinoid.
A joint is rolled using a synthetic cannabinoid. The Global Drug Survey has revealed that people choose synthetic drugs over ‘traditional’ illicit substances because they are cheaper, or because they want to avoid being caught by workplace drug detection tests.  Photograph: Alamy

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Australians appear to be at increased health risk from taking synthetic drugs, this year’s Global Drug Survey has revealed, with no decline in emergency department admissions despite fewer people buying the substances.

Experts say Australians should be better informed that they are safer taking “traditional” illicit drugs such as cocaine and ecstasy than they are using synthetic cannabis and other newer, novel psychoactive substances.

The Global Drug Survey is in its fourth year in Australia, with 4,931 Australians answering questions about their drug use. Guardian Australia has partnered with the GDS to release the results in Australia.

In this year’s GDS, less Australians reported using and buying novel psychoactive substances. But the number of respondents who said they ended up in an emergency department after taking them remained constant, highlighting the dangers of the drugs.

Of the respondents, 4% said they had used novel psychoactive substances in the past 12 months, compared with 4.5% in the 2015 survey. Of those who used the substances, 3.2% sought emergency medical treatment in 2016 compared with 3% of respondents the previous year.

While the GDS is not nationally representative, it echoes evidence from other Australian studies that the number of emergency department presentations linked to synthetic cannabinoids and novel psychoactive substances are increasing.

Novel psychoactive substances are designed to mimic the effects of traditional drugs, such as cannabis, cocaine and ice, with new human-made chemicals being designed all the time. Major complications from the substances include cardiovascular events such as heart attack and stroke, seizures, psychiatric illness including psychosis, paranoia and self-harm, as well as severe, prolonged vomiting.

The substances in synthetic products differ greatly, making it hard to treat those who have severe reactions to them. Hundreds of distinct potential synthetic cannabinoids had now been identified, for example, and more are released frequently. As a result, doctors have no idea what patients are reacting to, what to test for or how to treat them.

According to Australian Institute of Health and Welfare data, 1.3% of Australians aged 14 and over have used synthetic cannabis at some stage in their lives, while 0.4% of Australians aged 14 years and over have used other new psychoactive substances. But numerous Australian have died after taking the substances, despite the low number using them.

John Ryan is the chief executive officer of the Penington Institute in Melbourne, a drug research institute which identifies and responds to specific substance use problems. He said illicit drugs were safer than novel psychoactive substances because doctors knew what was in them and were experienced in treating them.

“New psychoactive substances have higher risks associated with them,” he told Guardian Australia. “Therefore, we should be telling the community that the old-fashioned drugs are safer. That is delivering honesty in education.

“Even though it’s likely to be a difficult job, it’s worth trying to move people from more to less dangerous drugs. Government could help with this by not categorising cannabis in the same way as ice or new synthetics. That is, we need to give incentives for a shift away from more dangerous use patterns including especially away from new psychoactive substances.”

Ryan said synthetic cannabis and novel psychoactive substances have been illegal in Australia since the commonwealth modified legislation to make illegal anything mimicking the effect of cannabis and other illegal drugs.

But manufacturers and retailers still attempt to bypass the law. Synthetic cannabis is sold in sex shops, online and by tobacconists as everything from incense to bath salts, potpourri and herbal tea.

But people were not using the drugs because they mistakenly thought they were legal, findings from the GDS suggest. Rather, people took them for other reasons, including because they were cheaper than other drugs, or because they wanted to avoid being caught by workplace drug detection tests.

“The increase in mean ratings for the avoidance of drug tests and sniffer dogs raises the concern that people may be using more dangerous drugs as the result of law enforcement in the community and the workplace,” the study found.

The founder of the GDS, Dr Adam Winstock, said there were few examples of novel psychoactive substances “turning out to be better, safer or more fun” than illicit drugs. Legalising “normal” cannabis would likely see people turning away from synthetic cannabis and fewer people being harmed, he added.

“I don’t know what governments can’t be honest and say, ‘Drug policy is really difficult,’” Winstock said. “But government should also say, ‘We think these novel drugs are really dangerous, and while we will continue to arrest people and stop imports of drugs, there are things you can do to keep yourself safe while using.’

“I am not saying that traditional drugs like MDMA and cocaine are safe. But for most people their moderate use is less risky than than that associated with their new psychoactive equivalents. I think governments should educate people about how to use traditional drugs more safely (and moderation is always a good start) and help them make informed drug taking choices.”

Winstock and his colleagues created the first guidelines for safe illicit drug use.

“Young people are so terrified by the scare campaigning about traditional illicit drugs that maybe they are turning to drugs like synthetic cannabis thinking that those drugs are somehow different,” Winstock said. “That is bad government policy.”

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