Late last year, central coast truck driver Glenn Punch injected himself with a new synthetic drug, seeking what he thought would be some harmless fun. Two days later he was dead – fuelled by the drug, he had entered into a deep psychosis, shed his clothes, scaled a barbed wire fence, attacked a security guard and gone into cardiac arrest. It was, as one paper described it, ”a naked, bloodied death”.
The day of his death was the same day the NSW Parliament’s legal affairs committee began a public hearing on synthetic drugs.
Granted, you might escape death trying out these ”legal highs”, but other common side effects are psychosis, heart palpitations, kidney failure, paranoia, hallucinations, seizures and anxiety.
A drug rehabilitation centre in the Hunter Valley recently experienced a 25 per cent rise in young people being treated for using synthetic drugs. In Western Australia 10 per cent of workers on mine sites have returned positive results during recent drug testing.
All this while the synthetic drug industry continues to grow: it is estimated to be worth more than $600 million in Australia annually, and more than $200 million in NSW.
Synthetic drugs are products containing chemical substances developed to mimic the effects of illegal drugs like cannabis, cocaine and methamphetamine. The difficulty for law enforcement officers is that when chemicals contained in synthetic drugs are banned, manufacturers tweak the chemical make-up and have new products back on the shelves within days.
In 2011, when the NSW government banned seven synthetic cannabis compounds, manufacturers responded by developing products containing similar but legal compounds.
Only if police officers reasonably suspect that a banned compound is present in the substance can they seize it and submit it for analysis. According to the head of the NSW police drug squad, Detective Superintendent Nick Bingham, “our advice in relation to seizure is that they have to be quite sure it is a prohibited drug”.
Given that you would need a chemistry degree to interpret the current laws in relation to prohibited substances, it is understandable that the police don’t feel confident in seizing these products.
The problem was put to Parliament’s legal affairs committee, which has come up with a series of recommendations. We need a simple and co-ordinated approach. We need state and federal agencies to work together on classification as new drugs emerge. And we need clear laws that effectively capture harmful substances.
That’s why we’ve recommended the NSW government adopt Schedule 9 of the Federal Standards for the Uniform Scheduling of Medicines and Poisons into NSW legislation. Adopting the schedule will control these products pre-emptively by capturing substances through the use of broad categories that cover many different chemical compounds, thus making bans easier for police to enforce.
Previously, to prove that a substance was a prohibited drug analogue, prosecutors had to demonstrate that it had psychotropic properties. We’ve recommended that this requirement be removed.
Our approach also includes a ban on products, through the Department of Fair Trading. In this way retailers will have a simple list of products to refer to instead of a periodic table of the elements.
If it is reasonably foreseeable that a product will be used as a drug and could cause injury, the fair trading minister can issue a ban on it. If seized products are found to contain a banned substance or a prohibited substance, retailers may be charged.
These measures will also empower retailers to finally know what they are selling over the counter because currently they have no information, other than that these products are popular. It’s time to start empowering people with information. Because people such as Glenn Punch are being deceived into thinking there is a safe and healthy way to take drugs.