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‘We haven’t seen deaths like this in ten years of synthetics’

Another death overnight has been attributed to the ‘synthetic cannabis crisis’ tearing through Auckland and New Zealand at large. But the situation isn’t as clear as it seems, the Drug Foundation’s Ross Bell tells Don Rowe, and hard facts are few and far between.

New Zealand Drug Foundation executive director Ross Bell has slammed the police and chief coroner’s decision to publish a joint statement on synthetic cannabis last Friday, saying miscommunication and inaccurate information has further confused an already complicated situation. The statement, released alongside CCTV footage of a severely impaired man vomiting and stumbling around an Auckland car park, has sparked a media frenzy that is full of feeling and light on verified facts.

“If you dissect what happened on Friday in terms of the anatomy of this health warning that the police and chief coroner were wanting to put out, it was pretty shabbily organised,” Bell says. “On Friday morning I was scrambling with phone calls from the Auckland DHB and the Ministry of Health, asking me if I knew what was going on. And then on the other side you had the police and the chief coroner in a position where they felt they were able to put out a media statement even while key players like the DHB itself and the Ministry of Health were completely ignorant of what the hell was going on. 

“This is a government department ringing a not-for-profit organisation to try to figure out what is happening in Auckland – that kind of says to me that if everyone could have taken a deep breath and managed this a lot better and we could have done something earlier the following week in a much more coordinated way – we could have all been talking about the same thing.”

Bell says that even information as crucial as the specific chemical supposedly responsible for the deaths – and the number of deaths themselves – remains unclear. Because the police don’t release forensic data relating to seized drugs, everyone else – including the emergency response teams, not-for-profits like the NZDF and health professionals at A&E – is left in the dark. 

The lack of knowledge is because these substances haven’t been tested by the police. We actually don’t know what we’re dealing with here, and the problem I have is that people like the police are not being as responsible as they could be.”

It’s not just the incidences which are uncertain, but what’s causing them. Avondale Police area prevention manager Acting Inspector Marcia Murray was quoted in the Herald as saying police tests of synthetic cannabis “show things like fly spray and weed killer”. But the Drug Foundation contends that the ESR lab has found no contaminants in the samples they’ve tested, and the police allege Inspector Murray was misquoted. Whatever the case, it’s indicative of the confusion and misinformation that surrounds the issue.   

“Police say one thing, science says another. Would be awesome if @nzpolice release ESR forensic reports (hint: journos, put the pressure on)” – New Zealand Drug Foundation on Twitter.

“We’re calling this a ‘crisis’, but what chemical are we even talking about?” says Bell. “Even just in the family of synthetic cannabis there’s seven groups, some of them are quite benign and some of them are quite dangerous. Are we dealing with a substance within those seven groups? Or are we dealing with something completely new, a more potent version of one of those seven, or something else entirely? The people who have that knowledge at their fingertips, who could enlighten us the most about what is going on, are the police, and it doesn’t seem that they have as a matter of routine any sort of testing regime in place.”

Bell alleges there are also questions over how accurate the police’s statement on Friday relating to the number of deaths was, saying the Drug Foundation has received information that conflicts with that number. And, if it were accurate, then releasing chemical analysis is more important still. 

“You can’t just say ‘synthetic cannabis’, because if it is true that we’ve had these seven deaths in the last three weeks as a result of synthetic cannabis, well, we hadn’t seen deaths like that in the more than ten years of New Zealand’s experience with synthetics,” says Bell, “so it kind of logically says to me that we must be dealing with something new. It must be different. And the police should put a bit more effort into getting it tested.”

And, as the coroner said in the press statement, the cause of death hasn’t yet been identified. We actually don’t know yet whether it was synthetic cannabis products that caused a death. The people we are talking about who have died are people who are living rough, they’re living on the streets, and we know that people who are living rough don’t have good physical and mental health anyway, so is this synthetic cannabis or is there something else going on?”

“What this all says to me is that if we’re dealing with a potential public health crisis, we need someone to step up and say ‘we’re going to coordinate all of the information and we’re going to work on the messaging,’  as you would expect someone to do in any other health crisis. We didn’t have that. We had the police overly keen on getting information out there which if we unpicked a bit more we’d discover it wasn’t very accurate to start with anyway.”

A homeless person begs for money in the Auckland CBD, a pipe made from an aluminum can by his side (Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)

In a press conference Monday, Prime Minister Bill English, seeking to deflect from questions around a potential government response, shifted the blame squarely onto users, musing that a little more personal responsibility is critical to staying alive. And besides, he said, “that’s a policing issue”. It might seem like common sense, but it assumes a great deal about the kind of people who smoke synthetics in the first place.

“I think that was really naive,” says Bell. “I was actually quite surprised that he would say that because I thought that he had a better understanding of the complexities of the lives that some people live. It was fully patronising.”

“People use different drugs for different types of high, and I think the situation we have now with these drugs is that they get people really fucked up,” says Bell. “And no, it’s not like a cannabis high, but they don’t want a cannabis high, they want a dissociative kind of high that you’d get from huffing petrol or solvents. These are people whose lives are so difficult they want to get really fucked up, and the Prime Minister needs to understand that some people’s lives are so difficult that they just want to forget. The effect they want is to forget what is going around them. 

“This is not the drug of choice for many other people.”


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