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How addictive is synthetic cannabis?

Tuesday 7 May 2013 5:21 p.m.

The number of people having problems with drugs like K2 is increasing (file)

The number of people having problems with drugs like K2 is increasing (file)

Synthetic cannabis addictions are an increasing problem in New Zealand and one addict is wondering what he'll do when all types of the drug become illegal.

Products such as K2 and Kronic have been causing controversy around the country, and information is emerging about how detrimental they are to human health.

Bans on two synthetic cannabis ingredients found in K2 come into effect tomorrow, which brings the number of substances banned in the last two years to 35.

A 19-year-old unemployed Auckland man, who wanted only to be known as Marley, has been smoking synthetic cannabis products for four or five years, and is struggling to stop.

Marley, who also suffers from depression, says he has to smoke K2 every two or three hours, or he gets nauseous and cold sweats.

He started smoking cannabis at a young age but, concerned about the law, moved onto the legal synthetic products.

"For me it was just like cannabis, but a legal version."

Marley smokes a bag or two every day.

"I get quite sick from not having it. I try to go without it and then get a really sore stomach and drowsy and really dehydrated. I start getting cold sweats.

"It's really hard to sleep, I only have about two to three hours sleep on it."

Once he has a smoke, he feels better but the ill feeling comes back two or three hours later.

"I smoke about seven or eight times during the day, four or five times during the night. I wake up at 12am, 2am, 4am, 6am [to smoke]."

Marley's tried to give up a number of times, but doesn't want to try again because it makes him feel so awful.

"I don't want to get off it because I know how sick I'm going to get."

The effects the drug are having on his body worry him. He finds he has "really bad memory loss" and his depression is getting worse to the point of self-harm.

One of Marley's big concerns is what he's going to do when all types of synthetic cannabis become illegal, as is likely with Associate Health Minister Peter Dunne's Psychoactive Substances Bill.

"I can only really go back to using cannabis, which affects my chances of getting a job, and puts me back on the radar for police," he says.

Marley is open to getting drug counselling, but is not sure it will work.

"I could go sober which is extremely difficult for me and causes more problems than what it's worth."

The ease of access also makes it hard to stop.

"It's so easy to get, there are three dairies within walking distance of my house which sell it."

Marley is also worried about how much he's spent on the drug over the years, saying it's probably about $10,000 by now.

"I'm not really the type of person to steal, [but] you get to the point where the addiction is unbelievable."

Legal highs 'a big problem'

Marley is not the only one struggling with the drug.

Acting service manager for the Alcohol and Drug Helpline Carol Randal says the number of calls from "desperate people" trying to come off synthetic cannabis is increasing rapidly.

In March 2012 the national helpline received just 10 calls in relation to synthetic cannabis, and in March 2013 they received 102.

"They've certainly increased many fold, just unbelievably. The statistics for this year - it's just gone crazy," Ms Randal says.

"It's become a big problem… lots of people are talking about thinking they were using something legal and that it would be safe."

Ms Randal says common symptoms people report include paranoia, edginess, suicidal thoughts, hot flushes, hallucinations, body numbness, verbal and physical aggression, and nausea, with a lot of people needing to be hospitalised.

"They feel so terrible, a bit like what happens with meth."

But Ms Randal says the effects are very difficult to predict.

"We don't know what's in it, it affects people differently."

She expects that the helpline will keep receiving regular calls, especially as the products get taken off the market.

'Treat it seriously'

Michael Bird, chairman of the New Zealand Society of Alcohol and Drug Dependence, says addiction help centres like Care New Zealand are also seeing lots of people with synthetic cannabis problems.

"It is an issue and people are presenting [regularly], not necessarily with that as their only concern."

He agrees people can become dependent on synthetic cannabis, and says the problem is it's readily available at local dairies.

Mr Bird urges that synthetic cannabis addictions should not be taken lightly.

"Treat it seriously. If you think you've got a problem with whatever substance, go and seek professional help."

And because of the high chemical content in synthetic cannabis, Mr Bird says the effect on the body can be "quite abrasive both psychologically and physically".

He says patients seeking help at Care New Zealand are treated the same way as people addicted to alcohol or other drugs. They are given a treatment plan, tailored to their needs, and are given counselling to find any underlying problems causing them to turn to substances.

"You treat the disease of addiction, you don't treat the use. We'll probably find a whole lot of other issues as well."

But Mr Bird doesn't think there will be any problems with a black market of synthetic cannabis once all forms become illegal, and will disappear like BZP did.

"Everyone knows it's a bit of a bad buzz," he says. "It will just quietly vanish."

If you are or someone you know is struggling with any drugs or alcohol, call the Alcohol Drug Helpline on 0800 787 797 or visit http://www.adanz.org.nz/Directory to find a treatment centre near you.

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