Synthetic drugs (also known as ‘legal highs’) are intoxicating substances that are not illegal due to technical loopholes. Synthetic drugs are designed to imitate illegal substances like cannabis, cocaine and methamphetamine.
They can come in powdered form, as pills or dried herbs soaked in chemicals.
But the law regarding synthetic drugs that weren’t technically illegal changed in September last year when NSW became the first state in Australia to ban substances with psychoactive properties.
It is now illegal to posses, sell, manufacture, supply and advertise these substances with penalties for possession with up to 12 months imprisonment, and over $2,000 in fines (or both).
This legislation aimed to thwart manufacturers who tinkered with chemical compositions in their products if they were banned, and simply put out a new, modified (and non-illegal) product.
Previously, many of these substances were simply too new to be illegal, under conventional New South Wales poisons categorisation, which worked by adding new substances to a list of those prohibited.
But the flaw with this system was that it lagged behind the changing composition of the synthetic drugs. This meant that only once a substance was known could it be banned, by which time the manufacturers had already had plenty of opportunity to move on and develop new products.
This has resulted in a plethora of legal substances appearing in Australia at an alarming rate.
The new NSW laws follow the Commonwealth government approach for poisons, which ban whole classes of chemicals instead of individual compounds. This means that substances yet to be developed can still fall under the ban.
This move to crackdown on these dangerous substances came soon after the tragic death of Henry Kwan, a bright and talented Sydney teenager close to finishing high school. In mid 2013, after school one day, he took a synthetic drug.
After smashing bottles in his bedroom, he became ill and then started to hallucinate. Despite the attempts of his mother and sister to restrain him, he leapt from the balcony of their home. He landed on his head and died.
The drug he had taken was known as the N-bomb, and he had earlier obtained it from a school classmate. Perhaps the most astonishing thing about this story is that drugs like the N-bomb were completely legal, although Kwan’s death was at least the third of its kind.
This number has since risen.
The N-bomb, or 25I-NBOMe as it is more properly called, is a hallucinogen which is 25 times more potent than LSD. Like the N-bomb, most other synthetic drugs can be much more potent than those they are attempting to imitate.
Although many are marketed as harmless, they are far from it. Synthetic drugs have already caused at least five fatalities in last two years.
Although prior to last year, they were easily accessible online or even over the counter in adult stores and tobacconists, retailers are now banned from selling them.
There is no dealer, no middle man and the prices are much cheaper than for some other drugs – N-bomb, the synthetic drug that Kwan took, can cost as little as $2, making them quite affordable for school children.
One emergency doctor lamented in an online newspaper article the days of just heroin or cocaine admittance, as doctors then knew what they were dealing with. But the composition of these new drugs are constantly changing, and can even change from batch to batch.
Medical staff are not aware of the composition of the drug that a patient has ingested, and so have difficulty treating the patient. There is no safe dosage and they can be far from harmless.
The NSW government has published a fact sheet with information about synthetic drugs as well as outlining the harm and criminal penalties that are consequential to the use of synthetic drugs.
Many are sceptical about the success of laws banning synthetic drugs, saying it will just drive the market underground, and will not deter those convinced to get their hands on them.
It is argued that the problem of banning them is not so simple, due to the way that addiction works. Those that are already addicted and unable to buy the product online or off the shelf will simply look to the illegal market to feed their addition.
Henry Kwan’s father warns other parents of the consequences of taking these ‘harmless’ synthetic drugs. He hopes that the tragic story of his own son will at leas serve as a warning to others.