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Over 40 people in New Zealand have died in the past year from synthetic substances. Hundreds more have experienced serious side effects, like psychosis and overdose. We think it's time for urgent action, so we've prepared this tailored advice for communities and individuals.
The scale and impact of this crisis is too big to delay taking preventative action. There are things we can do straight away to better support those struggling with their use. Advice on local community responses is offered here, along with suggestions for how we bring about long-term change. It is also vital that resources are made available by the government.
More than 500 new synthetic chemicals have been used or sold for recreational use in the past 10 years. These substances are unpredictable, toxic and much more harmful than ‘legal highs’ that were available in shops until 2014.
It’s impossible to know which synthetic chemicals have been used or how concentrated they are by looking at it. Some synthetic chemicals are far more toxic than others. The process used to apply synthetic cannabinoids onto smokeable material means each dose, even from the same batch, can be different strengths. These synthetics are particularly harmful and can result in distress, psychosis, overdose, organ damage or death.
These substances are used by some people because they are cheap and easily available. Reasons for turning to synthetics are varied: some people might want to get “out of it”, or cope with the struggles of daily life. Some might see it as a substitute for another drug to avoid a positive drug test.
Communities need to make sure they have good support for people who are homeless, people with mental health struggles, and young people.
It is safest not to use these substances at all. And people who aren’t using synthetics don’t need much detail.
But people who are using synthetics need harm reduction advice, so they can make more informed and often safer choices. Abstinence can a long-term goal, but short-term goals to reduce harm (using less or in a less harmful way) can be more attainable for some.
Check out our Did You know synthetics resources and brief advice pocket cards. We have information about how to use these resources here. There is also advice on how to talk to someone available here.
By working together in local communities, we can make a difference for those most at risk. There are no quick fixes, but there are practical things we can do right now. The Synthetic Response Community toolkit has been designed to get community leaders started. More support is coming.
The toolkit contains:
New Zealand's law itself is in a state of crisis. Rather than trying to punish people out of using drugs, MPs need to pass legislation that puts health and compassion first.
Strictly regulating access to lower harm substances, including natural cannabis, should form a major part of any solution. More systemic issues also need to be addressed, such as addressing the root causes of poverty, alienation and despair.
The Drug Foundation position is that we should: