The coroner’s office in New Zealand has seen a spike in deaths caused by synthetic marijuana, according to local media. In the past year, the island nation has seen 40-45 deaths of people who had used synthetic marijuana. There was only one death from the illicit substance in the previous five years.
St. John Ambulance reported that it receives approximately 30 calls per week to help people suffering from ill effects of the drug.
Dr. Tony Smith of St. John Hospital warned in May of this year that emergency room doctors had noticed a jump in patients who had used synthetic marijuana over the previous few months. They had also noticed a change in symptoms in those afflicted.
“Predominantly last year we were seeing a lot of patients with seizures or convulsions and this year we’re seeing very little of that,” Smith said. “So we think something about the mixture of chemicals has changed between last year and this year.”
In July of 2017, Auckland saw a string of eight deaths that were linked to synthetic marijuana use.
Smith also described how recent patients have reacted to the synthetic marijuana now being seen in New Zealand.
“Most commonly patients become unconscious,” he said. “They often have very poor breathing. And as they regain consciousness, it’s common for them to appear very confused, agitated and often violent. Between people but also potentially violent towards our own staff.”
Dr. Paul Quigley works in the emergency department at Wellington Hospital. He said that deaths are on the rise because the synthetic marijuana in New Zealand is getting more potent. According to Quigley, companies conducting research and development of cannabinoid therapies are contributing to the problem.
“The pharmaceutical companies are spending billions of dollars in trying to work out what parts of the cannabis plant could be used as a pharmaceutical drug to relieve pain, stop seizures, help people with a condition known as spasticity,” Quigley said.
Quigley went on to say that drugs discarded by pharmaceutical companies have ended up on the black market. The first this happened was in 2006, according to Quigley, but it has been occurring more often recently.
“It’s very easy to get these agents from overseas in a liquid form,” Quigley said. “The cannabis market itself appears to be reasonably difficult and expensive at the moment and so the drug dealers are dealing in this much cheaper, easier to make and provide product.”
Ross Bell, executive director of policy group the NZ Drug Foundation, said the continued prohibition of cannabis leads to the problems with synthetic marijuana that the country is facing.
“If we did have a regulated market for natural cannabis then we could have gone a long way to avoid, you know, many of these problems,” Bell said. He added, “Even at the time when the country was having the big debate about legal highs, there were lots of arguments saying that actually, you know, let’s legalize natural cannabis to get rid of synthetic stuff.”