Reefer madness is back. Only this time, it has been re-branded.
Now it is synthetic cannabinoids that are stalking our nation, as sinister new black-market substances turn our people into zombies.
The facts about synthetic cannabinoids
Synthetic cannabinoids are a class of chemicals that are different from the cannabinoids found in cannabis but which also bind to cannabinoid receptors and come mostly from clandestine factories in China.
They were often marketed as "herbal highs" with claims that they give the effects of cannabis. When these chemicals are sprayed or otherwise soaked into a plant or other base material the blend is sometimes misleadingly referred to as "synthetic cannabis".
Certainly, they can be a nasty method of self-medication, significantly riskier than most traditional drugs.
Some chemicals are hundreds of times more potent than THC and bind to the cannabinoid receptors more strongly, they are far more likely to lead to emergency hospital treatment than cannabis and many other drugs.
These synthetic cannabinoids were first seen in New Zealand around the early 2000s.
How do we reduce harm?
This raises two questions: how did this powerful new substance sweep through society so quickly?
And what can be done to reduce harm? This should be – but rarely is – the guiding principle for any policy involving individual choice.
The answer to both questions is surprisingly simple, for it all comes down to prohibition and the backfiring “war on drugs”.
Politicians must stop their cowardly, ignorant policies
Once again synthetic cannabinoids highlight the cowardice, ignorance and sheer stupidity of Parliament on this issue.
These drugs started life as legal alternatives to cannabis but were then outlawed in 2014 and the gangsters that control the illegal drug markets began to exploit them.
Cannabis in its traditional form is far less harmful than alcohol. But these stronger synthetic drugs meant smaller quantities needed to be smuggled and higher profits – just as their criminal predecessors in America switched from beer and wine to more lethal moonshine nearly a century ago.
It also meant more damaged individuals. The trade in many of New Zealands towns and cities is booming despite a law banning them.
A sad state of affairs
We have created a free underground market for drugs controlled by violent gangsters. And the legacy, especially when smoked by younger users, is higher incidence of mental health problems.
But it gets worse. Foreign chemists cook up new legal synthetic alternatives, to be sold and distributed online.
Again, they are much stronger than existing offerings on the market.
They come in dozens of different varieties, making it harder to detect by police and customs since compounds can be tweaked so easily.
Why the government response fails
The government response was to reach for its usual blunderbuss. But bans only pushed them underground and led to new synthetic cannabinoids, which are increasingly potent and risky.
This repeated the pattern seen throughout the history of prohibition. Yet politicians still brought in sweeping new measures effectively banning all new “psychoactive substances" until they can prove that they are 'low risk' before they can be sold.
Four years later, this seems to have only made problems worst. Why do people use synthetic cannabinoids to numb misery? Because they become so cheap and readily available.
New Zealand's incompetent response to the desire of over half a million Kiwis who use cannabis has been a textbook study in illiberal stupidity. Politicians can be accused of pushing 'synthetics' and creating this problem through prohibitionist policies that ignore evidence and increase harm.
An alternative model
Now look at Canada. The government of Justin Trudeau just introduced bills to make this the first major economy to fully legalise cannabis. Significantly, the mastermind is a tough former Toronto police chief, not a hippy libertarian seeking dope free-for-all.
Recognising that almost one-third of adults use the drug, the Canadian government seeks to legalise, regulate and tax sales of the drug. Just as with alcohol, they also plan to control marketing and restrict sales to minors. Their key aim is to keep cannabis out of children’s hands.
The Green Party of Aotearoa New Zealand, health spokesperson, Julie Anne Genter, said that the “Current cannabis laws are out of date and causing harm, including the criminalisation of individuals and families" and that “a harm-minimisation approach means that people’s mental and physical wellbeing is prioritised ahead of criminalising them for cannabis use."
She is absolutely right. Yet these same arguments apply not just to cannabis, but to all drugs, from cocaine through to ecstasy and heroin.
Don’t wait – legalise
Legalisation and regulation is far safer both for users and for wider society. Drug reform also has pleasant side-effects: it raises cash for the exchequer, stops wasting police time and reduces pressure on health services.
The real zombies in this horror story are not those tragic unfortunates stumbling around our community's. They are the men and women strolling around Parliament in suits, those politicians who still argue for prohibition despite catastrophic consequences and clear shifts taking place around the planet.
How long must we wait, how much more damage must we see, before these befuddled people finally emerge from their stupor?