The Federal Government has announced legislation to ban the sale and possession of synthetic cannabinoid substances found in a number of popular herbal smoking mixes. While not being real cannabis, these analogue or derivative compounds are sprayed on to herbal smoking mixes and mimic some of the effects of real cannabis although most reports suggest they are much milder in effect.
In conjunction with relaxing herbs like valerian, vervain and passion flower, these mixes have been popular and on sale in tobacconists and adult shops around the nation for nearly two years now. One of the reasons for the Government taking aim at the products has been because of their increasing use. Anecdotal evidence suggests that around a million people have been using them. Retail sources suggest that the day before the bans were announced, there was at least $4 million worth of stock on legal sale in Australia. The Government has relied heavily on the opinion of the Australian Medical Association to back its move. The AMA has done no research of its own and simply claims that the products can cause heart palpitations and panic attacks. So can strong coffee.
The New Zealand Government recently regulated the sale of these smoking compounds after its Expert Advisory Committee on Drugs reported that they were less harmful than alcohol and should not be banned. The conservative Health Minister did put a number of restrictions and conditions on their sale, including limiting sale from age-restricted premises and strong packaging controls but he emphatically refused to follow the Australian action of banning them.
Anecdotal evidence in Australia suggests that the legal sale of these substances has led to a reduction in heroin overdoses, a fall in the price of black market drugs and a reduction in the total amount of illegal drugs. Adult shop owners around the country are reporting older and infirm people buying the compounds for pain relief, relief from the shaking of Parkinsons disease, lessening the effects of fibromyalgia and relief from insomnia.
A decade ago, Portugal became the first country in the world to legalise personal possession of all drugs. The results to date have been conclusive. Drug use in the critical 16 to 18-year-old age group has fallen by 25per cent. Drug use by the over-18s has stayed the same. The total number of drug-related deaths (including overdoses) has declined by 27per cent, HIV and hepatitis infections have declined by almost 50per cent. Crime in general has fallen. The saving to law enforcement and the health budget has been substantial.
If the social evidence from Portugal and the health research from New Zealand isn't enough, the Global Commission on Drug Policy released its long-awaited report last month. It concluded that, ''The global war on drugs has failed with devastating consequences for individuals and societies around the world.'' The commission's board is no lightweight thinktank and includes former UN general-secretary, Kofi Annan, businessman Richard Branson and half a dozen past national presidents.
Synthetic cannabis is probably not entirely harmless. Aspirin and ibuprofen can severely damage your kidneys and stomach and new research shows that even small amounts of alcohol may be a lot more harmful than we think. Sleeping pills, diet pills, anti-cancer drugs and acne creams can all be harmful even when taken or used as prescribed. Most people will use a drug at some stage in their lives and what we need to consider with all drugs is the best way to stop people being harmed by them. Banning them does not make them less harmful and in most situations prohibition makes them more harmful because it stops governments from controlling them.
Once government takes a drug that has been legal and makes it illegal, it does nothing to address the desire and the demand for it. It simply hands it over to organised crime and throws away any form of regulation that it could have had.
The mechanics of drug prohibition are not rocket science. There is no other way to view what the Federal Government has just done. It has simply handed organised crime gangs a multimillion-dollar business just so it can continue its farcical pose about being ''tough on drugs''.
A major problem for drug law reform is that there is no provision on the Poisons Schedule to list ''recreational drugs''. In listing synthetic cannabis smoking compounds as Class 9 poisons, (almost more dangerous than weapons of mass destruction), the scheduling committee stated that the basis for their decision was that synthetic cannabis compounds ''are used for the purpose of obtaining a psychoactive effect; may be dependence producing; have no legitimate therapeutic uses and have documented harmful effects which may be significant in some individuals''.
Well, alcohol and tobacco fit that description to a tee but they are not listed as Schedule 9 poisons. Why? We need to own up to the fact that human beings have always self-medicated and stop living in denial of this fact. We also have to get rid of this attitude of ''my drug is morally superior to yours''. All drugs have their down side and all have their up side as well.
Consider this. Over the past few decades the use of all recreational drugs has been on the increase except one tobacco. Cigarette smoking is the only recreational drug use that is in decline and that is because governments have control over the product including its packaging, point of sale, price and, most importantly, public health and education campaigns.
Surely this would be the best way to handle synthetic cannabis as well.
Canberra Times 13th July 2011
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Criminalising synthetic cannabis will have only bad results