A spate of deaths in New Zealand linked to “zombie drug” synthetic cannabis has prompted the country’s chief coroner and police to issue an urgent public health warning.
In July alone there were at least seven deaths in Auckland which appear to be linked to the use of synthetic cannabis but police said the problem was nation-wide.
Chief coroner Deborah Marshall issued the warning to the public, saying her office had seen seven deaths of people who had recently used synthetic cannabis or were found with the drug on them.
“I’ve also been advised by St John that there have been a significant number of non-fatal cases where people have been hospitalised after using the drug, which is known to cause potentially fatal seizures,” she said.
“While the police and coronial investigations are still at an early stage, and the final causes of death have yet to be established, the number of cases where synthetic cannabis appear to have been a contributing factor has prompted me to issue this public warning.”
St John Ambulance said they were handling around 20 cases a day related to the drug.
In an effort to help the general public understand the dangerous effects of synthetic cannabis, the New Zealand police have taken the unusual step of releasing CCTV footage taken from a camera in Auckland which shows a man smoking synthetic cannabis through a pipe attached to a plastic water bottle.
After smoking the drug the man the man begins vomiting violently, before collapsing beside a bus stop and lying on the pavement in evident distress.
Over the last twenty years hundreds of synthetic cannabinoid products have flooded the market because of their cheap price and potent highs, according to the New Zealand Drug Foundation. Officially known as “new psychoactive substances”, the drugs imitate the affects of THC, the active ingredient in cannabis which makes users high.
What are legal highs?
However, the affects are often extreme and unpredictable because they contain one or a number of unknown or newly invented chemicals about which little is known.
Emergency medicine specialist at Wellington Hospital Dr Paul Quigley told the New Zealand Herald a single roll-up made with synthetic cannabis is the equivalent of 15 cannabis joints.
“Synthetic cannabis is one of the more dangerous products around and is responsible for some immediate health harms.”
After intense public pressure the New Zealand government banned their use and sale in 2014, but they were still widely available on the black market.
“We have grave concerns users don’t know what poisonous chemicals they are potentially putting into their bodies when they’re smoking this drug,” said Detective Inspector Lendrum.
“They [officers] are coming across people that are acting like zombies,” he said in a press conference.
“That are vomiting, lying on the street unconscious, that are stripping off in public”