What are Synthetic Drugs?

Synthetic drugs exist all around the world and cause different levels of ‘trip’ (”nisa”); some low to moderate and others dangerously high. The aim is to mimic the already known effects of illicit drugs such as cannabis or cocaine. For example, synthetic cannabinoids like Black Mamba mimic THC effects found in cannabis and synthetic cathinones mimic the effects of MDMA (Ecstasy). Synthetic drugs can be cheaper or more economical and more available from local suppliers. Synthetic drugs exist around the world and are known to be manufactured from simple kitchen ingredients by any street chemist. In the States, some of the synthetic drugs are known to be developed outside of the country, packaged and delivered directly to the customer. They get past the border as they are marketed as ‘bath salts’, ‘plant food’ or ‘incense’ and have prominent labels ‘not for food consumption’.

In the absence of any specialised addiction units or a national drug observatory in Mauritius, we are in lacking vital information about the synthetic drugs: how many are currently on the market, the key ingredients and the common effects and which dose causes what effects. Our emergency services, ADSU or social workers are finding it difficult to identify the ingredients and how to efficiently react to this situation.

Do synthetic drugs contain cannabis?

No.

The most common groups are (and there are other groups not listed here)

What has been the Government’s response to the emergence of the new synthetic drugs?

The Forensic Science Laboratory is given the responsibility to analyse the new synthetic drugs which ADSU has obtained/confiscated. So far, none of the findings have been made public. Also, a national drug commission of Inquiry will be initiated with the aim to inquire and report on availability of new drugs, including synthetic and designer drugs.

What do our laws say on synthetic drugs?

Our drug laws fall mainly under the Dangerous Drugs Act. In 2013, in the Act, ‘synthetic Cannabinoids and their derivatives’ have been included in Part II (Dangerous Drugs Regulation 2013).

Since molecules or ingredients can be changed fairly quickly, it is very difficult to include all synthetic drugs in the Dangerous Drugs Act. Not all synthetic drugs are derivatives of synthetic cannabinoids. The law therefore will not be able to criminalise all synthetic drugs which exist. The government wants to identify the synthetic drugs in the market and declare them illegal under the Dangerous Drugs Act. However, new synthetic drugs can come to market faster than the Government can make them illegal and the replacement versions are often more harmful than the previous ones. For example, in the States, under the Synthetic Drug Prevention Act 2012, 15 synthetic compounds were banned. Soon after this Act, new drugs not covered under this Act were released on the market. Similarly, in Australia, a blanket ban on any type of synthetic cannabinoid was issued in 2012 which again failed to prevent the availability of synthetic cannabis in Australia.

How can we reduce the market demand for synthetic drugs in Mauritius?

The market for such synthetic drugs has emerged due to high and resilient demand for certain prohibited drugs such as cannabis. This phenomenon can therefore be seen as an unintended consequence of drug prohibition and repression leading to the absence of any legal supply route to meet a demand. In the States, five new synthetic drugs are introduced every month!

The tricky part about new synthetic drugs is that it takes a while for the compound or key ingredients to be identified, and even longer to be included in our drug laws, whilst it takes drug chemists just weeks to change a single molecule and create an entirely new synthetic drug. Since the drugs are constantly changing, manufacturers are always a step ahead of the law.

It is therefore clear that using legal repression on synthetic drugs will not stop the emergence of new synthetic drugs in Mauritius.

Synthetic drugs around the world

The number of legal highs around the world has boomed in recent years. UN drug experts identified almost 350 new designer drugs which are outside international control.

The harms associated with the synthetic drugs have been documented; the World Drug Report which conducts one of the biggest surveys of current drug users in the world rated synthetic cannabis as more harmful than natural weed. The risk of seeking emergency medical treatment was 30 times more for synthetic cannabis users than with high potency herbal natural cannabis.

According to respondents of the survey, the reasons why they chose synthetic drugs are mostly because of the availability of the synthetic drugs. In New Zealand for instance, it is believed that the reasons for the wide use of synthetic cannabinoids were because of the lower cost ($15-20 for a 2.5g bag, while natural cannabis was $20 a gram), safe place purchase and perception that product was pure and strong. Anecdotally, synthetic cannabis sales goes up when there is a shortage of natural cannabis on the market. Also, synthetic cannabis does not show up in urine tests nor is it detected by sniffer dogs. However, a study conducted in 2013 showed that 93% of users around the world preferred natural cannabis to synthetic cannabis. According to an Australian addiction lecturer, synthetic cannabis produces health risks which are not associated with natural cannabis use. There are instances where people report to emergency rooms experiencing psychosis or seizures after using synthetic drugs, while natural cannabis is a natural anti-psychotic and THC in natural cannabis is an anti-convulsive!

The synthetic drugs phenomenon is merely a symptom of ineffective drug policies. In a very new future, Mauritius, along with all 192 UN member states, will be called to ascertain its drug policies at UNGASS 2016. For the first time, many governments will voice their displeasure with the international drug control regime and have the opportunity to put an end to the horrors of the drug war. Our Government has the choice to review and change our drug laws for new ones that are based on science and evidence, to reduce harm, reduce drug-related crime and improve public health. Or the Government can choose to reinforce drug laws which are ineffective and criticised by many international agencies and which has destroyed lives of numerous families.