Experts say a statewide ban on synthetic drugs could create a black market for the resale of the substances.
New South Wales Fair Trading has failed to provide an industry buy-back scheme, or propose a means of safely and legally disposing of the products for the tobacconists, service stations and adult shops which stock the drugs.
Last month the death of 17-year-old student Henry Kwan, who plunged from his parents' balcony in Kilarra in Sydney after taking a synthetic substitute for LSD which led him to believe he could fly, ignited fears over the safety of the substances.
The New South Wales government responded quickly, placing a 60-day interim ban on all synthetic drugs, immediately halting their distribution and sale.
This ban has since been extended. There are plans to find a more permanent legal solution by the end of the year.
With dubious names like Black Widow and Vortex Inferno, the substances were previously sold as a legal high that mimics the effects of cannabis, cocaine and LSD, often being sold online as plant fertilizer and herbal incense, and are labelled “not for human consumption.”
New drug analogues — synthetically enhanced or altered substances — are created at such a rapid rate that there is little known about their pharmacology and toxicity. There is minimal research into the long-term effects of the drugs.
The legalities surrounding the substances create a revolving door for consumers. As one is banned, another untested substitute under a different name replaces it.
The NSW Greens have also condemned the ban, saying that more dangerous mutations could surface.
First detected in 2008 across Europe, and then in 2011 in Australia (although similar products may have been on the market as early as 2004), synthetic cannabinoids garnered attention from those wishing to dodge workplace drug tests and consume drugs without breaking the law.
The drugs have several adverse side effects including seizures, severe hallucinations, psychosis and heart problems.
Although the synthetic drugs are designed to mimic the effects of their illegal counterparts while falling through legal loopholes, most regular cannabis users do not trust them, said a report by the Australian Institute of Criminology and the National Cannabis Prevention and Information Centre.
The Eros association, which represents the adult retail and entertainment industry and represents 20% of the shops selling synthetic drugs, says the ban has given a new menu to backyard drug dealers looking to quickly distribute stock.
“This scheme has been ill-considered and executed in haste to try and maximise political gain and a ‘tough-on-drugs’ strategy, rather than trying to do something positive about drug abuse,” said Eros coordinator Robbie Swan.
“By giving the industry only a few days’ notice of impending million-dollar fines for stocking these products, they gave them no choice but to get rid of them as quickly as possible.”
John Rainford, research scientist and author of Consuming Pleasures: Australia and the International Drug Business, says supply and demand is the foundation of the black market drug trade and that prohibition worsens the problem.
“Wherever there is a demand, a supply will arrive to meet that demand. If the substance is prohibited it becomes corrupt and corrupting, and it creates more problems,” he said.
This is already evident in the United States. A large synthetic drug ring was recently uncovered by the Drug Enforcement Agency in Jackson, Tennessee, after several deaths led to a ban on the drugs.
A legislative panel created to deal with the rise in synthetic drugs in Minnesota said law enforcement officials struggle to control the flow of the drugs, despite the state banning synthetic cannabinoids.
Rainford said attitudes toward drug users needs a paradigm shift. He said users should not be treated as criminals, but as patients to be given proper health services and education.
“What we’ve done with tobacco is a good example of what we should be doing with all these substances, primarily looking [at] it as a health issue and using education processes.
“Although Australia was slow to start on this, we started banning advertising [of tobacco] ... That’s been coupled with education programs in schools.
“If you can convince people through education not to smoke due to all the deleterious effects, what you do is really cut the heart [out] of the tobacco market.”
Decriminalisation has seen positive results in Portugal, where there has been a sharp drop in drug use and addiction since all drugs were decriminalised more than a decade ago.