THESE people are the tip of the iceberg of the Hunter’s synthetic cannabis problem.
They’re employed, they have families, but they’re in hospital today because of synthetic cannabis bought openly, and legally, from a retail outlet.
They’re speaking out because as one of them, John, 34, said this week: ‘‘There’s no difference between smoking ice and smoking this stuff. People are using it thinking it’s a safe alternative to pot, but it’s not.
‘‘You’d do anything to get that smoke. You live for the stuff. I put myself in hospital last week because if I didn’t get help I wouldn’t have had a family left, and I’d probably be dead.’’
Public focus has been on synthetic cocaine since October last year after truck driver Gary Punch, 44, bought the product at a Hunter outlet, went on a naked psychotic rampage at Tomago and died two days later.
But three people receiving treatment at just one Hunter hospital this week say synthetic cannabis is possibly an even bigger problem than synthetic cocaine.
This is because of its potency, the way it is marketed, the lack of regulatory control, and because people who buy it are often looking for a ‘‘safe’’ alternative to illicit drugs while trying to end their cannabis use.
‘‘When things were really bad I’d think ‘I don’t know what’s in this stuff. What am I doing? I’m poisoning myself’,’’ said Sue, 39, in hospital receiving treatment for both physical and mental consequences of taking synthetic cannabis.
‘‘Parents should know that kids shouldn’t be taking this stuff, even though it’s sold in so many places. I’m speaking out because I want to make sure young kids don’t get on it.’’
John’s father remembers feeling relieved more than a year ago after his son said he had found a legal way to end a marijuana habit of more than a decade.
‘‘When this started off it sounded like a reasonable idea, a product that you could buy legally to get off the illegal drug, but it’s turned out to be probably 10 times worse than marijuana,’’ John’s father said.
The synthetic cannabis is marketed as ‘‘herbal incense’’. Products seen by the Newcastle Herald carry labels saying it is not fit for human consumption, but they are also promoted as ‘‘legal weed’’, and are sold to be smoked.
‘‘He becomes an entirely different person when he has this stuff,’’ John’s father said.
‘‘He’d rather have it than food. He was using so much it was costing him $1000 a week. He’d run out of money and that’s when he’d come to us, or go to the loan sharks.
‘‘He became more and more desperate on it and very aggressive, and it led to many arguments in the family; whether to support him or leave him to hang out to dry on his own.
‘‘The impact on the family is severe because nobody wants to associate with him.’’
John’s father said the extent of the problem hit him while visiting his son in hospital last week, when he saw two other people, both older than John, receiving treatment after battling with synthetic cannabis.
‘‘You can buy it at so many places now, and you’ll find there’s more places opening up because people are realizing there’s so much money in it.’’
A report to the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre in October last year noted a ‘‘significant’’ increase in synthetic cannabis use in Australia in 2012, with 15percent of surveyed users saying they had used the drug last year, up from 6percent in 2011.
A NSW parliamentary inquiry is investigating the problem.
NSW Drug Squad commander Superintendent Nick Bingham told the inquiry all synthetic drugs should be banned until they were deemed safe.