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Synthetic drugs are killing our kids, so let's take control

Prohibiting recreational drugs hasn't worked, so it's time to try regulating them.

We lost another young Australian to drugs this week. Dean Shield, 17, was found dead, allegedly after consuming a synthetic drug.

What are synthetic drugs? In many respects they are akin to many illicit substances – they are, more often than not, manufactured and sold in shoddy conditions and without any control. But synthetic drugs are different in that they are the cheaper and nastier version of many other illicit substances – although it's difficult to believe cheaper and nastier is possible. 

Synthetic cannabis has been implicated in the death of Dean Shield.
Synthetic cannabis has been implicated in the death of Dean Shield.  Photo: Ken Irwin

Once again, the calls from police and politicians have begun. "Police and politicians warn kids considering experimenting with drugs not to do so." Yes. "Say no to drugs." If it was as simple as that, Shield wouldn't have tried the drug in the first place.

And no, he didn't try it because he'd been given the wrong information. He didn't try it because he was a bad kid. He tried it because he was a kid. Statistics show that about 42 per cent of Australians aged 14 years and over have used illicit drugs in their lifetime. Nearly half of us.

Synthetic cannabis has been linked to the tragic death of teenager Dean Shield.
Synthetic cannabis has been linked to the tragic death of teenager Dean Shield. Photo: Supplied

And in the 20 to 29 age group, 27 per cent have used illicit drugs in the past year. Does banning them really solve the problem? How many young people have we lost recently to illegal substances at dance parties? What alternatives are there?

For a very brief moment in time, every country around the world looked to New Zealand as it embarked on an adventure into the unknown territory of synthetic drug regulation. 

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Most countries around the world are at loss with the surging synthetic drug market. What makes synthetic drugs even more difficult to prohibit, is that they can be sold in various forms; under the guise of "bath salts", for example. 

While Australian states moved to ban synthetic drugs a few years ago, New Zealand decided to try something radically different: regulate them. That is, allow government-approved manufacturers, distributors and retailers to sell them legally. But the moment didn't last long. Something strange stopped the landmark regulation in its tracks. No, it wasn't politicians under the pressure of parents. No, it wasn't the police. It was animal rights activists. Yes, animal rights activists.

The only way to test these new substances safely was on animals – not humans. And it's a fair point by the animal activists – why should the animals suffer, if the drug will poison them?

That is where the New Zealand regulation has reached an impasse. But before the regulation came to a halt, there had been some serious progress. For instance, there was a decrease – yes, a decrease – in the number of stores selling synthetic drugs. And there is now a record of most, if not all, the current manufacturers, distributors and retailers of these substances.

I was in Auckland for a week during this brief moment in New Zealand's history and I have to say it was remarkable. While it was confronting being in the same room as police, dealers, politicians and consumers of these drugs, one word kept coming back to me: control.

I am a self-confessed control freak. And I know when it comes to illicit drugs, let alone synthetic drugs, we don't have control in Australia. It's foolish to think that just telling kids not to take drugs is going to magically start working. It never has and it never will.

It's foolish to think that just telling kids not to take drugs is going to magically start working. It never has and it never will.

It's also foolish to close our eyes to the problem and think there is no answer, other than to spend billions more on law enforcement. The New Zealand approach sought a different solution. Where previously police had little knowledge of who was making and selling what, they were able to keep a watch on things and limit the number of places where synthetic drugs were sold. New Zealand effectively took control.

That's exactly what regulation is – taking control. And when we control the manufacture, distribution and use of a drug, we can begin to control the harms they cause. We can intervene earlier in the cycle of harm that users experience when we know who they are, we can provide information and education, and we can divert them into treatment. And, most importantly, we can save lives.

The New Zealand model might have met a roadblock, but the goal of regulation is still worth pursuing. 

Matt Noffs​ is chief executive of the Noffs Foundation.

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