Earlier this month, New Zealanders woke to find the shelves of corner stores across the country stripped of their most contentious product. Since 17 August, following a nationwide government ban, shoppers have no longer been able to buy synthetic marijuana joints with their daily pint of milk.
Sold under the brand name “Kronic”, the substance in question is a recreational drug that resembles cannabis in nearly all respects other than the fact that it had been legally available in convenience stores. Created by spraying unidentified vegetable matter with JWH 018 – a chemical mimicking the active ingredient in cannabis, originally developed for medical applications – it was the latest and most popular offering in New Zealand’s thriving legal drugs industry.
For the past decade, canny manufacturers have played cat and mouse with lawmakers to bring a new generation of synthetic party drugs to market, turning this island nation, far from the thoroughfares of the global drug trade, into an unlikely international hub for “legal highs”. Widely exported, Kronic’s popularity in Australia has prompted at least one state to ban it, and large quantities of the drug have been shipped as far away as Canada.
It is New Zealand’s remoteness that is partly responsible for the industry’s rapid growth, explains Ross Bell, executive director of the New Zealand Drug Foundation. “Because of our distance and isolation, we’ve got a cannabis market, a bit of methamphetamine, but not much cocaine and ecstasy,” he says.
Entrepreneurs saw an opportunity to fill this gap in the market by introducing synthetic products with similar psychoactive effects to illegal drugs. The key players behind Kronic made their fortune with benzylpiperazine, or BZP, a substance once used to de-worm livestock, which proved a popular party stimulant until it was banned in 2008. Kronic was quietly but lucratively sold for years before doctors started observing related health problems, the newspapers took note and politicians moved to ban it.
Although NZDF favours regulation over prohibition, Bell has no problems with the ban, saying the government’s hand was forced by the industry’s “cowboy” behaviour. He hopes the government will introduce a new regime that places the onus on manufacturers to prove the safety of the drugs before they can be sold. Otherwise, the current pattern of ad hoc legislative responses will continue to be easily countered by a wealthy industry, these days an employer of “smart chemists, smart lawyers and smart marketers”.
Two legal highs previously banned by the government – BZP and a Kronic predecessor called Spice – were almost immediately replaced on the market with alternate products which managed to skirt the prohibitions. Bell has no doubt as to what the industry’s response to the latest setback will be. “They’ll be getting their chemists to look for new research chemicals to be used for recreational highs as we speak,” he says.