The number of emergency psychiatric episodes have halved after legislation restricting the sale of the drug came in to force in 2013, a study shows.
The study by a team at Otago University, Dunedin analysed case notes of patients at Dunedin Hospital’s emergency psychiatric service with symptoms associated with synthetic cannabis for three months prior to and after the Psychoactive Substances Act (PSA) was passed in mid-2013.
Synthetic cannaboids were restricted to 50 shops nationally and the number of products available reduced by one third as a result of the legislation.
The study, published in the New Zealand Medical Journal, found there was a 52 per cent reduction in the number of patients seen after the PSA was implemented.
Based on daily District Health Board (DHB) costs, the post PSA decrease in presentations represented a saving of $87,000 over three months, the study said.
Translated to a national population this would represent a saving of $3.1 million.
Last year an amendment to the PSA was passed which effectively banned synthetic cannabis from sale.
Glue said, since then presentations had dropped to “practically zero”, which was a huge health gain.
“From a public health perspective it’s indefensible to allow things that make people suicidal, aggressive and have major effects on their mental health.”
The study showed there were no differences in the patient demographics in the pre and post PSA periods – patients were mainly young men who had used mental health services previously.
Symptoms were consistent in both periods and included depression, anxiety, agitation, aggression, intense suicidal thinking and/or behaviour and psychotic symptoms.
In the pre and post PSA periods, about one quarter required psychiatric admission and the remaining patients were discharged.
Study authors concluded the reduced harm in the post PSA period was more likely caused by reduced consumption as a consequence of restricted availability of synthetic cannaboids.
This was consistent with studies showing increased alcohol-related harms associated with the density of alcohol outlets.
The reduction in harm was unlikely to be caused by less toxic products, as the symptoms were the same as the pre PSA period, the study said.
Since the PSA amendment bill was passed, a number of people had presented at the emergency psychiatric services at Dunedin Hospital, “grossly psychotic” after taking a synthetic LSD-type drug, known as N-Bomb, Glue said.
New Zealand Drug Foundation executive director Ross Bell said the PSA had achieved positive public health gains but mental health harms would continue as people accessed untested new synthetic drugs on the black market.
“Certainly the majority of folks choose not to operate in the black market and that’s why we have seen the public health gains but there are still people who are sourcing unknown and harmful substances on the black market and that’s a challenge we have to meet.”
Bell said in New Zealand and around the world there was a phenomenon of new drugs being developed “almost on a weekly basis” and being imported in to the country in small quantities through the mail.”
This made it very challenging for law enforcement and for public health practitioners because the associated harms were unknown.