Consumers call the products legal highs or ‘legals’. Psychoactive substances is the preferred term of the police. The same substances are also referred to as synthetic cannabis or cannabinoids, or ‘synthetics’. Jessica Soutar Barron reports on their use in Hawke’s Bay.

Saturday 14 September, 2013

At the Blossom Parade, a young boy assaults a middle-aged man. The boy ends up in police custody. It’s found he’s high on a legal psychoactive substance.

Councillor Cynthia Bowers

During the week following, Hastings district councillors meet with local residents and retailers to discuss the issue of ‘legal highs’. Mayor Lawrence Yule flies to Wellington to talk with Health Minister Tony Ryall. Pink signs appear in shop windows declaring the desire for a “Drug Free CBD”.

Two weeks after the Blossom Parade bashing a rally takes place in the centre of Hastings. Placards, chants and speakers all call for legal highs to be taken “off our streets”, for Government to wake up and take action.

What led up to that moment when a 12-year-old boy unleashed enough aggression on an adult man to knock him to the ground and stamp on his face with so much force his shoe print could be seen on the man’s cheek some time after? Does responsibility lie with the boy’s parents? With authorities? Legal drug sellers? Police? Politicians?

Is the issue of legal psychoactive substances and their many effects on our community as simple as the Government banning them completely? Are agencies doing enough to keep youth safe? Now that the issue is in the spotlight, what happens next?

The Politicians

Deputy Mayor Cynthia Bowers was one of the councillors who organised the rally at the clock tower.

“I have always known in the back of my mind that synthetic drugs are a bad thing, but what happened at the Blossom Parade really made me angry. It detracted from all the good things we had done and we realised how serious synthetic drugs could be,” says Bowers.

“The politicians will tell you it’s a police matter. But they are under pressure and they’re not about to stand around the back doors of sex shops waiting for young people to come out.”

Hastings District Council has now adopted a draft Local Approved Products Policy (LAPP), which is out for consultation until early November. It is the local response to the central Government’s new psychoactive substances legislation.

The LAPP proposes psychoactive substances are only sold in the central commercial zone (CBD) and not within 100 metres of a church, school or early childcare centre.”

“The problem with our policy,” says Cynthia Bowers, “is that we have lumbered our CBD with retailers of synthetic drugs and it just adds to the woes of the CBD.”

Bowers is circulating a petition that calls for Government to ban psychoactive substances totally.

“A rally isn’t enough. We need a continual series of actions to get things done.”

If the petition isn’t enough either, Bowers says, Hastings District Council could promote a local ban to Government. It would need to be prepared and then sponsored by an MP – a local bill can override the legislation.

“I don’t understand the Government logic of legalising the sale as opposed to an out and out ban. The whole situation is arse about face: We have for sale something that hasn’t been tested, and we have legalised something that has terrible side effects.”

“We’re not doing very well managing the legal drugs we have like alcohol and cigarettes, why would we add another?” asks Bowers.

Local MP Craig Foss calls for patience.

Kevin Tamati (right foreground), coordinator of HB Community Action Youth & Drugs

“Very little can happen instant-aneously. Getting things right needs to be measured and methodical … process is paramount because you can be taken to court by the people who make the stuff, so you have got to follow process.”

Foss explains that up until July 2013 there were 200 to 300 different substances for sale at all sorts of places, including most neighbourhood dairies. In July, 119 MPs across all parties voted for legislation that led to the number of ‘approved’ substances decreasing to 28, which are only for sale in R18 stores – around 100 nationwide. In Hawke’s Bay there are three outlets with one more license pending.

“It’s quite easy to point to that man selling that stuff and say it is causing all these other ills in our society. People have tried to lay the blame at the feet of the Government, calling for a ban on this stuff, the social ills are not nice but they didn’t just happen.”

Craig Foss cautions that an out and out ban is not as easy as it may appear. “If we could ban them all we would. But what are we banning?”

Chemically, these substances are “a hodge podge of stuff” making them very hard to ban. On 27 September, K2, Kronic and Kryptonite, three of the worst offenders, failed to pass the testing process and were banned.

Is the Government committed to bringing the number down even further? “Hell yes! We will continue to get that number down … I am on the same page as local government and their desire for a safe and vibrant city and I fully understand their frustration. The ultimate fix is people knowing they don’t need to do it in the first place.”

The Youth Worker

Kevin Tamati is the coordinator of the Hawke’s Bay Community Action Youth and Drugs (CAYAD). He is positive the actions already taken by the Government are robust enough, that the real issue lies with “bored youth”.

Tamati believes the products should be included in the current LAP process (Local Alcohol Plan). In an open letter on the subject he says, “Keeping the sale of these substances to the CBD is a good idea. If people have to queue outside a sex shop then so be it. At least they are demonstrating a desire to obey the law.”

The real issue is why people, and his particular focus is youth, feel the need to take such substances in the first place, whether it’s alcohol, tobacco, cannabis or legal highs.

Tamati knows the key is to help youth build a passion for an activity that becomes more addictive than these substances.

“When you become passionate about things it’s quite easy to become addicted,” says Tamati.

“It’s about creating an opportunity – kapahaka, performing arts, sport – that these kids can move forward in and be a success at.”

Tamati believes the issue of psychoactive substances is in a better place than it was before the Psychoactive Substances Act was passed, even though there are some rogue retailers still selling the products illegally, and to young people.

“Shop owners identify the kids who have bought it before, then they target them, they give it to them cheaper and it’s about creating a need,” explains Tamati.

“But our little community armies tell us who’s selling it. We pass that on to police and there’s a knock on the door. More and more places are being reported. Once you’ve got the community up in arms it’s just a matter of time.”

Tamati’s issue reaches far wider than psychoactive substances. He is concerned that Hawke’s Bay has a “pro-alcohol orientation”.

“Alcohol is the biggest killer of our kids and unfortunately a lot of people in the Bay have got rich in the industries I’m talking about. They’re not about to support us in getting rid of alcohol.”

“The sad thing about the synthetic shit is that it’s legal – so is alcohol – but to think someone is intentionally poisoning themselves when they take this stuff. At least with alcohol you know what it is, but with cannabinoids you don’t.”

Tamati feels the recent spotlight on legal highs has benefitted groups like his who have been dealing with the effects of these substances on youth for a long time.

“The Government has come to the party with the legislation requiring importers to prove it is safe, that puts the onus on importers and sellers. That’s different to how it was in the past.

As long as there’s control over the sale of the shite then there can be control over what the shite is and how its manufactured. The problem is you don’t know what’s in it.”

Tamati believes the proactive side of the equation for councils is to support community groups to provide alternatives, like family-focused activities. He also knows there is a region-wide need for programmes for youth recovering from substance addiction.

The Police

Local police have already been very proactive when it comes to the sale of psychoactive substances. Well before the July legislation Sergeant Nigel Hurley, who heads up the team tasked with monitoring sales of psychoactive substances in the Bay, was taking action to limit the amount of sales as much as possible.

“We’ve done a lot of good work, but we’ve got a lot of work still to do,” says Hurley, whose team has been recognised for the strong stance it has taken. Other regions now seek advice from Eastern Districts.

When the products were first introduced, and were so readily available, “people thought they were doing the right thing buying it for their kids because they were already on cannabis,” says Hurley.

“The thing with cannabis is it’s a naturally occurring substance. This is a bunch of pineapple leaves or grains left over from the brewing industry sprayed with a combination of chemicals.”

The Shop Owner

One of the three places where psychoactive substances are legally available for sale in Hawke’s Bay is Adult Selections in Hastings.

It’s a busy shop, open twelve hours a day, seven days a week. Steve Batty is the manager and co-owner.

“I don’t smoke it regularly but I have smoked it. It’s like a very strong marijuana,” says Batty.

He explains his customer base: “Ninety percent of people who buy from us would be users of other drugs in the past. It’s the same demographic as alcohol and illegal drugs, and it’s heavily weighted towards Mäori. There are slightly more men than women but often women are shopping for a husband who is at work. It’s not all young people taking it, and it’s not all Flaxmere and Camberley. Some of our customers are very well-to-do.”

Batty says some users of illegal drugs find it easier to move to ‘legals’, then quit all drugs.

“Some people who have been smoking marijuana for 40 or 50 years have switched to this. People on P move to this stuff. People reduce their alcohol consumption. Many people decide they’ve had enough. They smoke too much then they stop taking all drugs.”

For some, another major reason for switching from marijuana to smoking legal psychoactive substances is the workplace.

Steve Batty, legal highs retailer, Adult Selections

“If you are using marijuana you can lose, or not get, employment. Not many contracts include synthetic cannabinoids.”
Batty is confident that products bought in his shop are not being onsold. “People don’t buy enough to be selling it on.” He asks questions, and in some cases, refuses to sell to someone buying more than four packets, or buying too often.

“People come in on pay day and buy their packet or two for the week. There are party pills and cannabinoid pills too, but smoke is more popular.”

“Most people are smoking it in groups. They are using cones and bongs. Don’t smoke it as a joint because it is too strong.”

Discussing Hastings’ LAPP, Batty says: “To comply we’d have to move into the other side of town (there is a church within 100 metres of their current site) and I’m pretty sure they (other retailers) don’t want us there.” He and his business partner will make a submission as part of LAPP process.

“Banning it is not the way to go. Ban this, then it’s replaced with this; it’s just a game. But letting the stuff into dairies was the worst thing that happened.”

Batty supports the current central government position. Of course he has benefitted economically, as part of a Hastings duopoly on legal highs. Newspaper reports have said Adult Selections takes $20,000 in a weekend. Batty scoffs at this, saying it’s completely overblown, but also pointing out the weekend is not his biggest earner.

“My concern is that if they stop it in Hastings it will be sold in tinny houses and crack houses and it will just go underground. If you take legals out of the equation then P will grow.”

The Mother

Jolene and Sid Morrell have first-hand knowledge of how legal psychoactive substances can affect an individual, a family and a wider community. It was their 12-year-old son who attacked the man on the day of the Blossom Parade in Hastings.

The incident came after a seven-month long battle the family had with the drug.

The circumstances that saw their son change from a “bright and bubbly boy who loved playing sport to an angry wild child” began when Jolene Morrell began seeing status updates on her older stepson’s Facebook page referring to suicidal thoughts and depression.

“We made the decision to bring him home, he needed awhi and love.”

But the 25 year old brought with him an addiction to legal cannabinoids.

“We didn’t know anything about this stuff. We thought he was smoking cigarettes and that it was a cigarette substitute because he bought it from the dairy. He was buying three or four packets a day, and he wasn’t hiding it from us, he was smoking it right there in front of us.”

“We put a lot of energy into this boy. Setting boundaries and rules to keep everyone safe in our family. We began noticing how much time the older kids (all over 18) were spending outside smoking, and I saw how my son who was 12 followed them. It was almost overnight that he changed. That’s when all the hate and anger started happening,” explains Jolene.

At school there was fighting and unpredictable behaviours. At home the family were walking on egg shells.

“We identified pretty quickly what the problem was and I took him into town to try and get some help, but because of his age he didn’t qualify for help, I was told repeatedly that he was too young for drug rehab or addiction services.”

Another frustration for the family is that psychoactive substances are still available in Flaxmere, in certain dairies and on the street. Jolene attended a meeting with police, the District Health Board and Hastings District Council. “We wanted to protest like the Nanny Brigade in Maraenui but a council officer told us we didn’t need to because Hastings District Council had sorted it, but they hadn’t. It’s still available.”

The immediate events in the build-up to the Blossom Parade are a story in themselves. A week before, Sid Morrell sliced right through his thumb and forefinger in a forestry accident. He was rushed to Hawke’s Bay Hospital and then to Hutt Valley Hospital. Later when he and Jolene filled out ACC forms they began to consider what had caused Sid’s accident.

“We thought about fatigue and about loss of concentration, and what must be going on in your mind to make you put your hand through a machine.” It was at that point they realised how much stress they’d been under.

On the morning of the parade Jolene was preparing to travel to Hutt Hospital. Her 12 year old was willingly helping with household chores.

“He was all good. He did some jobs and I gave him some money for the holidays. He and his brother caught the free bus into town to see the parade.”

Jolene’s daughter saw the boy on the bus, rang her mum and told her he “looked wasted”.

Jolene left immediately to meet her children in town. Before she got there she received a call from police to say her son had been arrested for grievous bodily harm.

“He was in the cells. When he looked up at me he was as high as a kite.”

Talking to her son, Jolene found the boy had used his pocket money to buy psychoactive substances, had travelled in to the parade and by the time he arrived in the CBD was hallucinating. In the crowd he saw a man using a cellphone he believed had been stolen from his mother.

“My boy kept saying ‘He had your phone Mum’.”

The boy attacked the man. Two others got involved. The boy got the man onto the ground and pushed his foot into the man’s face.

Jolene Morrell, who had been seeking help for her son for many months before the attack, wants to see the Government ban all psychoactive substances.

“And the DHB need to wake up and do something about their services. The main concern is overwhelming withdrawals. (As products are banned) there’ll be an influx of people, including children, going through withdrawals.”

“We are a family that is struggling with all this stuff that’s going on and I couldn’t find any help. I couldn’t find anyone to ask,” Morrell says.

What happens now?

The 12 year old at the centre of the furore is currently living with grandparents on family land in rural Hawke’s Bay. The plan for him is to take part in an education programme during the day, with mentoring every afternoon and into the evening, then weekends outside the area with senior family members.

“We’ve got no money to pay people to run around after our kids but we’ve got to keep him busy and active and off the street. He has to be physically exhausted when he gets to bed each night.”

The LAPP will be finalised by the end of this year. Police, government and agencies continue to work to shut down illegal sales of psychoactive substances. Deputy mayor Cynthia Bowers has said she will spend her next term focused solely on youth.

Anyone who has information on the illegal sale of psychoactive substances should call Crimestoppers on 0800 555 111.

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