Cannabis referendum: Liberal drugs laws will reduce demand for 'zombie' drug AMB-FUBINACA - expert

Countries with more liberal cannabis laws don't have the problems we do with synthetic cannabinoids, a leading drug researcher says.

On Tuesday, Environmental Science and Research scientists said they'd detected deadly compound AMB-FUBINACA "in a number of locations across New Zealand", a year after it was last known to be on Kiwi streets. 

AMB-FUBINACA works by activating the cannabinoid receptors in the brain, just like cannabis' THC, except it's up to 100 times stronger. When it arrived on our shores in 2017, it was dubbed the 'zombie' drug for its extreme effects and potency.

"Some of the effects are loss of consciousness, seizures, leading to often rapid overdose. It is really a high-risk horrible compound," Massey University professor Chris Wilkins told The AM Show on Wednesday. "The compound itself is very potent so it's very easy to get the wrong dosage."

More than 70 Kiwis lost their lives to the drug between 2017 and 2019.

"That was one of the worst overdose waves that New Zealand's ever had historically, but because it involved marginalised people, often street people who had alcohol and drug problems already, it really didn't get the attention it should have got," said Dr Wilkins.

"We all know the risks of things like heroin and methamphetamine, but because this really didn't affect... middle New Zealand, it really didn't get much attention."

Though it works in a similar way to THC, Dr Wilkins said it's a "misnomer" to think they're related.

"This is just a synthetic compound - it has nothing to do with THC or cannabis. I think that's really important to get across because people are lulled into this false sense that this is just cannabis."

About a decade ago 'legal highs' were widely available in dairies around New Zealand - manufacturers taking advantage of loopholes in the law which outlawed cannabis, but not cannabinoids in general. 

They were eventually banned in 2013, but not before many users got addicted. Being made in labs, the cannabinoid compounds were often much stronger than any cannabis grown in the ground. Because smaller amounts are required for the same high, they're easier to transport - making them an attractive investment for dealers, and at times easier for users to get their hands on than cannabis. 

Chris Wilkins.
Chris Wilkins. Photo credit: The AM Show

Dr Wilkins says most users would rather just smoke cannabis - a drug with no recorded overdoses in history. University of Otago addiction specialist Doug Sellman on Tuesday said cannabis is orders of magnitude safer than AMB-FUBINACA, which he ranks as dangerous as heroin and methamphetamine. 

Both blamed the lack of a legal market for cannabis for the use of AMB-FUBINACA and other mystery synthetic drugs.

"If you look at countries that have more liberal laws as to natural cannabis, you really don't get these synthetic cannabinoids," said Dr Wilkins.

"When I go to international conferences, they're really amazed about how many deaths we've had related to synthetic cannabinoids, because they just don't get it. I think it is a factor to consider." 

New Zealanders will vote on whether to legalise recreational use of cannabis - the traditional kind - in October.