Synthetic deaths decline but mum who lost son to overdose not convinced battle is won

Figures obtained by Newshub show a decline in the number of deaths linked to synthetic cannabis.

But a mother who lost her son to an overdose is not convinced New Zealand is winning the war on what were once 'legal highs'.

Calum Jones was just 22 when synthetic cannabis claimed his life. 

He overdosed in 2017 - one of 35 deaths that year linked to the drugs that were banned only three years prior, as outrage over legal highs spread.

Calum's mum Lorraine recalls how it gripped her son.

"He came home one day and he said 'Mum, I'm going to give up cannabis', and I said 'That's brilliant, that's fantastic', and he said, 'They've got these new things up at the dairy, I'm going to buy that, it's called Chronic'."

Despite his good intentions, from there, it was a downward spiral for Calum.

"He used to say to me 'Mum, it's going to kill me, I can't stop, I just can't'," Lorraine told Newshub. 

The Government reclassified the main synthetic cannabis substances - including AMB-FUBINACA - as Class A in 2019.

Massey University College of Health Associate Professor Chris Wilkins told Newshub it was the right move. 

"To me it was appropriate because we are dealing with something that can be lethal and causes so much damage."

Coroner figures obtained by Newshub show deaths linked to the drugs have been declining, from a peak of 49 in 2018, to 22 the following year, to 17 deaths in 2020, and eight last year.

There's also been a major decline in seizures of synthetic cannabis products, from a high of more than 37,558 in 2018 down to 2674 last year. 

But Lorraine isn't convinced we're winning the battle. 

"No. No. Synthetics are a Government shame - both Governments, National and Labour. And it's just been swept under the carpet," she told Newshub.

"There's been no accountability. I find it absolutely horrendous that these things even got into the market."

Prof Wilkins also isn't convinced.

"Some of it's just basically luck in terms of what compounds are out there, what's being supplied to New Zealand."

NZ Drug Foundation CEO Sarah Helm told Newshub: "It's still causing harm, we still have it in the community, and it's a continual concern."

Lorraine has a message for parents struggling to help their children overcome addiction.

"Just don't give up. Don't give up. They're in there somewhere. Your child is in there somewhere."