‘Legal highs’ have drugs expert worried about effects on users

New forms of synthetic drugs being created at a faster rate than the authorities can identify and criminalize them: 100 new psychoactive substances were identified across Europe in 2015, a rate of two new drugs discovered every week

Colloquially known with names such as 'Sky High', these drugs tend to physically resemble marijuana and are sprayed with chemicals designed to imitate THC, the main pyschoactive cannabinoid found in cannabis
Colloquially known with names such as 'Sky High', these drugs tend to physically resemble marijuana and are sprayed with chemicals designed to imitate THC, the main pyschoactive cannabinoid found in cannabis

Malta is facing an influx of synthetic forms of cannabis, that is leaving some of its victims hospitalised at the emergency department or Mount Carmel, a drugs expert has warned. 

“Legal highs are the phenomenon of the day, just as ecstasy was in the 1980s,” forensic pharmacist Dr Mario Mifsud told MaltaToday. “We still often speak of drugs in terms of classic drugs but there’s a whole array of new substances on the market.” 

He warned that highly specialised chemists are constantly creating new forms of synthetic drugs, at a faster rate than the authorities can identify and criminalize them. Indeed, 100 new psychoactive substances were identified across Europe in 2015, a rate of two new drugs discovered every week. 

In Malta, police last year arrested six people who were caught with a total of 36.968g of legal highs. 

The drugs – colloquially known by names such as ‘Sky High’ and ‘Spice’ – tend to physically resemble marijuana and are sprayed with chemicals designed to imitate tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) – the main psychoactive cannabinoid found in cannabis. It can be smoked or brewed, and is sometimes sprayed with aromatic chemicals and deceptively marketed as herbal incense and aphrodisiac tea. 

As they are such a recent and ever-evolving phenomenon, information on synthetic cannabinoids is scant. 

Their effects tend to closely resemble those produced by marijuana – including feelings of relaxation, drowsiness, memory distortion, hallucinations and paranoia. However, they are significantly more potent and long-lasting than those of marijuana and a growing body of evidence shows that synthetic cannabinoids can trigger acute psychosis. 

“The risk is greater depending on the strength of the drug, the user’s ability to break the drug down, and the user’s genetic predisposition to psychosis,” Mifsud said.

“Moreover, the drug is most popular among youths. Since their brains are not fully developed, the chances of psychosis are higher.   

“It appears as though the number of patients who have been sent to Mount Carmel for treatment after using synthetic cannabinoids is on the rise.”

The director of the mental health hospital was unavailable for comment at the time of writing. 

Also concerning is that synthetic cannabinoids are sometimes potentised – the process of minimising, rather negating the toxic effects of the crude drug – but marketed and sold under the same name as the original version. For example, the original Sky High had included the synthetic cannabinoid MDMB-CHMICA, while a new one currently on the market contains the stronger chemical 5F-MDMB-Pinaca. Fatalities have been recorded from this drug, although none yet in Malta.    

Mifsud said that new drugs are traditionally first introduced in northern European markets before gradually infiltrating into the south, and that there is hence considerable time lag before they enter Malta. 

However, the increasing popularity of underground rave parties on the island, the rise of websites selling the drugs, and the fact that many Maltese people now have contacts with dealers in northern countries like the UK and Germany have made them extremely accessible.

Synthetic cannabis appears to be significantly cheaper than natural marijuana as well. 

BRC Chemicals, a British website for ‘research chemicals’ purports to sell SkyHigh at the rate of £12 (€14.87) per 3g. In contrast, natural marijuana on the Maltese market is estimated to cost between €20- €25 per gram. 

Mifsud said that synthetic cannabis tends to be used by people driven by a sense of curiosity, who are seeking a more powerful experience to marijuana. 

“It is not a social drug like ecstacy and is often consumed in the same sort of places – with the same type of music playing – where marijuana is used,” he said. 

“It is often used for experimentation and indeed many people who use synthetic cannabis warn potential future users on online drug forums to stay away from or to dilute them with water. 

“However, grassroots research on parties where this drug is used is lacking and is necessary to better understand the phenomenon.” 

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