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Synthetic cannabis deaths

Following eight deaths in Auckland related to 'synthetic cannabis', police are warning citizens away from the dangerous drugs.

Last Friday, news of seven deaths in Auckland linked to synthetic cannabis caused the Chief Coroner and NZ Police to issue a warning about the substance.

Users of the substance often suffer seizures, collapse, exhibit out-of-character violence and rapidly enter a ‘zombie-like' state after smoking the drug.

Dr Paul Quigley, emergency medicine specialist at Wellington Hospital, told the Science Media Centre said that synthetic cannabis is “far more potent than naturally-occurring THC” and that “even a single smoke of synthetic is the equivalent of up to 15 normal joints”.

New Zealand Drug Foundation executive director Ross Bell told VICE that it is premature to even give a name to what this drug may be. “No testing has been done, the findings of the deaths haven’t been made; the Police cannot make the claims that they’ve made that these deaths are synthetic cannabis related.”

Since then, there's been a lot of speculation about what chemicals this killer drug contains. Chris Wilkins from Massey University told the AM show that we should call them 'new psychoactive substances' because it's "really misleading to call it synthetic cannabis because people then expect the effects to be like cannabis, where in fact these are completely different compounds and are much more potent and they have different effects than cannabis".

Dr Wilkins also noted that this is a global public health issue not unique to New Zealand and that last year the UN identified "790 different compounds that we would call new psychoactive substances".

Kevan Walsh, the forensic chemistry manager at the Institute of Environmental Science and Research (ESR) which does the forensic analysis for police, told Radio Live: "there really is no relationship or commonality between synthetic cannabis and traditional cannabis, because we're talking about a manufactured synthetic chemical that's then added to plant material and smoked."

He went on to say that the only common link between them was the delivery method and the fact that the drug is working on the same receptor in the brain.

He also said that ESR “haven’t seen a manufacturing laboratory where they're synthesising or manufacturing synthetic cannabis... It’s almost certain that these things are being smuggled in from overseas or in underground laboratories".

The SMC gathered expert reaction to the initial police warning.

Quoted: NZ Herald

"There are an awful lot of arguments and an awful lot of failed approaches in youth suicide.

"That's why we're emphasising we need to be very careful with any intervention we do."

Prime Minister's Chief Science Advisor Sir Peter Gluckman on NZ's rates of youth suicide

Our newest (extinct) bird

New Zealand researchers have found that our own black swan, poūwa, was a different species to the Australian cousin that replaced it.

The poūwa was hunted to extinction shortly after humans arrived in the 13th Century. By using ancient DNA from skeletons found in both pre-human times and archaeological rubbish dumps, researchers from the University of Otago, Canterbury Museum and Te Papa found that the poūwa was heavier and larger than the Aussie species (Cygnus atratus) now common around New Zealand — weighing up to 10kg compared to the slighter 6kg of the Aussie bird.

It had long been assumed the two swan species were the same, and that the Aussie birds had simply replaced those hunted by early Māori, so the researchers caution that even closely-related species might not be surrogates for extinct species.

Writing on Sciblogs, lead author Dr Nic Rawlence from the University of Otago said that poūwa had “very elongated legs, and proportionally shorter wings”, suggesting it was well on the way to becoming flightless when it became extinct and was living more on land than on water.

In his piece on The Conversation, Dr Rawlence noted that there were two separate lineages of the poūwa: one on the mainland, and one on the Chatham Islands. He said the name poūwa was chosen "based on a Chatham Island Moriori legend about a large black bird that inhabited the lagoon and whose bones were common in the surrounding sand dunes".

The research was published this week in Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences.

Read a summary of media coverage on the study.

Policy news & developments

Recycling farm plastic: EnviroNZ’s plastic extrusion plant in Christchurch is getting an upgrade, meaning it will now be able to recycle polypropylene fertiliser bags from farms.

Tracking health by social media: The Ministry of Health is trialling using social media and a range of historic and current data sets to detect trends that indicate the spread of infectious diseases.

Funding for suicide review: Following a successful trial, the Ministry of Health will extend its funding for the Suicide Mortality Review Committee.

Time to Screen campaign: A new website and social media campaign aim to encourage women to have regular cervical smear tests and mammograms.


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