Concern over 'synthetic' drugs

2011-08-29 11:23
Pretoria - A synthetic drug with a similar effect on the body to that of dagga, and which could also be addictive, is being marketed as a “legal” drug in South Africa, apparently as a result of inadequate legislation.

What is more, routine urine screening tests for drugs cannot detect it.

In an investigation into the matter, Beeld bought a packet of Magic Dragon herbal blend on the website www.legal-highs.co.za and took it to the forensic toxicology laboratory of the University of Pretoria’s chemistry department.

According to Dr Tim Laurens, a toxicologist and director of the laboratory, an advanced test (gas chromatographic mass spectrometric analysis) showed that the mixture contains JWH-073, a synthetic molecule that can have a similar effect on the body to that of dagga, and an even stronger one.

Not covered by SA laws

Laurens’s laboratory earlier also found JWH-073 in a packet of Dust bought on the same website. He said he has been receiving inquiries from big companies suspecting that their workers are using “synthetic dagga”. The companies are at their wits’ end because routine urine screening tests to identify drug users in the workplace have not been able to detect the substances.

Laurens said that during a research project in Germany earlier this year he heard that authorities from all over the world are battling to control synthetic drugs.

Dagga and derivatives of the plant are banned in South Africa by the Medicine and Related Substances Act and the Drugs and Drug Trafficking Act.

Laurens says JWH-073 is a chemical compound not covered by the dagga laws, because it is not a derivative of the dagga plant.

This molecule and several other synthetic molecules were originally developed by researchers looking for a safe medicinal use for dagga.

But underground pharmacologists started using it in herbal products and selling these as “legal” drugs. One of the first synthetic cannabinoids found in herbal drugs was JWH-018 in 2008. Now there are dozens of them.

It is suspected that the chemical substances are sprayed on plant material, dried and packaged, but not declared on the packaging.

Sales of the herbal drugs (initially known as Spice) skyrocketed when the media in Germany reported on them. The authorities started banning the products and molecules one after the other, but are struggling to stay ahead.

Difficult to detect

Underground pharmacologists apparently alter the molecular structure of the synthetic cannabinoids quite frequently, which makes it difficult to detect with laboratory tests.

Legal-highs says in its marketing material that its products are safe and contain herbs as well as a “synthetic cannabinoid of the JWH family”.

Many countries, including Australia, New Zealand, Europe and the US, have started declaring synthetic cannabinoids illegal or scheduled medicines.

Laurens has written to the SA Medicine Control Board (MCB) to propose that legislation be adapted to ban it here as well. The MCB has not answered any media inquiries.

Ross Whitehead of www.legal-highs.co.za said the company’s head office is in New Zealand and declined to comment immediately.

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