Godwin Sammut says what he sees is increasingly worrying.
Ivan Martin looks into a new and alarming drug trend: the growing use of synthetic chemicals that mimic cannabis, only they are 10 times stronger and much more dangerous.
Dangerous synthetic cannabis is being made in Malta by drug dealers importing Chinese chemicals and spraying them onto batches of edible leaves, The Sunday Times of Malta has learnt.
Drug expert Godwin Sammut said that the authorities had in recent months discovered batches of chemicals known as synthetic cannabinoids being imported to the island in large quantities.
The chemicals are the active ingredient in a legal substance known as spice which mimics the effects of cannabis but experts believe is far more dangerous.
“The difference is that cannabis can’t kill you and these chemicals can,” Mr Sammut warned.
Police and customs officials have also discovered consignments of leaves from the marshmallow plant, the leafy evergreen that is normally sprayed with synthetic chemicals in Chinese factories.
Police sources involved in counter-narcotics investigations told this newspaper they believe drug dealers started making the copycat drug on the island in recent months to meet demand.
“The small packets of spice which normally contain a few grams or less were not enough to meet the demand for this drug, which is being abused frequently across the island,” the sources said.
Meanwhile, Mr Sammut, who tests all drugs seized by the police and national authorities, said that although this legal substance had been present on the island for some time, the fact that it was being prepared by traffickers in Malta was worrying officials.
“What they are doing is dissolving the chemical in ethanol and adding it to a sprayer like you would do with weedkiller, for instance.
“This is then sprayed indiscriminately on these cut-up leaves,” Mr Sammut said.
He explained that the amateur operations were dangerous, both for the dealers, who exposed themselves to the chemicals being sprayed, and for end users, who risked getting a product that was far too potent.
“When the chemicals are sprayed onto the plants, you get a hotspot where far too much has been sprayed. You could have a situation where a person thinks he is smoking a joint of normal cannabis and instead is getting a chemical that could kill him,” he said.
You could have a situation where a person thinks he is smoking a joint of normal cannabis and instead is getting a chemical that could kill him
Although customs officials are on the lookout for these chemicals being imported, dealers are finding innovative ways of getting their hands on it.
Mr Sammut said that at the end of 2016, authorities intercepted a consignment of titanium dioxide – a whitening agent used in paint.
“We found that this chemical, coming from China, was actually a synthetic cannabinoid – which was prepared to be sprayed on plants and smoked.”
Investigations into the use of these chemicals also showed that dealers were spraying ordinary cannabis with these substances to market their product as particularly potent.
Mr Sammut said that European authorities had also warned Malta of the possibility of cannabis resin being made out of synthetics rather than THC, tetrahydrocannabinol, the active ingredient in cannabis.
“This could be a killer – and we are on the lookout for it,” Mr Sammut said.
Copycat-drug users – a new concern for emergency doctors
Casualty Consultant Jonathan Joslin would not rule out the possibility that synthetic drugs were behind any recent fatal overdoses, since knowledge of their physical effects was still far too limited.
“It is difficult to pinpoint whether deaths were the result of these substances, they are not easily detectable,” he said.
Dr Joslin, a fixture at Mater Dei’s emergency department, told The Sunday Times of Malta he had seen a spike in the number of patients requiring immediate assistance after abusing the copycat drugs in recent months.
He had also seen patients reporting symptoms that did not tally with traditional substances such as heroin or cocaine.
“We treat symptoms. We knew that certain symptoms, such as chest pains in a young adult, normally point to cocaine. This is not the case with these new substances,” he said.
Dr Joslin said abusers of these new drugs exhibited “very erratic behaviour”.
“I have seen people on synthetic cannabis banging their heads on the hospital walls. They have serious behaviour problems when abusing this drug,” he said.
Dr Joslin expressed concern that there was no established antidote or set course of treatment for synthetic drugs, meaning that emergency responders were in the dark, only able to treat individual symptoms.
What was worse was that he did not envisage the trend slowing down.
“I think it is only going to get worse. People think, ‘What is the worst that can happen, it’s only synthetic cannabis,’ but they don’t realise how bad it can get,” he said.
The rise of synthetic cathinones
In 2016, the EU’s drug monitoring agency identified 66 new synthetic copycat drugs on the market – that’s more than one new drug a week. More than half of the drugs available on the Maltese market are believed to be, or be mixed with, fake copycats made in China.
The majority, synthetic cathinones, are drugs chemically related to cathinone, a stimulant found in the khat plant. Khat, a shrub grown in East Africa and southern Arabia, is chewed for its mild stimulant effects.
Synthetic variants of cathinone can be much stronger than the natural product and, in some cases, very dangerous.
Synthetic cathinones are included in a group of drugs that concern EU health officials called ‘new psychoactive substances’ – unregulated psychoactive (mind-altering) substances that have become newly available on the market and are intended to copy the effects of illegal drugs.
Some of these substances may have been around for years but have re-entered the market in altered chemical forms or due to renewed popularity.
Many of them are not recognised as illegal substances in Malta and are much cheaper than their traditional counterparts – them a lucrative option for drug dealers.
Original article found on Times Of Malta