Australians have been under the impression that Synthetic drugs are “safe” drugs, however the recent death of Henry Kwan has proven just how dangerous they can be.

Synthetic drugs are chemically laced substances similar to marijuana, cocaine and methamphetamine, that can cause liver failure, kidney failure and death.

They are highly addictive, extremely dangerous and, just over a month ago could legally be purchased over the counter.

The recent death of Killara High School student, Henry Kwan, 17, brought the Government’s attention to the existence of these substances and, as a result, on June 11 Fair Trading NSW launched ‘Operation Salt’, a 90 day interim ban on the sale of synthetic drugs

NSW Minister for Fair Trading, Anthony Roberts, said the ban has been highly successful with a compliance rate of 94 per cent from over 1000 businesses.

“The ban prevents someone walking into a store and buying a potentially harmful synthetic drug product and thinking it is safe simply because it is allowed to be sold legally in an Australian shop or by a business online. We have removed this risk across the state,” he said.

The Commonwealth has also taken action and issued a 120 day interim ban that applies to businesses across Australia.

“The NSW government welcomes this (national) interim ban but I believe this ban should be made permanent. The compliance rate achieved during the first week of ‘Operation Salt’ shows how effectively the interim ban has worked,” said Mr Roberts.

While the NSW and federal government’s bans on sales of the drugs is a step in the right direction, Greens Senator, Richard Di Natale believes the Government’s current approach is too simplistic.

“The synthetic drug industry is very dynamic so when a substance is banned the producers are able to alter the compound to avoid a ban and have it on the shelves within days. What we will see is a pharmacological arms race where bans are always one step behind what’s available,” he said.

“The scary thing is that each tweak introduces a new and untested drug onto the market which has the potential to make the substance even more harmful to the user.”

The question is then, if outlawing synthetic drugs won’t work, what will?

Senator Di Natale believes there needs to be an urgent national summit.

“The Greens care about finding a workable solution and that’s why I’m calling for an urgent national summit that will take the politics out of the issue and bring together experts to develop a national approach,” he said.

Mr Roberts admits the bans introduced by the Government are not enough to solve the problem of synthetic drugs, and that a more wholistic approach is necessary.

“The support of the community is also vital. We need to spread the message that synthetic drugs are not safe, they are dangerous and potentially fatal. I urge anyone who knows someone using synthetic drugs, to inform them of the dangers these drugs pose,” he said.

Initiatives such as NSW government’s ‘Drug Action Week’, which took place in June, work towards educating people on the risks they’re taking in the hope that they will make the right choice themselves.

NSW Minister for Mental Health and Healthy Lifestyles, Kevin Humphries, urged people to take the time during Drug Action Week to learn more about the dangers of synthetic drugs.

“Let’s bury the misconception that because synthetic drugs have been sold on shelves they present little or no danger to the user,” he said.

“Synthetic drugs are just as, if not more, dangerous than other illicit drugs. It is not known what drugs or ingredients have been used and in what quantities to create each new version.”

New Zealand’s approach to tackling the problem has received much attention, as it focuses on regulating the drugs, rather than outlawing them.

The New Zealand Government is investing millions of dollars in testing substances in order to determine whether or not they are safe enough to be legal. From August all substances that are approved will be sold legally from licensed retailers. It has been estimated that the number of retailers selling synthetic drugs will shrink from 1000 to 100.

Federal Minister for Home Affairs, Jason Clare, announced that the Commonwealth Government will develop permanent legislation that will be based on New Zealand’s approach.

In a report released in June, Mr Clare described how the legislation would reverse the onus of proof, stating that this will mean new drugs coming onto the market are presumed to be illegal until they’ve been proven to be legal.

However, Mr Clare made no mention of implementing any sort of testing scheme, despite testing being at the core of New Zealand’s approach.

Further, the NSW government stated that ‘Operation Salt’ has been designed to negate the need for testing of substances by listing banned products according to their known brand name rather than their chemical compound.

What is clear is that there is no single solution to the problem of synthetic drugs.

While the Government has a central role to play, the community needs to work together to raise awareness of the risks of these extremely dangerous substances, in the hope that no more families will have to suffer like Henry Kwan’s.

By Jessie Goldie