In recent years, the cannabis market in Ireland and across Europe has undergone a radical transformation, with synthetic and semi-synthetic products such as HHC taking centre stage. The once-traditional choices of weed and hash are now overshadowed by a diverse array of offerings, including vapes, edibles, concentrates, oils, and extracts. The most recent data from Forensic Science Ireland shows that half of cannabis edibles seized in Ireland contain a synthetic drug with no traces of THC. However, this shift brings with it a concerning rise in synthetic cannabis consumption and adverse reactions.
Recent incidents in Ireland, notably among the younger demographic, underscore the health risks associated with synthetic cannabis. While these instances resulted in no lasting health impacts, the gravity of the situation cannot be underestimated. In an unregulated black market, instances of consumers requiring medical attention due to unknowingly or knowingly consuming synthetic substances are likely to increase. The absence of testing facilities or personal testing kits in Ireland adds a layer of complexity to the issue, which seems not to impact consumption rates thus far. Despite the surge in synthetic products, a significant portion of cannabis consumers in Ireland express a preference for natural alternatives. Unfortunately, consumers often find themselves with limited choices due to the lack of regulation.
Pre-2016, synthetic cannabis products were one of the most popular products purchased from “Headshops”.
The banning of "Headshops" in 2016 resulted in a shift of synthetic cannabis production underground, where criminal gangs took charge, reminiscent of scenarios depicted in popular media, such as the television series "Breaking Bad." In one recent Irish case, we saw a teenager convert their bedroom into a laboratory-type set up to manufacture cannabis vapes which were sold all over Europe. This transition has raised concerns about the safety and quality of synthetic products in the absence of regulatory oversight.
Central to combatting the threats posed by synthetic cannabis is the implementation of comprehensive regulatory frameworks. The emergence of synthetic cannabinoids was, in part, fueled by their legal status, providing a competitive advantage over traditional cannabis. The subsequent bans on synthetic cannabinoids contributed to the emergence of even more, often riskier, products with minor molecular variations.
The most direct and successful solution to the synthetic cannabis predicament lies in the regulation of the cannabis industry. Notably, regions with regulated cannabis markets have witnessed a significant drop in the popularity of synthetic products, resulting in decreased health risks, which I have covered in a previous article.
While awaiting cannabis regulation, what can the Irish Government do to combat the dangers of unregulated synthetic products? A multi-faceted approach that is focused on education, harm reduction and community engagement is key.
A public awareness campaign that employs targeted education that reaches across demographics, which emphasises the risks associated with synthetic cannabis. This would include online resources, advertisements on public transport, newspapers and community events. Education should refer to the risks associated with the consumption of unregulated synthetic cannabis, the effects upon consumption, harm reduction advice and advice on what to do if there is an adverse health reaction to the product. Clearly communicate the potential health risks and adverse effects of synthetic cannabis through various media channels, utilising graphic images and real-life stories to drive home the message.
Local seminars/webinars and workshops should engage local communities, stakeholders and NGOs who specialise in substance education should be utilised. Leveraging their expertise and on-the-ground experience to enhance the impact of awareness programmes.
Online resources and support hotlines should be developed to promote easy access to information on synthetic cannabis, and its risks and may also be utilised to identify potential synthetic products on the market. Research and data collection should be prioritised. Establishing monitoring systems to monitor and track synthetic products can help develop targeted interventions. This data can be utilised in a public warning system similar to what was employed at Electric Picnic.
Although Ireland has thus far avoided severe health implications or fatalities from synthetic products, the current situation suggests that it's only a matter of time before such headlines emerge. Regulation, by gatekeeping access and imposing THC limits, presents a viable long-term solution to safeguarding public health. In the interim, strategic education and harm reduction programs are imperative to mitigate potential risks associated with synthetic cannabis consumption.