A NEWCASTLE family who made synthetic cannabis in their suburban home says the booming business had turned over $800,000 in the six months before a government crackdown on the substances.
The father and son operators said they sold up to 35 kilograms a week to tobacconists in Sydney and Newcastle but were still unable to meet demand.
Selling to retailers for $2.50 a gram, they were collecting almost $90,000 a week – before tax – at the peak of their trade.
One Newcastle tobacconist sold the drug – marketed as being for ‘‘aromatherapy use only’’ and ‘‘not for human consumption’’ – to more than 1800 customers in the first week of sales.
Using herbs bought from interstate and chemicals imported from Asia, the pair mixed and dried the smoking compound in their home before packaging it and selling it to retailers.
Alan (not his real name) spoke to the Newcastle Herald on Friday, arguing that his product was safe and that synthetic cannabis should be regulated and taxed by the government.
‘‘We were doing so well for the government. We were supplying a safe product, a nice product, and the government was making s---loads off it. Why would they want to ban us?’’he said.
Alan said manufacturers of ‘‘cheap and nasty’’ versions of the product had given the synthetic drug industry a bad name.
Since June, synthetic drugs have been subject to a national ban under the Australian Consumer Law, which carries penalties of up to $220,000 for individuals selling psychoactive substances, or $1.1 million for corporations.
Alan said he had stopped production though he still had some ingredients and was hoping the ban would be lifted.
The pair said that at the outset of their business they spent $15,000 on product testing which involved experimenting with different combinations of a variety of herbs and chemicals.
‘‘We made [the capital] up quite easily because as you can see there’s money in this,’’ he said.
Alan’s knowledge of chemistry led him to develop his own formula, which he sourced from a biosynthetic chemical company in Asia.
After being dissolved in another substance, the chemical was used to coat a mixture of dry herbs.
He said it was uninformed to categorise his products in the same league as substances such as ‘‘bath salts’’, the street name for synthetic amphetamines and cocaine.
‘‘Like all industries, you find people who want to do it right ... and who will do the right thing,’’ he said. ‘‘Then there are the ones who want the quick dollars.
‘‘We went about testing hundreds of different herbs and combinations based on what we’d read about them and what benefits they’re supposed to give you.
‘‘We found four that we thought were superb and the end product was breathtaking.’’
Alan and his son said they were trying to produce a harmless and liberating product, which was sold under a brand name the Herald has opted not to reveal.
‘‘I think I created something good,’’ Alan said.
‘‘My conscience is clear.’’
The pair sold their product for $2.50 a gram to tobacconists, who then marked it up to $35 per 1.5grams.
While tobacconists had made a small fortune, the government was also getting its slice through GST, they said.
One Sydney tobacconist near Penrith sold 10 kilograms of the product, 1.5 grams at a time, in just four days.
While Alan said he and his son believed the chemical was pure and safe, he admitted there could be a potential risk for those with pre-existing mental illnesses.
Alan said the packages of his synthetic cannabis carried labels ‘‘banning’’ consumption for people under 18 years old and warned against use by those with mental illnesses, pregnant women and other high-risk consumers.
Alan said it was likely that most negative reactions to synthetics were caused by incorrect use of the product.
A user of his own product, Alan said it was too strong to be treated like ‘‘normal weed’’ and that people needed to be sensible with the amount they used.
He said he was originally surprised by the ban, which he said did not distinguish between his ‘‘good’’ product and other synthetic products.
‘‘That was the end of it. We then dumped approximately 70 kilograms of herb out at Summerland [tip],’’ he said.
Alan said he favoured a model of regulation rather than a total ban.
He said products should be assessed on their own merit, and he was confident his would pass any safety tests.
Alan said he was motivated to go public with his story because he felt people were uninformed about the ‘‘world of synthetics’’ and cannabis in particular.
‘‘No one speaks out for synthetics,’’ he said.
‘‘I just want public awareness because if [people] are aware we might have a better chance of the government having a solid look at it.’’
John (not his real name), a user of Alan’s concoction, said he thought the product was better than most others available.
‘‘It mimics the effects of real marijuana much more convincingly than most,’’ he said.
John said he thought the products were less dangerous at the beginning but, as chemicals were made illegal and the products deviated further from the original product, they became less reliable.
Fake cannabis gives dangerous impression
JAMIE (not his real name), a 21-year-old former Hunter student, was shocked by his chance encounter with synthetic cannabis earlier this year.
He was handed a packet of synthetic cannabis by a Sydney tobacconist and told it was an alternative to tobacco.
‘‘I wanted to quit smoking tobacco so I asked the guy for something else to spin with my regular cannabis,’’ he said.
He tried the drug for a short time but said the experience was strange and unpleasant two out of five times on average.
‘‘The reaction I had was like losing control. It was more like a psychedelic than cannabis. It didn’t get me high, it just gave me a cloudy feeling in my head,’’ he said.
He speculated that street dealers probably bought a lot of stock when the ban came into place and are now ‘‘selling it really cheap’’ to unsuspecting customers seeking real illegal drugs.
‘‘People aren’t getting what they pay for on the street,’’ he said.
‘‘I have friends who mistakenly bought tabs of synthetic acid, thinking it was the real thing.
‘‘I, without a doubt, prefer real weed.’’
A supporter of the ban on synthetic drugs, he said making one version of a drug legal and one illegal makes people think the legal version is safe.
He said it encourages people to ‘‘jump in the deep end with an unsafe substance’’.
‘‘In reality the legal stuff is more dangerous,’’ he said.
Though he hasn’t had any lasting effects, the experience has taught him to be more careful.
‘‘I’ll ask what it is, specifically, when I’m buying something now,’’ he said.
He is concerned that bad synthetic experiences will give people a false idea of drugs which, he worries, will help perpetuate the prohibition of natural cannabis.
He said he didn’t think it was necessarily a good thing for people to be put off the idea of all drugs just because they had a poor introduction.
While the manufacture and sale of synthetic drugs is prohibited under the current, statewide ban, personal use and possession remains legal.
Jamie said it didn’t make sense – ‘‘I’ve just gone back to normal weed instead.’’
Violent side effects
IT’S known as artificial pot but the consequences for users are real.
And in the Hunter – widely regarded as one of Australia’s ‘‘hot spots’’ for synthetic drugs – the mental health impacts have been extreme.
The Newcastle Herald has spoken with health experts, police and users to chronicle the effects synthetic substances are inflicting on society.
While tobacconists and sex shops were selling the drugs with impunity, the grip the drugs had on the city tightened.
Newcastle police were forced to deal with violent synthetic drug users at least 130 times in fewer than six months – equating to almost once a day – while paramedics and hospital emergency departments were left to deal with uncontrollable and violent patients.
When the government stepped in and announced a national ban, the Hunter’s mental health services began bracing for an onslaught of people seeking help to kick their addiction.
‘‘We are already seeing a lot of patients coming in with serious mental health problems and some will now face withdrawal,’’ a mental health worker based at Calvary Mater Hospital told the Herald in June this year.
‘‘It is true that what we are seeing could be worse than the mental health implications we saw with ice, the problem is very serious and we don’t know enough about it yet.’’
Synthetic cannabis fiends could experience unpredictable and extremely severe negative side effects including dizziness, sweating, nausea and vomiting, an Australian Institute of Criminology monitoring program reported.
Others who were surveyed complained of becoming delusional, having anger outbursts, experiencing effects similar to using LSD or amphetamines, heart palpitations, chest pains or difficulty breathing.