I’d like to address the issue of synthetic drugs, which have generated a lot of media coverage over the past few months. Synthetic drugs not only cause the death of young people, but can result in many other terrible side-effects that trouble the staff at Youth Off The Streets on a daily basis. It’s alarming when the UN releases a report that says governments are struggling to keep up with the amount of different ‘legal highs’ available on the market.
As a youth focused organisation, this affects us in two ways. One; the harmful side-effects can lead to aggressive, violent behaviour and two; regular users become addicted and develop substance abuse issues. Our youth workers rarely encounter violent behaviour, until recently, when a young person was visibly distressed after taking synthetic cannabinoids. This is becoming a significant problem as there is a lack of knowledge around what has been taken and its impact on a young person. For example, a young person recently smoked a synthetic drug, right in front of a youth worker because they don’t have a distinctive smell: they just smell like cheap tobacco. Soon after that, our youth worker approached the young person, who was becoming visibly distressed and lashed out in a violent way toward the worker. This was not like the young person at all, and they were very remorseful the next day.
As well as the behavioural changes being drastic; the danger of becoming addicted and having substance abuse issues is significant. Many consistent users of synthetic drugs often end up homeless and those, who are young, will often seek help from our organisation or organisations like Youth Off The Streets. We have seen the devastating impact of synthetic drugs first hand, as more and more consistent users start to access our services. We’ve seen the negative mental effects, including; dissociative states, aggression and paranoia. We’ve seen the negative physical effects, including; rapid pulse rate, chest pain, seizures and rapid breathing. One user, to the horror of a youth worker, went blue in the face due to fast, shallow breathing, which led to a lack of oxygen in the bloodstream. Mainstream use of synthetic drugs is a relatively new development and we are not sure of the long term effects from exposure to this toxicity.
The Australian law is out of date; we need to make this lethal type of drug illegal. We hear, all too often, young people use the excuse “it’s legal, so it’s OK”, when asked to stop taking synthetic drugs. The law is sending the wrong message to our young people. After so many incidents with synthetic drugs, it’s time to make them illegal and attempt to eliminate them from circulation. For something that is more dangerous than the drug it is supposed to simulate, it is ridiculous they are still sold over the counter.
Father Chris Riley, CEO, Youth Off The Streets.