Synthetics are killing our whānau - but tighter restrictions won't help

by Aaron Hendry / 13 October, 2018
"It changed me," said one young man. Photo / Getty Images

"It changed me," said one young man. Photo / Getty Images

RelatedArticlesModule - synthetics

Many young people turn to synthetics to get off marijuana, thinking it's less harmful, writes youth worker Aaron Hendry. By the time they discover it's not, their lives have completely changed - and they're often left on their own.

“I thought it was safe,” he told me. “I never would have touched the stuff if I'd realised what it would do to me.”

This was the first time I had come in contact with the drugs we now know as synthetics.

It was several years ago and I was working as a youth worker supporting a young man who had recently become homeless. His parents had kicked him out of home and he was unequipped to support himself through the effects of his addiction.


Before being kicked out, the drug he had been using was weed. But it didn’t take him long after becoming homeless to get snagged by a substance far deadlier.

Couch-surfing and desperate, he’d reached out for something, anything to help him survive.

That something ended up being synthetics.

“It’s changed me,” he confessed. “I used to be happy, I used to have a life. But, not anymore.”

Since meeting this young man I’ve heard the same mix of desperation and regret echoed by numerous young people who have fallen victim to the drug.

The stories are all far too familiar.

A history of family breakdown, violence and abuse. Young people, battling mental illness, resisting suicide, choosing to survive, fighting to live, grabbing on to anything to numb the pain, to help make it through.

Then the horror and rejection when they’ve turned to synthetics, and abandonment when whānau are unable to cope. Communities label their own rangatahi as “problems,” “criminals,” “druggies”, choosing to abandon them to the streets, believing the lie that they just need to “take responsibility and quit.”

The result?

Our rangatahi are further traumatised and abused as they are left alone to brave it on the streets. Again, failed by those who should be there to protect them.

And then we ask ourselves, why is homelessness such a problem?

The truth is, homelessness – like synthetics - isn’t a problem. They are both solutions. Solutions for people struggling to cope with trauma and mental illness. Solutions for communities who are unable, and in some cases, unwilling to look after their own.

Recently, in an interview with One News, Green MP Chloe Swarbrick, called out National leader Simon Bridges saying it was “the height of arrogance and cowardice for politicians to continue beating a blunt and broken instrument when people are literally dying."

This was in response to Bridges' comments that described the Greens therapeutic approach “as wishy-washy.”

The war on drugs doesn’t work, she said, repeating Jacinda Ardern’s sentiments at the UN, and calling for the government's commitment to “a health-based approach”, in response to addiction.

She’s right of course.

With all the time, money and energy that has been pumped into the war on drugs around the world, you would think that somewhere, somehow it would have worked by now.

But it hasn’t.

So, why is the government taking so long to commit to fully embracing the evidenced-backed, health-based approach the Greens are advocating for?

Perhaps, because it’s not politically popular.

There is still a narrative that exists in our country that views therapeutic approaches as ‘soft’, and which demands tougher penalties for those suffering from addiction.

But tougher penalties don’t work and stigmatising and criminalising people who are addicted only drives them further and further away from the help that they need.

And this is not just a government problem. 

When I speak with rangatahi about why they start using synthetics, the first response they make is that they didn’t know what it would do. The second is normally something along the lines of, “I was trying to get off weed, and synthetics sounded like a good alternative.”

By the time they find out it’s not, it’s often too late.

As a nation, we need to shift the way we think about drugs and addiction. It’s time we took decriminalisation seriously.

People facing addiction are not criminals, they are people. If we keep treating addiction as a criminal matter, it will only continue to drive more people away.

The sad result, of course, will be more lives lost.

And as Chloe Swarbrick said in that interview, "Nobody is going to put their hand up and ask for help if that looks like going away in handcuffs."



Aaron Hendry is a youth development worker in Auckland, where he lives with his wife and newborn son. A theology graduate of Laidlaw College, he writes about the intersection of theology and social justice at /


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