Recent legislative changes have banned a number of synthetic cannabis products across Australia.

Background

In recent months there has been significant concern regarding the use of synthetic cannabis products marketed under names such as “Kronic”, “Kalma”, “Voodoo”, “Kaos”, “Spice” and “Dust”.  These products use chemicals that mimic the effect of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the active ingredient in cannabis.

Despite not containing THC, synthetic cannabis can be much stronger than natural cannabis.  Reported side effects have included severe paranoia, anxiety, hallucinations, panic attacks, poor work practices, lack of concentration, high heart rates and agitation.

Employers in the resources sector, in particular, became concerned as a result of reports that these drugs were being widely used in the mine worker community; that medical opinion clearly indicated that the effects of these substances could impact a worker’s health and ability to work safely; and they could be ‘legally’ sold and used.  Many drug and alcohol policies were not wide enough to capture a ‘new’ type of drug and most existing drug testing regimes did not specifically provide for testing for these substances.

Recent legislative changes

Some of these concerns have been alleviated with recent legislative changes to ban a number of synthetic cannabis products across Australia.

On Friday 17 June 2011, Western Australia became the first State to introduce a ban on synthetic cannabinoids by gazetting a change to the Poisons Act 1964 (WA).  Seven synthetic cannabinoids became illegal.

South Australia and New South Wales followed with South Australia banning seventeen synthetic cannabinoids including the seven prohibited in Western Australia.  New South Wales banned a number of synthetic cannabinoids under the Drug Misuse and Trafficking Act 1985 (NSW).

On 8 July 2011, a nationwide ban on synthetic cannabis was implemented following an announcement by the Australian Government Therapeutic Goods Administration that eight synthetic cannabinoids would be added to the Standard for the Uniform Scheduling of Poisons under the Therapeutic Goods Regulations 1990.  These eight substances are now prohibited throughout Australia.

Ongoing concerns

Despite action to ban these products, concerns remain that the legislative changes will not be able to keep pace with changes to the chemical makeup of such substances, so that new, legal substances will emerge in place of these banned drugs.

This concern was highlighted when, just days after the announcement of the ban in Western Australia, an alternative synthetic cannabis product was being marketed, claiming to circumvent the ban.

What employers need to do

For employers, the solution is to ensure that your fitness for work/drug and alcohol policies are drafted in a way that will capture the misuse of any sort of substance which could impact the ability to work safely.  Many policies already deal with the misuse of legal substances (such as prescription drugs and alcohol).

It is also important that fitness for work/drug and alcohol policies and testing procedures allow sufficient scope for testing of ‘new’ substances.  Many employers found they were locked into procedures which were not flexible enough to allow specific testing for synthetic cannabinoid products.

Further, it should be of significant concern that some workers (media reports suggested up to 30% at some mines) saw an opportunity for conduct which could put themselves and their colleagues at risk because of a perception that it was not ‘illegal’ and they could not be caught.  This suggests that further work needs to be done in education and culture on this issue.  It also supports the implementation of testing regimes as a deterrent.

Clearly the use of illegal drugs and the misuse of legal substances is an issue for all workplaces.  Employers should assess the potential impact and ensure they have appropriate policies and procedures in place to meet duty of care and legislative requirements.