Australian medicines and poisons are separated into nine schedules according to the controls required for labelling, storing and supplying them. Schedule 9 lists those prohibited substances, such as cannabis, LSD, and heroin, which may be abused or misused.

The problem lies in the way the Standard for the Uniform Scheduling of Medicines and Poisons (SUSMP) is structured, in that if an individual product has not been specifically included into a schedule, it is therefore unregulated, and uncontrolled. The synthetic drugs which have appeared in the media recently are chemicals that are structurally different from, but have similar effects to, the drugs they are mimicking.

Synthetic cannabinoids activate cannabinoid receptors to generate the euphoria, psychoactive effects, analgesia, and mood and behaviour regulation. Some synthetic cannabinoids have been registered as medicines: rimonabant (for obesity, now withdrawn), nabilone (for anorexia and emesis), and dronabinol (for multiple sclerosis and pain). Unscheduled synthetic cannabinoids with names like ‘Kronic’, ‘Spice’, ‘Karma’, ‘Voodoo’, ‘Kaos’, and ‘K2’ are sold over the Internet or through specialty stores as ‘legal’ recreational drugs.

The idea of extending the SUSMP to include these unscheduled products using terms such as ‘analogue’, ‘derivative’, and ‘synthetic’ has been explored, but decided against; because any definition which is broad enough for this purpose can conflict with the precision required under patent law; may not reflect the similarities and differences between structure, pharmacology, and toxicology; and because our current system is thought to be working.

Eight new synthetic cannabinoids were added to Schedule 9 in 2011 and another nine in 2012. There are surely more to follow.

References:

  1. Delegates of the Secretary to the Department of Health and Ageing. Final Decisions & Reasons for Decisions. Canberra: Medicines and Poisons Scheduling Secretariat.
    July 2011.
  2. Delegates of the Secretary to the Department of Health and Ageing. Reasons for scheduling delegate’s interim decision and invitation for further comment. Canberra: Medicines and Poisons Scheduling Secretariat. May 2013.
  3. Department of Health and Ageing. Poisons Standard 2012. Canberra: Australian Government; June 2012.