Jamaica Observer, By Alcia Dunkley Willis —  ATKINSON … I don’t mean to be doom or gloom.

An official of the National Council on Drug Abuse has warned that if preventive measures are not implemented now, more disturbing cases of drug-laced products could reach Jamaica’s shores, and have a devastating effect on its young ones.

Uki Atkinson’s comments stem from a recent incident in St Ann where more than 60 students had to be rushed to hospital after they consumed snacks with mind-altering drug components.

“I don’t mean to be doom or gloom or predict terrible things happening in the future but I can tell you tha, based on what is happening in neighbouring islands and in Latin America, North America and Europe, it is going to be only a matter of time before other synthetic substances reach our shores,” Anderson, a research analyst at the NCDA, told the Jamaica Observer in an interview.

“Last year we heard about the MDMA [Molly or Ecstasy, a synthetic drug known primarily for its hallucinogenic and stimulant effect], and the fact that it is more popular among students and that students can access vape products [means] there is going to be an upsurge in access and availability. And until we put the necessary regulatory framework in place, the necessary interventions in place, scale up the kinds of human resources that we need to address it then we are constantly going to be doing this knee-jerk reaction. We need to put something in place that is coordinated across ministries, agencies and departments,” she said.

According to Atkinson, “in recent times there have been increased reports about unregulated products that are on the market that are being sold at various points of sale — including online — where adolescents are accessing a variety of products that are not only cannabis-based but some are also mushroom psilocybin-based, and some other products” about which the NCDA is not at this time certain as to their contents.

“So we are aware that our landscape is changing in terms of the kind of access and the kind of psychoactive substances that our young people are exposed to,” she told the Sunday Observer.

On Monday, October 2, more than 60 Ocho Rios Primary School students were rushed to St Ann’s Bay Hospital after consuming sweets laced with THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), the substance primarily responsible for the effects of marijuana on a person’s mental state. At the end of that day at least seven were still hospitalised. Since then, a vendor identified as Devon Holness of Mansfield Heights, Ocho Rios in St Ann, was named as a person of interest in relation to the sale of ganja-laced sweets. Then last Thursday, reports of another children’s snack containing THC surfaced.

According to Atkinson, who said since then the NCDA has received several reports of other similar products, that should never have happened.

“What happened with the primary school, we were not aware that they had these products selling to primary school children. However, since that event we have received calls and reports from other local stakeholders who are indicating that there are other cannabis-infused products being sold. First of all, this should never be so, and the NCDA condemns the sale of edible products, or any other psychoactive substance (including alcohol), to underaged children. It’s not legal in our context and we condemn this practice,” Atkinson said.

‘The next thing that we are concerned about is that some of these products claim to have a particular substance in them, but until we do the necessary chemical analysis of what is in there we can’t go just off of what the label says. For example, some products may say it has a certain level of THC in it but when tested the THC level in the product may be significantly higher. This is not unique to the Jamaican situation; our Caribbean neighbours are also experiencing an upsurge in these kinds of situations,” The NCDA research analyst noted.

She said the NCDA is particularly uneasy about the impact on children once these items are ingested.

“The significant concern with our children is that when they ingest these edibles infused with cannabis/ganja/marijuana they can have adverse effects on them — which is what occurred with our students. The acute effect can include things like vomiting, dizziness, difficulty walking, rapid heart rate, drowsiness, confusion, breathing difficulties, and in severe cases there can be things like hallucination, abnormally slow heart rate, low blood pressure. All of these things can occur, resulting in hospitalisation,” Atkinson noted.

“This was an acute reaction among several of these children because of the amount they ingested. Some of them ate the entire bag, some shared a few with others,” she pointed out.

The NCDA, on the heels of that incident, said the affected students would be monitored closely over the next few weeks for psychological effects. It further said that it would be conducting tests on the sweets to determine what specific drugs were infused.

“The product has been sent for analysis to determine the level of THC in it as well as to determine if it was only THC. What has occurred in some other jurisdictions is that these things are laced with not just cannabis but may contain other substances,” Atkinson told the Sunday Observer, adding “we don’t know and so we are not going to assume, even though it says its THC”.

“That’s part of the problem with access for children because some of the packaging for these products, even though it has THC on the label, primary-aged children and even some adolescents will be astute enough to look and see that the package is not the same candy they are accustomed to buying, because what the distributors do is that they package it in such a way that it looks like the mainstream product,” she said.

In the meantime, she said the “very loose regulatory framework” Jamaica currently has is a large part of the issue.

“A lot of these products are here, they are being sold in various places, but they have not been passed by the Standards and Regulation Division of the Ministry of Health. Cannabis products are not supposed to be sold without that process of review that needs to be undertaken by that division.

“So we have a problem, and what we want to be able to do is address the problem — but not as a knee-jerk reaction but in a multilevel way and a comprehensive way,” Atkinson said.

She added: “So there is need for us to expand the drug prevention programme among children and adolescents and capacity-building programmes among teachers and educators. What I find that occurs, not only in the drug control field but in other areas, we put things in place as a Band-Aid reaction to something that is an emergency, and we don’t typically sustain those interventions or initiatives. So, what the NCDA is focusing on and has been trying to escalate is a coordinated, multifaceted response to growing problems and the changing landscape of drugs that are available in our setting.”

The NCDA representative in the meantime reiterated a call made in January this year for an early warning system on drugs here. With this system, information about seizures at the various ports or points of entry, as well as from drug tests, would be fed into such a system and would alert investigators about new substances that might be in circulation.

In 2019 the Ministry of National Security announced that it would be collaborating with the NCDA and other local stakeholders to establish an early warning system for drugs.

She said that training with critical stakeholders will be conducted this week in how an early warning system is supposed to work.

“So, for instance, if we had an early warning system in place we would have already had an entire protocol for how the entire country is supposed to react.What we fail to recognise is that if we don’t deal with this drug issue, it is so related to other realities. It is related to violence, it is related to unintentional injuries, road traffic accidents, productivity, mental health, fights in schools,” she told the Sunday Observer.

TOP FEATURE PHOTO Uki Atkinson JA National Council On Drug Abuse