Synthetic Cannabinoids may slow Fentanyl epidemic.

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Synthetic Cannabinoids may slow Fentanyl epidemic.

Veteran drug policy reformer Matt Bowden today suggested certain synthetic cannabinoids should be explored as substitute drugs in Fentanyl crisis, correcting misinformation that his company had invented products which caused deaths.

Matt Bowden, known globally as “Godfather of Legal Highs” is credited with inventing legal high products including party pills in New Zealand in early 2000s, and successfully demonstrating that drug black markets could be displaced by substitution of safer legal alternatives as a demand reduction strategy.1, 2, 3 His company shifted to safer cannabinoid research in 2008 after a synthetic cannabinoid market was well established by products like “Spice,” and potentially lethal cannabinoid ingredients were becoming available globally. A factually incorrect article surfaced claiming Mr Bowden’s Stargate International had invented 5f-PB-22 which was linked to several deaths in USA.

“Yes we invented hundreds of cannabinoids and some were very novel and patented for use as future medicines. We wanted to find out if we could find something even more effective at treating cancer or pain with less side effects than natural cannabis and we did find some that really hold promise. We made a lot of new compounds, but we never made that one.” Mr Bowden stated Stargate compounds and similar discovered compounds were found to be active against brain tumours, against cancer related pain, and in some cases were being used by addicts to block cravings for Fentanyl.

“In 2008 we were building a pharmaceutical company, our science team were rightly concerned that if Spice was banned, it could be replaced with something lethal. We were engaged by other ‘legal high’ companies at the time to advise and supply safer alternatives which we knew would prevent deaths. We worked transparently between industry and government to develop safety testing systems, and a regulatory system which became a world first. We took a lot of criticism and it was complicated, but we knew that we were preventing a killer drug from emerging on the market.” New Zealand recorded no fatalities from legal highs during the 15 year period that Stargate was operating.

“For safety testing we contracted CRO labs in Europe and Asia to carry out Phase One in vitro studies on our lead compounds, and a research organisation to do human safety studies in New Zealand prior to products being marketed. We were doing everything we could to stop a killer drug from coming to market while NZ waited for legalisation of cannabis. There were over 100 million exposures to our products in nearly 20 years and zero fatalities or lasting injuries recorded as caused by any of our products. Unfortunately, when animal testing and human volunteer testing were banned all our safety measures became illegal, and it meant we had to stop, and tragically, as I predicted the black market returned, a new lethal drug did emerge from overseas and 70+ New Zealanders were killed as a result.4

An article appeared on a popular user edited website5 to suggest Stargate had invented a drug called SGT-21 (PB-22) which had caused 4 deaths in USA, but the linked article shows the deaths were caused by a different drug, 5F-PB-22, not mentioned in . “This is clearly an error, it is a different molecule,” stated Mr. Bowden, “we never made 5f-PB-22, as we knew that it would be a dangerous molecule. We suggest people avoid fluorinated tails, MDMB heads and AMB heads on cannabinoid molecules as they increase the toxicity and risk of fatalities.” The article also suggested that a man had presented with his dog having seizures.6 “Evidently every man and their dog are modifying formulas they find on the internet, making them 50 times as strong, it is no surprise the man had seizures, that has nothing to do with any Stargate product ever made or marketed, and contrary to what people may have heard, we never carried out any animal testing or recommended anybody share synthetic drugs with their pets. Used properly though, some of these compounds ought to be clinically investigated as fentanyl substitutes.”

Drug substitution is a drug harm reduction strategy employed as a part of drug policy, with methadone substitution for heroin being the most common example. Former New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clarke spoke out in 2022 after her foundation published a report to revisit substitution treatment for amphetamine addicts in New Zealand.7 Mr Bowden referenced this article and the ongoing fentanyl crisis in America, as synthetic opiates were responsible for the deaths of 70,601 people in 20218 and continues to be an ongoing crisis. “We proved in New Zealand with party pills that substitution works with amphetamine type products, there is no reason why it can’t work in USA with opiates.”

Helen Clark is a former Prime Minister of New Zealand who served from 1999 to 2008. She is also the founder and patron of the Helen Clark Foundation, a public policy think tank that advocates for drug policy reform in Aotearoa New Zealand. The foundation’s research explores how to minimise the harms from drug use and promote health, social equity, and human rights. Matt Bowden is a former harm reduction policy advocate in New Zealand currently working with biotech startup exploring new psychoactive substances for harm reduction and psychotherapeutic purposes.


  1. Safer Alternatives lead to Reduced Demand (2005)
  2. Party Pills stopping illegal drug use (2006)
  3. Trends in llegal Drug Markets in NZ
  4. Synthetic drugs reemerge in NZ after spate of deaths
  5. Article referencing PB-22 and 5f-PB-22
  6. ‘Crazy Monkey’ Poisons Man and Dog
  7. Helen Clark Foundation recommends amphetmaine substitution program
  8. National Institute of Drug Abuse: Drug Overdose Death Rates
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