Decline in dangerous synthetic drugs ahead of festivals

Rebecca Moore
Source: 1News

Drug availability at summer music festivals is looking "considerably different" to last year, with police saying there's been "a welcome decline" in the detection of dangerous synthetic cathinones.

Ecstasy drugs (file picture).

Most of the world’s cathinones are manufactured in China and exported globally through darknet importations or transnational organised crime groups, National Drug Intelligence Bureau Manager Blair Macdonald told 1News.

Cathinones, such as eutylone, are then mis-sold as MDMA.

"Compared with last summer, seizure volumes of cathinones have halved and Customs made just one border detection during September and October," Macdonald said.

In May, China outlawed the manufacture of a number of synthetic cathinones, which Macdonald said had likely impacted the production and availability of particular cathinones which caused harm across New Zealand in 2020.

"Last New Year was a good example of why drug checking is so necessary - a dangerous cathinone was being substituted for MDMA and many people took this substance inadvertently and suffered moderate to serious harm from it," Know Your Stuff managing director Wendy Allison told 1News.

However, she said almost everyone who got their drugs checked at event testing stations and found they had eutylone instead of MDMA then chose not to take it, avoiding the harm.

"Put simply, people with better information make better decisions and when people know their drugs are likely to hurt them, they can more readily avoid that harm.

"Last year, approximately 25 per cent of the samples we tested were not as presumed. Almost all of these were complete substitutions - where none of the desired substance is present and it's been completely replaced by something else."

Allison said "lacing" on the other hand was very rare.

"Only a small percentage of not-as-presumed samples could be considered to be 'laced'."

Looking ahead, like police, she expects this summer to be "slightly better" with early indicators suggesting it's likely to be a smaller percentage of drug samples that are not as presumed.

"However things can change quickly so we'll stay vigilant," Allison added.

"This year we are mainly expecting to find more cathinones being sold as MDMA. Eutylone is still around and there are a couple of new cathinones that have emerged in 2021 that we're also on the lookout for.

"Additionally, we are looking for fake benzodiazepines, and testing specific substances for fentanyl. High dose MDMA pills are still around as well."

Macdonald said while cathinone seizures are shrinking, there had been an increase of MDMA powder seizures between September and November, with an additional 10kg compared to the same period in 2020.

"MDMA prices have decreased in the past month, with online channels and social media showing more listings and greater quantities for sale," he said.

"Our national wastewater testing programme has also observed MDMA use increase 14 per cent between September and October this year.

"I want to encourage anyone who may have had a negative experience with a substance to report it anonymously to High Alert. This helps us to understand what pills, powders or other substances are in circulation, and to be able to warn others," Macdonald said.

The website – highalert.org.nz – is a source of current information around drugs.

Meanwhile, Allison urged anyone wanting to test their drugs at events to get in early.

"We are always very busy and while we do have more gear and a new testing model this year, we still expect that demand will be high and wait times could be long. The good news is that the new model allows people to go away while their sample is tested and come back for the results and harm reduction information later, which means we shouldn't have people sitting in queues for ages.

"Our main recommendation, as always, is to consider not taking drugs that have not been tested, to look out for and stick with your friends, and if you experience difficulties, seek medical attention.

"The event medics are there to help and are not interested in judging or dobbing you in – they just want to keep you alive."