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Inside New Zealand's Synthetic Drug Scene

"The pioneers of drug use were looking for a particular experience, and they found it after a journey. Now you just get the destination and miss the journey."
Image via Mike Reeves

On May 8, New Zealand ​ended its 294-day experiment with the legalized sale of ​synthetic drugs. Nearly a year earlier, the country decided it wanted a ​measured, modern response to ballooning sales of substances like K2, bath salts, and Kronic. What they came up with was called the ​Psychoactive Substances Act of 2013. The idea was the Ministry of Health would test and approve new drugs to be sold to adults in designated licensed stores. But the media declared war, politicians got nervous, and the drugs were again made illegal.


But that's a simple, bird's-eye chronology of events. I wanted to find out how synthetic drugs, and the laws governing them, had affected ordinary New Zealanders caught up in them. So I spoke to a guy named Mike Reeves, who sold synthetic drugs before becoming hooked. When I spoke with him he was packing a bag for an 18-week stint in intensive rehab. This is his story.

My path to addiction has been typical, although living in New Zealand made it easier. I was born to a couple of very intense people. My mom was from a large Catholic family with a lot of money. She committed suicide ten years ago. My dad had Asperger's, but he was a genius electrical engineer. I went to the best schools, but things started to go wrong. I started smoking, drinking, and doing speed at age 12. I was a nightmare from then on.

Over time I learned about hippie culture, and that led me down the path of ​entheogens. This lead me to the biochemistry behind the feelings—dopamine, serotonin, norephedrine, ephedrine, and adrenaline. I got involved with the internet early, in 1990, and used search engines to look up drugs. That way, when I saw them I knew what they were.

I remember exactly when I noticed New Zealand's fake drugs scene. I woke up on friend's couch and the World Trade Center was on fire. We were watching and having a beer in our boxer shorts. This guy came along; call him Richard. He had a briefcase and pulled out some BCP and 5-Hydroxytryptophan. That's where legal highs were up to at that point. The chemistry was in the country, but if you put any of it into a police testing kit, none of it would come up. It just wasn't stuff they were looking for. Very few people knew about it.


Later, it was probably 2008, I met another guy who was importing stuff. He'd got two compounds on his first run—MDPV and Methylone. I tasted it together once and loved it. It was a superlative experience. So I sidled up to him and then, over the next year, me and eight of my friends got completely fucking lost in the stuff.

From inside the bubble it was the best thing that ever happened. Like a lot of heroin junkies who  think their lives are complete when they're first involved, I became a lot closer with my friends. We'd bang this stuff up and have orgies. We had all the money and food that we needed, but we were taking massive risks with our lives using IV drugs in incredibly inebriated states.

We had a house in the student quarter of Wellington, and it just became a place and a time. We had sheets of acid, crack rocks, guys would come to our house to sell meth, coke, weed. It was a lot of fun for a while, but to put it in context, this is a drug that doses like meth. By the end of that year we were getting up to a gram a day.

The group eventually blew apart. The guy who was importing saw how this stuff was affecting me and cut me off. So I hitchhiked north, shooting up water because I knew I couldn't quit both the behavior and the drug at the same time. I was fucked, but I had a bit of money left so I bought a boat. I circumnavigated New Zealand twice and isolated myself for a few years. I considered myself drug-free because I hadn't put a needle in my arm for years.


Mike took this photo as he left home for rehab

When I got off the boat, New Zealand was in the peak of its legal highs trade. This carried through 2009, 2010, and 2012, and it was getting less clean. The compounds being used were high-risk, untested, and novel.

This May, after realizing it couldn't play catch-up, the government rewrote the Psychoactive Substances Act. Suddenly they created a list of tests that a drug has to pass to be considered safe. Some these tests require animal testing to get a large enough sample size. For that you need a huge, highly expensive lab which most companies just can't afford. That's how they killed the industry, but I had a plan.

What a lot of people haven't realized is that a lot of the chemicals have been tested by universities overseas. The idea was that I'd pick an organic compound where the testing had already been done and then package it. My business was called Clone 42—a reference to The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. I bought some big bricks of these drugs, a pill press, and we were getting ready to hit the market. Then, a few months ago, I had to drive ten grams of the supply up to another guy in Auckland. That's when I came undone.

I don't know why but I stopped at the needle exchange on the way up. That's the addict in me. By the time I left Wellington I was off my chops. I was fucked. By the time I got halfway up the island it was snowing really heavily so I pulled over. Then in a car park I kept taking more, just getting higher and higher. When I finally got to Auckland I thought fuck it, and I banged up everything I had left, which was about 1,000 milligrams. For want of a better word, I had a heart attack. You take this stuff and it atrophies the actual heart muscle, which turned my heart into a block of leather. So I crawled to the hospital and they thought I was on meth. They pumped me full of benzos and I tried to explain that I wasn't on meth. When I survived that, I realized I needed help.

Do you know  ​Saul Williams? He's an amazing poet and his friends recommended him DMT to expand his mind. So he tried it and said "So what? I already knew that." And that's kind of how I feel now. Fuck drugs man. It really disappoints me that my country is trying to be a spearhead on the whole altered states thing, because we keep fucking it up.

There are merits to  entheogens but the way it's being managed is really damaging. The way that people are learning to take drugs is to go to a shop and get fucked up. There's nothing wrong with, at the right time, looking for mushrooms and preparing them safely. The pioneers of drug use were looking for a particular experience, and they found it after a journey. Now you just get the destination and miss the journey. I think that's a huge mistake. So no, I don't think this stuff should be sold in the shops. Etiology doesn't combine well with economics.

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