The Chief Coroner and Police have issued an "urgent warning" after seven deaths this month in the Auckland region they believe are linked to synthetic cannabis.
Chief Coroner Judge Deborah Marshall issued the warning, noting that there had also been a surge in hospitalisations believed to be linked to the drug. "While the Police and coronial investigations are still at an early stage, and the final causes of death have yet to be established, the number of cases where synthetic cannabis appear to have been a contributing factor has prompted me to issue this public warning."
But New Zealand Drug Foundation executive director Ross Bell says it is far too premature to even give a name to what this drug may be. "No testing has been done, the findings of the deaths haven't been made; the Police cannot make the claims that they've made that these deaths are synthetic cannabis related."
"Is there something new on the market now? If there has been this spate of deaths in the past few weeks, as the Coroner and the Police are saying, are we dealing with a new substance? Are we in fact dealing with a substance like fentanyl, which is causing huge overdose deaths in North America?"
Watch: Fentanyl: The Drug Deadlier Than Heroin
In the same statement Detective Inspector Gary Lendrum said the Police have "grave concerns" for users. "[They] don't know what poisonous chemicals they are potentially putting into their bodies when they're smoking this drug."
Bell agrees, but argues that instead of releasing CCTV footage that demonises users, police could fix this by instead releasing test results showing what is in these drugs. "I would much rather the police shared the ESR test results of the analysis of the synthetic cannabis that they've seized, so that we can actually, truly be honest to people about what's out there at the moment. Putting footage that shames people who use drugs, people who are in vulnerable and compromising situations, putting that up for the titillation of the media and the public, I think is fucking appalling."
Watch: The Hard Lives of Britain's Synthetic Marijuana Addicts
Bell calls the New Zealand black market right now a "very, very dangerous place" and says drug users deserve all the information out there in order to make informed choices. "What you see when you give people factual information about what's in the substances they're about to consume [is that] they make really good decisions, and I think the same concept applies to whatever smokeable shit is out there at the moment."
Synthetic cannabis could bought over the counter in New Zealand until May 2014, when it was banned unless it could pass a strict testing regime. Bell said some government control over synthetic cannabis was preferable to the current situation. "Back then, the Government actually had control over these products and at the moment we have an out-of-control black market."