Fentanyl, the drug responsible for thousands of overdose deaths across the United States, has now been found at a New Zealand festival.
Fentanyl is an opioid roughly 50 times stronger and more toxic than heroin. KnowYourStuffNZ, an independent drug testing organisation, detected it in drugs they were testing at New Zealand festivals. This is the first time Fentanyl has been identified as a contaminant in New Zealand’s illicit drug market.
KnowYourStuffNZ director Wendy Allison told VICE the organisation had begun testing for Fentanyl after learning Customs were detecting the drug at the border. She said they didn’t know how much of the substance they were dealing with, or how widespread it could be on New Zealand’s drug market.
“Fentanyl strips don’t detect purity, so we can’t say how much it was. We can’t speculate about whether there is more in the market, but if we’ve found it it’s likely that there’s more of it. That seems to be the way these things go—that by the time we detect it, it’s everywhere.” KnowYourStuffNZ tested had 418 drug samples at five events so far this festival season.
Allison went on: “We were expecting to see it this year and we are fairly certain that we will—well, we’re going to continue to test for it.”
In the United States, 64,000 people died from drug overdoses in 2016, up 21 percent on the previous year, and driven by the opioid epidemic. The figure is expected to rise again when 2017 figures are released. United States deaths directly attributable to Fentanyl were up 540 percent in the past three years. Fentanyl is so toxic that even inhaling small particles can be dangerous. It is, however, cheaper to manufacture than heroin, motivating some drug manufacturers to cut it into their wares.
Allison urged opiate users to test for and avoid Fentanyl for its potentially deadly consequences. The drug can easily be detected using Fentanyl strips, which are available for purchase in NZ from the Hemp Store.
Despite concerns from health professionals, prescriptions of strong opioids have risen steadily in New Zealand—and prescriptions for Fentanyl more than doubled in three years. Data from the Health Quality and Safety Commission showed the number of people prescribed a strong opioid—such as fentanyl, methadone, morphine, oxycodone or pethidine—at least once in a year rose from 63,000 in 2011 to 77,000 people in 2017. Last year, 8368 were prescribed fentanyl—up from 3410 people in 2011.
Executive director of the Drug Addiction Practitioners' Association Sue Paton told the NZ Herald opioid abuse in New Zealand was probably underestimated.
There were about 5,300 people on the opioid substitution programme in New Zealand, and Paton estimated there were about 50,000 Kiwis addicted to the drugs. So far, New Zealand has seen 21 known deaths from opiate overdose in the past two years.
KnowYourStuffNZ is now calling on the government to create an cross-agency early warning system for new, dangerous drugs entering the illicit drug market. “KnowYourStuffNZ is the only group currently informing the public about substances of concern. We should not have to wait until there is a death from inadvertent Fentanyl ingestion for an Early Warning System to be a priority."
At present, KnowYourStuffNZ and any other drug-testing agencies in New Zealand operate in a legal grey area. “It’s not explicitly illegal to do what we do. It’s also not explicitly legal,” Allison says—“But there are a whole bunch of things around the practice that are illegal - such as possession of illicit substances.”
"This is clearly becoming a more and more dangerous situation."
Events that allow testing agencies are also at risk, as in New Zealand it’s an offence to knowingly permit a premises or venue to be used for drug offences. So the current practice relies on police discretion, and venues sticking their necks out. “In our view, that’s not good enough, and the law needs to be updated to basically get with the times. Things are a lot more dangerous now than they were in 1975 when the Act was created.”
The Misuse of Drugs Act was slated for review this term by the previous National government—and it’s not yet known if or when Labour will bring it for review.
Know Your Stuff NZ is also calling for the distribution of emergency overdose kits containing Naloxone, an effective antidote to opioid overdose. The kits are widespread across the United States and Canada, and the organisation says they are ”affordable, easy to use, and legal as part of an approved emergency overdose kit.” The emergency kits are not yet assembled or approved by the New Zealand government.
What we’re doing now isn’t working, Allison says. “This is clearly becoming a more and more dangerous situation. We’re having more new drugs added one after the other, and telling people “don’t do drugs” isn’t stopping them, and isn’t reducing harm.”
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