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Drugs

We Tested Synthetic Cannabis and Found the Chemical Linked to Kiwi Deaths

NZ Police just announced three more deaths, taking the total number of cases under investigation to 20.

James Borrowdale

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Police and the Chief Coroner are investigating the deaths of three West Aucklanders, which appear to be linked to synthetic cannabis. Two men, aged 22 and 37, and a 26-year-old woman died in separate incidents. It follows the death of 21-year-old Feilding man last week.

In all, the Chief Coroner is investigating around 20 cases where synthetic cannabis—police now prefer the term "synthetic drugs"—is believed to be the cause of death. Detective Inspector Scott Beard said the majority of testing had confirmed the presence of "the dangerous chemical AMB-FUBINACA", which is often referred to as 'the zombie drug' for its effect on users.

The samples from different parts of the country contained different active substances, both of them potentially fatal.

Today, VICE received the results from our independent testing of two samples of synthetic cannabis. The samples—one obtained in West Auckland by VICE, the other in Wellington by the NZ Drug Foundation—were tested by the Institute of Environmental Science and Research. The samples from different parts of the country contained different active substances, both of them potentially fatal. The Wellington sample contained no AMB-FUBINACA, but tested positive for 5F-ADB, a synthetic cannabinoid associated with a spate of deaths in Japan. The Auckland sample contained both AMB-FUBINACA and pFPP, a class-C drug with psychedelic properties.

Synthetic cannabis seized in a West Auckland raid. Image NZ Police.

The results, says Ross Bell, director of the NZ Drug Foundation, suggest New Zealand's synthetic cannabis is being manufactured in small batches, most likely with synthetic cannabinoids smuggled into the country and then dissolved and sprayed onto smokeable plant material. "The products," says Bell, "vary from batch to batch—the concentration, how much is diluted and sprayed on the plant material, can vary, and different chemicals can get mixed in."

"There's a real smorgasbord of quite dangerous chemicals doing the rounds on the black market."

This method of production, Bell says, results in drugs that vary wildly in terms of strength. Users often had no idea exactly what they were buying. "It shows that we're not dealing with a single thing and that because we're dealing with the black market, it needs to be understood that there's no quality control, there's no manufacturing standards… There's a real smorgasbord of quite dangerous chemicals doing the rounds on the black market," Bell said.

Bell called on Police to be more proactive in getting information regarding new drugs out to the public, noting that every six or 12 months a new chemical tended to enter the New Zealand market. "If good information isn't out there, the void is filled with bad information. The bad information doesn't help."

Beard told VICE that Police got information to the public as quickly as they could. "We get the information out as we can, so we rely on other experts, on other testing, and it doesn't necessarily just happen overnight… We're trying to get the message out there. Have we got it to everybody? Probably not."

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