Since June last year, as many as 45 people have died after smoking synthetic cannabis.
Provisional figures released by the Coroner show an enormous leap in deaths caused by the synthetic drug. In the previous five years synthetic cannabis was confirmed as the cause of only two deaths.
Synthetic cannabis has been effectively illegal in New Zealand since amendments to the Psychoactive Substances Act in 2014. Imported synthetic cannabinoids have, since then, flooded New Zealand through the black market.
Paul Quigley, a doctor in Wellington Hospital’s emergency department, told RNZ that deaths were increasing as certain batches of the drug were becoming too potent for the body too handle. Dr Chip Gresham, a toxicologist at Middlemore Hospital, told VICE that synthetic cannabis could be 70 times as potent as natural marijuana.
He said that people who made the drug by spraying dissolved synthetic cannabinoids onto any smokeable plant matter did so without oversight. If a mistake was made during that process, the results could be deadly. “All of a sudden you’ve got an incredibly potent pack of synthetics that are going to go out and cause really bad harm.”
Testing of two samples of synthetic cannabis obtained by VICE late last year confirmed the presence of AMB-FUBINACA, a synthetic cannabinoid often referred to as “the zombie drug” for its effect on users. It's been associated with deaths overseas,including a "mass casualty event" in New York in 2016.