Drugs

The Mystery Drug Killing New Zealanders

Police call it synthetic cannabis. Eight people are dead. We talked to users and people who have lost loved ones.

by James Borrowdale
27 July 2017, 2:22am

Matt. All images by the author

"We call it the 'synnie dance'," Fabian Fahey, 18, told me, sheltering from the wind under the wintry limbs of pōhutukawa twisting over Emily Place Reserve. He was referring to the seizure—now depressingly familiar, after being splashed across TV screens over the past week—that can follow smoking synthetic cannabis. A box of Jim Beam bourbon and colas sat in the centre of our little circle as Fabian and two friends, Blackjack, 23, and Matt* told me of their experiences with the drug.

They had all, they said, last smoked the substance four days ago, not too long after the police and the coroner had issued a joint statement warning of its dangers: eight people have now died after smoking the drug this month. Blackjack, the trio's obvious leader, with thin, dirty, shoulder-length ginger hair and a dirty bandana of the same colour wrapped around his wrist, explained the experience. "You're instantly just numb. It's hard to say because you forget—it totally blanks your mind. You turn into like a zombie."

It seems that's the best a user can hope for. The three relayed their personal horror stories with the drug, tales of passing out, turning purple, vomiting, lost memory, that awful parody of dance. They talked about it with an unnerving sense of disconnect—almost humour—as if their experiences belonged to someone else.

The three relayed their personal horror stories with the drug, tales of passing out, turning purple, vomiting, lost memory, that awful parody of dance.

Matt had a sheepish smile on his face, his tall frame folded onto the footpath next to his eight-month-old Rottweiler cross, as Blackjack—the only name he'd give me—told me about a time the two had smoked together. "He was totally out of it. He was not himself. He was somebody else. His voice changed, everything changed, his personality changed. He was like, 'I'm gonna take you for a walk. I'm gonna give you a hiding bro.' I was like, 'Nah, what we're actually going to do is go into my room, step over all this spew, and we're gonna go to sleep.'"

None of it sounded fun. Why do it? Matt, who initially told me he hadn't used synthetic cannabis in over a year, described the cycle of addiction. "You buy it and you smoke it—have a bong—and feel stony for like half an hour and go to sleep. And then you wake up and do it again. Then you have no more bag left and you go get another one. It's real addictive." He leaned towards my dictaphone to make this public service announcement: "Everyone, please don't smoke this stuff, you know, or else you'll die."

A bag costing $20, enough to get "all of us done," Blackjack said, is "much easier to get than weed. You can walk down Queen Street and talk to one person and know exactly where to get a synthetic bag. And there's no weed."

Back on Queen Street, where I had first met the trio, I walked up the hill to get to back to the office. I passed a middle-aged man unconscious with his head slumped forward on his chest, his lower half hidden under a heap of dirty duvets. One hand held a Pump bottle that had been turned into a crude bong, the other a lighter.

"Sometimes you need to be numb, you know?" Blackjack had told me. Never before has the CBD seemed so much like a place I needed to escape.

Blackjack, 23.

It's not just central Auckland that's afflicted. In West Auckland, according to Allanah*, 26, it's worse than P. "It's not even the methamphetamine, it's the synthetics. Everyone says it, that it's gotten bigger than meth."

She would know. Allanah told me her mother died after smoking synthetics on June 30, after partaking in a session with her son (Allanah's brother). "They both coma'd out, but when he woke up from whatever state he goes into… my mum had already passed. I had seen her a few times having seizures and I told her it affected the whole family, but she didn't really care about it."

Allanah's little brother is also a habitual synthetics smoker. Following her mother's death and the news of other fatalities, they now let him smoke in the shed at the back of the property—they're scared to let him do so alone, and he won't stop. I asked Allanah to describe witnessing her brother in the grips of a seizure: "It was awful. It was like he was gonna die. He was all purple and frothing from his mouth. I just… I don't understand."

"He was all purple and frothing from his mouth. I just… I don't understand."

The drug, she says, is everywhere. "It's so bad. It's so easy to get. Facebook has it. Teenagers, children have it. Every time I go to the dairy or anywhere, it's like, 'You wanna buy a bag?'"

Allanah knew Devonte Pierce, the 17-year-old confirmed as one of those to have died after smoking synthetics. Kamaro Patterson, 21, told me his little brother used to smoke with Pierce, before they both suffered seizures and promised to stop. For Pierce, it didn't last. Patterson: "It's so easy for young ones like that to get it. It's so hard to find weed now that people are just taking it just to get that high, and end up seizuring out."

Fabian Fahey, 18.

No one could tell me what it actually is. Among users and those familiar with the drug, the consensus seemed to be that it was damiana—a smokeable plant native to Central and South America that is sold over the counter—mixed with a cocktail of intoxicants: ketamine, fly spray, acetone, and rat poison were common guesses.

For New Zealand Drug Foundation's director Ross Bell this conjecture is the result of a muddled official response, one he says police could clear up by releasing results of the tests conducted on synthetics seized in earlier raids. Police say they are "not in a position to release any reports that relate to active Coronial investigations".

Bell cites information from the Institute of Environmental Science and Research, which shows how the chemicals found in synthetic cannabis have fluctuated over time, with a cannabinoid named AMB-FUBINACA prevalent in the most recent tests. The same drug has caused carnage overseas. "It seems that the whole approach to this public health crisis has been really poorly managed, and could've been much more accurate in getting information to the public."

"It seems that the whole approach of this public health crisis has been really poorly managed, and could've been much more accurate in getting information to the public."

Associate Health Minister Peter Dunne, who pointed out that the later amendments to the Psychoactive Substances Act he introduced in 2013 had effectively banned the legal sale of synthetic cannabis, calls the current crisis "awful, horrific". But also inevitable: "I said then that the only consequence was going to be the sad one of this stuff being driven underground where we wouldn't be able to regulate it and control it. And, sadly, that's exactly what has happened."

Alannah, too, blames Government policy, saying it never should have been taken off the shelves. It has, she says, continued to get stronger away from the eyes of regulation. "Now if they try and put it back on the shelves, people will still go black market because their stuff won't be as strong as what's on the black market."

Blackjack told me something similar. "When they sold it in the shops, that was all cool. When they made it illegal, the underground took over. The main difference is that the people at the shop really care if you get hurt, sick by it, because they could get in trouble."

I heard repeatedly how much easier it is to buy than marijuana. This, I was also told, is often why vulnerable people first try it, and, finding the high more intense, forsake the real thing. Allannah had this to say about her mother: "We tried to get her off it, but it didn't help: it just becomes stronger and stronger. We tried to get her to just smoke weed, but by the time she tried to go back to weed it just wasn't doing anything."

*Names have been changed to protect privacy.

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