Justice

Authorities focused on fentanyl

Official police documents show the authorities are watching fentanyl like a hawk in order to avoid a synthetic opioid crisis. Laura Walters looks at whether New Zealand is at risk.

In recent years there has been a slight increase in the seizures of illicit fentanyl, and in the amount found in New Zealand’s wastewater systems.

In response, authorities including police and customs, have been closely monitoring incidences of illicit fentanyl importation and overdoses.

Police have developed an action plan for implementation should the drug become an issue, due to its high potency, addictiveness, and the harm it can cause to people who suffer from secondary exposure.

The misuse of fentanyl can be fatal. And because it is absorbed through the skin, police or emergency services responding to an overdose situation could also potentially be exposed to a lethal dose, given the drug’s potency.

The drug is at the heart of the opioid crises experienced by the US and Canada, and to a lesser degree in the UK and Canada.

New Zealand has not experienced widespread issues with fentanyl due to tighter controls on prescriptions.

However, a 2018 briefing to Minister of Police Stuart Nash said “New Zealand needs to continue to be vigilant, as it is with other harmful drugs, to ensure fentanyl use does not become a significant problem”.

Demand in New Zealand is currently low, according to the documents obtained by Newsroom under the Official Information Act.

While it may have increased since January 2018, it was not expected to reach the levels seen in the US and Canada, the police briefing document said.

Seizures at the border have increased, from an average of 1.2 seizures a year over the six years from 2010 to 2015. But in 2016 the numbers of seizures rose to seven, and eight in 2017.

In 2016, there were 155 opiate seizures at the border, but only 5 percent of these involved fentanyl.

Police said while seizures at the border had increased in the past two years, the increase was not statistically significant, and the overall numbers remained low.

In one of those cases fentanyl was seized alongside heroin, and in another it was mixed with methamphetamine and hidden in candles.

There were also three deaths attributed to fentanyl overdose by the Coroner between 2013 and 2016.

In order to get a better picture of the issue, and detect any spikes in use, police are establishing base data through wastewater testing.

This testing shows fentanyl consumption averages less than 3 grams per week across the country.

There is higher use in Northland compared to other districts, but police said the results needed to be viewed with caution, as detected average usage across all testing sites was extremely low.

Fentanyl is also used legally as a prescription drug for pain relief, anaesthetic and end of life care, which makes relying on wastewater testing to differentiate whether the drug is being used illicitly inadequate.

Prescriptions in recent years have also been on the rise. In 2012, there were about 4500 prescriptions administered. In 2017, there were more than 8500.

Police Minister Stuart Nash is remaining up to speed on the illicit fentanyl market, which is lucrative for organised crime groups due to the drug's potency. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

Massey University drugs team leader Associate Professor Chris Wilkins said he believed the wastewater results were a bit problematic, as they included medical use of Fentanyl.

This type of testing also made it hard to know the concentration of fentanyl used, as some fentanyl was extremely potent, so even very small doses were significant, Wilkins said.

The best way to detect the scale of the issue was through engagement with injecting drug users.

Wilkins’ colleague, research officer, Marta Rychert said in terms of prevention, continued effort in supply reduction - through police work - needed to be combined with demand reduction measures.

It was important to continue to monitor the tight controls of prescriptions, to avoid a situation like in the US, she said.

The police briefing said recent intelligence reports showed a longstanding trend of a very small opioid market in New Zealand.

In some of the isolated cases where there had been fentanyl misuse, the user had drug swapped the drug for their usual opioids of choice, like heroin.

New Zealand had much tighter controls than the US when it came to prescribing opioids, and there was no evidence fentanyl was being manufactured in New Zealand, the briefing said.

“The level of fentanyl abuse experienced in the US and Canada is not expected to translate to the New Zealand environment, as the market here is considerably different.”

However, any increases were likely to be via online purchases, like in Australia, police said, adding that the illicit fentanyl in New Zealand came through the diversion of the legitimate supply of prescription medication.

Police said they continued to closely monitor incidences involving misuse of the drug, the wastewater testing regime was being expanded, and a clear communications strategy was being implemented in order to educate people about the risks and take a harm reduction approach.

If the scale of the issue did increase, police said they were confident authorities would be able to swiftly scale up their response.

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