Synthetics market evolves post-law changes

The race is on as synthetics suppliers and manufacturers try and create new compounds to avoid detection in the wake of the change of drug laws. Laura Walters reports.

A toxicologist on the frontlines of the synthetics crisis says recent law changes have led to an evolution of synthetics.

The number of deaths associated with synthetics was now more than 90, with 90 deaths recorded between May 2017 and May 2019.

Analysis shows those who have died from the compounds are most likely to be Māori, unemployed, single and male. However, there is no specific age demographic, with a range from 17 to 64.

Matthew Hosking, toxicology, blood alcohol, workplace drug testing and pharmaceuticals group technical operations manager,  said the recent changes to the Misuse of Drugs Act had led to a quick reaction from manufacturers, suppliers and users, in an effort to move towards undetectable compounds.

The Misuse of Drugs Amendment Act, which was passed in August, classifies two of the most prevalent synthetics chemical compounds – AB-FUBINACA and 5F-ABD – as Class A drugs.

It also allowed for emergency scheduling of compounds and analogues of identified compounds, as well as lifting penalties for manufacturers and suppliers of compounds classified as Class A, to a maximum of life in prison.

The legislative moves have raised awareness and given law enforcement more options to make compounds illicit, and powers to hold those disseminating the drugs to account.

But Hosking doesn’t believe this will lead to the end of these types of drugs in New Zealand.

Instead – consistent with what was happening overseas – users and suppliers were looking for compounds that would not land them in jail, or out of work.

Since the passing of the legislation, ESR had not seen those two core compounds (AB-FUBINACA and 5F-ABD) showing up in tests.

There was also a chance people had become more aware of the safety implications following the extensive media coverage of deaths related to synthetics, he said, adding that there had previously been a lot of apathy towards the health effects.

Chief Coroner Judge Deborah Marshall has spoken publicly about the dangers of synthetics, and the increasing number of synthetics-related deaths seen by the coroners.

But on Thursday, Marshall said it was too early to say what the impact of the law changes would be.

Chief Coroner Judge Deborah Marshall says it's too early to say what difference the law changes have made. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

In May 2017, the country became acutely aware of the extent and harm synthetics can cause.

Following seizures at the border, police raids and media publicity awareness grew, Hosking said, speaking to the Asia Pacific Coroners Society annual conference in Queenstown.

While there was a vast range of compounds, the most prevalent was the now-illegal AB-FUBINACA.

Following the media focus on synthetics and AB-FUBINACA, the types of compounds coming into the country changed. But later started to creep back into border testing samples.

During the past couple of years, ESR has worked to gather samples and analyse a range of synthetics cases across its different units, including the border testing station, criminal and coronial toxicology testing, workplace drug testing, drug testing of prisoners and members of the NZDF, roadside testing and wastewater testing.

This has given agencies a clearer idea of trends, and has allowed them to promptly identify substances ands develop testing methods and standards,.

The testing showed synthetics were used in conjunction with other drugs, sometimes other synthetics - often anti-depressants and anti-psychotics - as well as alcohol and cannabis.

Uniquely, New Zealand cases also showed people had used synthetics in conjunction with pFPP – the chemical used in what used to be legal highs, and party pills.

ESR also analysed samples taken from people on the street as part of a police operation.

The samples seized on the street showed Kiwis use synthetics that were “infinitely higher in potency”, compared to users from other countries.

Hosking referred to a raft of cases in Brooklyn, New York in 2016 unofficially known as operation Zombie, where 33 people were hospitalised. New Zealanders’ use of synthetics, and the potency, blew that example out of the water.

Approaching testing from a range of points in the system allowed experts and agencies to be proactive, rather than reactive.

There was a lag between when compounds were detected at the border and on plant materials in the street, and when chemicals began showing up in body samples of people in hospital, police cells - or dead.

In the United States, one lab bought street samples of synthetics, then reverse engineered those samples to identify the chemical compounds present.

This type of approach was about staying current, Hosking said.

The legalisation of recreational cannabis use could also have an impact on whether people use synthetics, but a forensic toxicologist says it's too early to know the extent of the impacts. Photo: Getty Images

New Zealanders would be asked to vote on whether to legalise personal, recreational use of cannabis in a referendum at next year’s general election.

Synthetics are widely seen as a substitute for cannabis, especially with cannabis being more expensive.

If Kiwis vote yes, cannabis would likely come down in price, and there would not be the same risk of job-loss for someone using cannabis.

But Hosking said it was hard to tell whether the legalisation of recreational cannabis would lead to the end of synthetics.

He believed there would still be Kiwis out there who would turn to synthetics for its different effects.

The legal and ethical difficulties regarding studies involving illicit drugs meant New Zealand would have to wait and see the impacts of recreational cannabis (if that were to happen) on the synthetics market.

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