Rising in popularity, dangerous synthetic drug linked to 90 deaths in past four years

Use of a dangerous and unpredictable drug is on the rise among vulnerable Kiwis, a factor driven by homelessness and a lack of mental health support.  

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Use of the dangerous and unpredictable drug is on the rise, and now there’s a warning about a potentially lethal variant. Source: 1 NEWS

The Coroner's Office has been investigating 90 deaths linked to synthetic cannabis over the past four years. 

It's a type of drug that officials have long been concerned with, but today a warning was issued around a dangerous new variant in Canterbury. 

Mike was just 12 when he first tried synthetics — it offered an escape from a turbulent family life. 

"I was just so hurt from watching my mum drink our money away every week on alcohol." 

And as he moved onto the streets, where he spent much of his teenage years, it became an affordable escape from a hard life on Auckland's city streets. 

"When I first came out here, I was about 14 or 15. Some nights I was afraid, being by myself." 

Today officials are issuing an alert around a variation of the drug often used by those living on the streets — one they say is among the most dangerous forms in circulation. 

The drug, a variation of the synthetic known as 5f-ADB, was linked to a spike in deaths in 2017 and 2018 and is now linked to at least one death in Christchurch. Several other deaths are still under investigation. 

The deaths will be referred to the coroner to determine the official cause of death. 

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Today, Mike is no longer using the drug. 

"My one-year-old's scan, he got the best of me," he says. 

"I thought this is the time to finish, I have had my years of the substance, it is time to give up." 

But he worries for his fellow friends who are still hooked on synthetics. 

"I know a lot of groups of people that still take the substance," he says. 

"Sometimes I think to myself, 'I'm going to see this person's passed away.'

"When I think I've seen that person on the street and I know they are still on the substance, I think their health is going to drop any day." 

He says it is "sad" and "you try to give advice and it never works". 

Mike's lost two "street brothers" in as many years to what he believes is synthetics.  

Currently there are around 90 deaths before the coroner where synthetic cannabis appears to have been a key factor; the largest spike was 68 deaths across 2017 and 2018. 

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Coroners' findings obtained by 1 NEWS show they are most commonly middle-aged males with mental health issues and often homeless. 

Among these, a 48-year-old homeless man who died in a Christchurch house in June 2018, a 57-year-old homeless Auckland man in October 2018 who died outside the Quay Street Countdown and a 33-year-old homeless Hamilton man who died the following month. 

Carly Laughton is a youth development worker with Lifewise. She says the use of synthetics is common on the streets. 

"It is something I am encountering almost on a daily basis," she says. 

"My concern is that the people that are using it are in a really highly traumatised bracket. 

"If you are using synthetics, your need to be completely checked out of this world is really high... It is not something that just gives you a light buzz. You are completely out of it. 

"The appeal is it's going to give you a high that is going to check you out of that really dangerous, scary situation for a small amount of money."

The consequence of the drug that offers such an escape is often fatal. 

"One of my young people was talking about how she'd gone to sleep with someone who was using... and then woken up and that person had passed," Laughton says. 

The emergence of the latest dangerous strain of synthetics serves as a reminder that it could be just a matter of time before there's another spike in synthetic-related deaths. 

"It is inevitable. I think that when you are playing around with chemicals that you don't know how they play out, that it's inevitable that these sorts of deaths are going to happen," Laughton says.

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 She says the missing link is often housing. 

"Our homeless whānau in this city are much more likely to be targeted by people who are peddling these drugs," she says. 

"They will come into the city and they will target someone they know is using.  

"They give them a small amount for free and they will turn that young person into a drug runner or into a drug dealer." 

Offering housing and support is key, she says. 

"When we provide our young people with housing, then they come into this space and they are able to work through the trauma."

New Zealand is a lucrative market for sellers, with much of the product coming predominantly from China. 

Importing a kilogram costs $2700, but brings in $2 million. 

Detective Inspector Blair MacDonald, head of the police drug intelligence unit, said the international synthetic market is continually evolving. 

"[It] moves quite quickly," he says. 

"So as countries develop legislation to battle a particular cannabinoid they develop a new one that fills that void...and here in New Zealand we see more stronger and potent versions." 

And as news of the more dangerous variant emerges, he says: "Police will continue to target crime groups. We will take their assets, we will seize their cash and send a clear message it won't be tolerated."