Recently, four men in their thirties presented at Hawke’s Bay Hospital suffering from the acute effects of drug overdose. When tested, the drugs that had been represented to them as MDMA turned out to be a synthetic cathinone, most likely dimethylpentylone.

When the news broke, social media immediately blew up with misinformation, speculation, judgement and fear. The New Zealand Drug Foundation responded by setting up a drug testing station in Napier last Friday. 

Illicit drug checking has been legal in New Zealand for over a year. Concerned members of the public bring their drugs to a testing station where a spectrometer uses infrared light to analyse the components of the substance. Testing is anonymous – drug checkers are not allowed to ask for identifying details and law enforcement give the testing station a wide berth. Once tested the drugs are returned with advice allowing users to make an informed choice. The goal of testing is harm reduction, to avoid further adverse effects.

The Napier testing station had a high turnout, reflecting the concern in the community. MDMA was the most tested drug, with three quarters of samples matching what people had thought they were buying, albeit in many cases adulterated with fillers. The remaining quarter was not as expected with a high percentage of synthetic cathinones. 

MDMA was first developed in 1912 to aid in blood coagulation. It resurfaced in the 1970’s in therapeutic use and made its way to the street, where it became a party drug. Reagan’s war on drugs saw MDMA classified as having no medical benefit and with high potential for abuse in 1985. Nevertheless, it continues to be popular to this day. It is currently being trialled for use in treating PTSD. The results of the latest New Zealand Drug Study from the University of Otago found it to be significantly less harmful than alcohol.

Synthetic cathinones mimic the action of MDMA but with lower desired effects and higher potential for harm. The substance which caused harm in Hawke’s Bay, dimethylpentylone, is only a few years old. Chinese manufacturers are continually changing their compounds to try to stay one step ahead of the law. 

In the case of the men hospitalised, it is speculated that they ingested large amounts of the drug because they were not feeling sufficient desired effects. Twelve hours after they had consumed the drugs they were hospitalised in an acute condition. It is unclear whether the person who supplied the drugs knew they were dangerous, or not as they were represented. 

In addition, they attempted to medicate the after-effects of the drug with bromazolam, a benzodiazepine, commonly prescribed to curb symptoms of anxiety. Alcohol may also have been a factor.

People will continue to ingest harmful substances only developed because of prohibition. In the meantime the best way to protect against adverse outcomes is to test where possible and to follow harm reduction advice. 

The New Zealand Drug Foundation implores people to start with a small amount, to discontinue use where the effects are not as desired, not to mix substances and to be aware that adverse effects may occur a significant interval after ingestion.

High Alert gives warning about dangerous drugs in circulation, and The Level gives non-judgemental advice for drug users and details testing stations.

For many, the idea of safer drug use is anathema. But yet recreational drug users are found in every social stratosphere, from every age group. We need to reframe the conversation on drugs not as a moral issue but as a health issue if we truly want a safer community for all.


Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *